NASHVILLE, Tenn. — So, this is what spring football is like.
That’s the reality hitting nearly half the Tennessee football team participating in spring drills for the first time. Of those, 14 are true freshmen who enrolled at mid-term just a few months removed from wrapping up high school careers. Indeed, youth is being served and serviced as Volunteers coach Butch Jones wraps up his second spring practice on Saturday with the annual Orange & White Game at Neyland Stadium. After attracting a second-best 61,076 fans last year, Tennessee is attempting to break its spring game attendance record of 73,801 set in 1986.
Those who show will see a young and inexperienced (and talented) team attempting to snap an unprecedented string of four straight losing seasons. If the Volunteers are to make a bowl game for the first time since 2010, then several underclassmen will need to fill an abundance of glaring holes.
"So much with a young football team is creating the type of atmosphere and environment that we are going to have," said Jones, who went 5-7 in his debut at Tennessee. " … Also, (the spring game is) a tremendous recruiting opportunity for our football program, and we need as many people to come out for Big Orange Weekend in support of this football team."
Ah, recruiting, which continues to bolster hopes of a Volunteers fan base beaten down by the nosedive the proud program took under former coaches Lane Kiffin (2009) and Derek Dooley (2010-12). The incoming recruiting class was ranked fourth in the nation by Scout.com. That includes two top 100 recruits — running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone. They are being counted on immediately to provide impact for an offense that had its line decimated by graduation and is still unsure which of four hopefuls will start at quarterback.
"As much as it is the young quarterbacks, it is the young receivers, the young running backs, young tight ends," Vols offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "We have placed an emphasis on moving fast and playing with great tempo and always playing with great effort. Our guys have made strides in that this spring."
Jones has steadfastly stated no decision will be made from the starting quarterback competition between senior Justin Worley, sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman, and redshirt freshmen Riley Ferguson until preseason practice in August. But Worley, who started seven games and played in eight last season when not injured, and Riley have been taking the most reps during spring drills. They appear to have moved ahead of Dobbs and Peterman.
"The thing I keep talking about is consistency in performance," Jones said. "To play quarterback at the University of Tennessee, we need an individual who can improvise, make plays but can take care of the football, but play with a very high level of consistency."
That consistency aspect hasn’t been a redeeming quality of any of the quarterbacks this spring.
"We don’t want to take two steps forward, one step back," Bajakian said. " … Sure, you will have your error throws and a couple stumbles here and there, but you would rather it be once every 400 plays instead of once every 20 plays."
Last year’s starter heading into the season, Worley might be the safest bet, although Ferguson appears to be the most-talented of the quartet. In 2013, Worley completed 109 of 196 passes (55.6 percent) for 1,239 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Dobbs played in five games and started four, including the unenviable task of a starting debut against Alabama. He completed 72 of 121 passes (59.5) percent for 695 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
"It has been going well," Worley said of the competition. "Each and every guy brings something to the table. We help each other in the meeting room. We help each other on the field. It has been good. We have driven each other every day."
After sitting out his senior season of high school with a shoulder injury, Hurd arrived on the college scene this spring with a vengeance. At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, he is a bruising runner who has been impressive and should see plenty of action this season in the backfield along with senior Marlin Lane.
"He’s not afraid to jump in and go with the ones, which are things you don’t know until a kid gets here," Vols running back coach Robert Gillespie said of Hurd, who set a Tennessee high school single-season rushing record as a junior with 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns. " … I’ve told him, ‘I don’t mind you making mistakes, that’s how you learn.’ Just the fact that he’s not afraid to jump in with the older guys, he takes coaching really well. He takes his teammates pulling him along and doesn’t fight the system. He’s a willing learner."
Also already showing more than glimpses of collegiate potential is Malone, an athletic and sturdy receiver who stands 6-3. He is expected to join sophomore Marquez North, an emerging star, and senior Devrin Young to make up one of the league’s better receiving trios. Talented and productive junior receiver Pig Howard is not participating in spring practice for undisclosed reasons, but he is still listed on the roster. As for Malone, he has a knack for making the big play — as a senior in high school, he scored 31 touchdowns four different ways: receiving, rushing, kickoff return and interception return.
"We’ve moved him around a little bit more, put a bit more on his plate," Bajakian said of Malone’s work this spring, "so he’s taken it all in stride and he continues to grow and develop and get better every day. For him, the big thing is going to be playing with an effort level and a condition level that we need in this offense."
Defensively, the Vols are buoyed by the return of junior linebacker Curt Maggitt, a natural team leader who sat out last season because of injuries. He rejoins senior A.J. Johnson, an all-conference performer, to form one of the league’s better linebacker tandems.
"Curt gives us a dimension of pass-rush that we haven’t had," Vols defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "Having his ability to rush the passer, coupled with his leadership at the position, has been a big boost. He’s done some good things. He has to continue to learn and progress, but certainly I’m excited to see him rush the passer."
The Vols are seeking five new starters for an offensive line that allowed only 23 sacks the past two seasons, the fewest in the SEC — Antonio "Tiny" Richardson, Ja’Wuan James, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Alex Bullard had 177 combined career starts. The Vols rushed for 2,261 yards last year, most since 2004.
Center Mack Crowder and guard Kyler Kerbyson, both juniors, appear to provide the nucleus of the offensive line going forward. Another junior, Marcus Jackson has emerged as well.
"I think those two guys learned a lot from watching those guys last year, even the year before," Vols offensive line coach Don Mahoney said of Crowder and Kerbyson. "So, I think from a knowledge standpoint, as hard as it was to not play, they learned a lot mentally."