Vols’ spring game a showcase for freshmen

In eight games last season Justin Worley threw for 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns but is fighting for the starting job with three other quarterbacks.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is a sense that the cavalry is coming for Tennessee football.

Already enrolled and participating in spring practice that concluded with Saturday’s annual Orange & White Game are 14 true freshmen. When preseason drills begin in August, another 18 newcomers — 16 of them on defense — arrive to bolster a roster with many holes to fill.

"If they don’t understand that message, then they’re not listening," said Tennessee coach Butch Jones on Saturday of the incoming recruiting class that was ranked fourth in the nation by Scout.com. "They hear it all the time, not only from me but from our players.

" … They understand, and I know they’re looking forward to it."

The 68,542 fans that showed up at Neyland Stadium to make for the second-largest turnout for a Tennessee spring game finally got a glimpse of the two-most ballyhooed of the freshman bunch. A complicated scoring system that pitted offense (Orange) versus defense (White) was won by the offense, 129-100.

Wide receiver Josh Malone and running back Jalen Hurd — both top 100 recruits — showed they are ready to compete in the Southeastern Conference. Malone had six receptions for 181 yards and three touchdowns of 6, 49 and 79 yards. 

"Josh is a competitive young man and very, very talented," said Jones of the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Malone, "and you can see he adds a whole other dynamic to our offense. I said it in the offseason, we have to be able to throw a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 20-yard gain. That was missing from our offense last year."

While gaining a game-high 66 rushing yards on 11 carries with a 4-yard scoring run, the bruising Hurd proved he can stand alongside senior Marlin Lane for a potent 1-2 backfield combination this coming season. Hurd also had a 27-yard reception. 

"Jalen continues to progress," said Jones of the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Hurd. "I thought he had some hard-earned yards (Saturday). I thought he dropped his pad level, but again him understanding too that football rewards those who are in great shape.

" … Jalen is going to be a special player for us."

As expected, Jones comes out of the spring game not knowing which of four quarterbacks — senior Justin Worley, sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman, and redshirt freshmen Riley Ferguson — will be the starter when the Volunteers open the season Aug. 31 against visiting Utah State. 

Each got their shot on Saturday, but it might have been Dobbs who had the better day. He completed 6-of-9 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Malone. He also added a 59-yard touchdown run.

"Josh is very calm," said Jones of Dobbs, who started the final four games last season. "He has a calm demeanor about himself. Very cerebral, which we all know, and I thought he took some steps forward. It was great to see (Saturday)."

Worley completed 11-of-13 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, along with  a 49-yard run. Peterman was 8-of-11 for 81 yards and a TD pass, while Ferguson — the only of the four to have no game experience — completed 7-of-12 passes for 83 yards and a score.

"Speaking for all four of us, we’re just focusing on being consistent in our performance," said Worley, who started seven games last year, but missed the last four with a thumb injury. "Focusing on what we can control and what we need to work on as individuals. Just taking ownership of the offense. 

"Whoever’s in there leading the offensive line, getting receivers lined up, doing the little things that come with being the quarterback, and that goes for each and every one of us."

Jones said he departs spring practice most concerned with a defense that returns only five starters, including none on the line. Tackling — better yet, the lack thereof — reared its ugly head Saturday.

"I am very concerned, which we’ll get it corrected, up front defensively, tackling on the back end," said Jones. "And the thing I’ve seen in practice is we’ve been a good defensive tackling football team throughout the course of the spring."

Then again, all-league linebacker A.J. Johnson played sparingly, leaving another blooming young standout — sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin — a chance to show his wares. After missing last season with an injury, junior linebacker Curt Maggitt won the spring’s Al Wilson Leadership Award, named after the former Vols’ linebacker great.

"It is a great opportunity for the offense and defense as well," said Maggitt of the team’s 32 newcomers, including 18 still to arrive. "Things are going to start from leadership (to) just get those guys in and get them on board right away. 

"They aren’t going to have as much time as the earlier guys had. It will definitely help a lot in depth for sure and different play-making abilities."

Like the defensive front, the offensive line doesn’t have a returning starter, either. Jones was encouraged this spring by the emergence of sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen and junior guard Kyler Kerbyson. They each won the award for most-improved player for their side of the ball.

Both lines will get an infusion of depth when more freshmen arrive. That suits Vereen just fine.

"I think it will bring a lot of competition and a lot of help," he said. "We’re not that deep on the line right now, especially the interior guys. Those guys coming in, seeing what they can do, will really help us."

The team reports in June for its offseason conditioning program. A new rule allows for coaches to spend two hours in the classroom with its players during this time, but that is deducted from time allowed in the weight room.

"Moving forward, we start the next phase of our program that’s a new season," said Jones. "That’s our summer strength and conditioning program. This is where I really believe teams are born, in the summer months with your leadership. 

"It becomes a player-led football team."