2015 CFB Preview – Tennessee

    Tennessee VolunteersGo to Team Page VolunteersGo to Selection Page           If you want to know what rebuilding a powerhouse

    July 1, 2015

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    If you want to know what rebuilding a powerhouse looks like, this is it.

    By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

    Tennessee has lived in a world of mediocrity for far too long, and all of that looks like it’s about to change in a big, big way.

    The program that for so many years kept the NFL stocked with tremendous talent is on the verge of doing that again with Butch Jones killing it on the recruiting trail since taking over the job, but now this has to become more than a 5-to-7 win team. Now it’s time to actually start to do that whole winning thing again after seven years of mediocrity.

    Now, the expectations have to lead to production, and possibly an SEC East title.

    Excuses about being young don’t work anymore. With 21 returning starters, loads of tremendous talent waiting in the wings, and with the second season stepping-stone year over for Butch Jones, to go with the horribly lazy cliché, the future is now.

    Of course, Tennessee is still in the SEC. Everyone has superstar recruiting classes in the SEC, and everyone has talent.

    Just because Tennessee is better, that doesn’t mean Georgia has stopped playing football. South Carolina has improved and Missouri is still strong. Florida will have some semblance of an offense now and Kentucky is more dangerous – and that doesn’t include dates this year against a terrific Arkansas team, a road date at Alabama, and a non-conference showdown against Oklahoma.

    This is also a team that has to be night-and-day better in certain areas. The offense has to be more consistent and has to prove it can produce against a decent defense. The firepower is there, but the O line has to show it can keep a quarterback from getting creamed. The defense should be a terror at times, but the run D has to be stronger and more active. The players are in place to get it done, but there’s a difference between being good in the SEC and being able to close.

    Young teams lose games like the 10-9 debacle, along with games against Georgia and Missouri that could’ve gone the other way. But again, that’s life in the SEC with so many tight teams and so many dogfight games. Fortunately for Tennessee, now the team is equipped to handle it.

    Tennessee football is a player again. Welcome back.

    What You Need To Know About The Offense: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord inherits a tremendous group of young skill stars starting with rising QB Joshua Dobbs and pounding back Jalen Hurd in the backfield. The receiving corps is among the most dangerous young groups in college football with the top ten targets of last year all back. There’s speed to burn and more than enough options for Dobbs to spread the ball around to. However, it all comes down to a leaky line that didn’t do nearly enough last season to protect the passer or pound away for the ground attack. The offense has to consistently put up more points after an up-and-down year. This group should be able to explode.

    What You Need To Know About The Defense: By SEC standards the run defense wasn’t up to snuff – it was still pretty decent, though. The line wasn’t full of massive bodies on the inside, and that’s where 320-plus pound super-recruit Kahlil McKenzie might help the cause. It’s already a decent-looking front starting with pass rushing terror Derek Barnett on one end. The linebacking tandem of Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Curt Maggitt should be among the most disruptive in the SEC as part of a dangerous pass rushing group. Brian Randolph is a terrific safety in a decent secondary that returns three starters.

    What to watch for on offense: Can the offensive line block? Four starters return up front including three now-seniors, but it has to be a more cohesive and consistent group. The skill players are in place, but they’ll need to show they can shine behind a line that paved the way for just 3.6 yards per carry and gave up 43 sacks. Granted, Joshua Dobbs was still learning the ropes and the other quarterbacks held on to the ball a bit, but the line didn’t help the cause often enough. This is more of an athletic and agile line than a big group of Arkansas-like maulers, but it just has to be more effective.

    What to watch for on defense: The pass rush should go from great to devastating. The big recruiting classes over the last few years has done the best job with the receiving corps on offense, and the defensive line on the other side. There’s hope now for the production to go through the roof. Derek Barnett has already established himself as one of the nation’s best young pass rushers, while the linebacking corps should be camped out behind the line at times with Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Curt Maggitt two dangerous playmakers who combined for 26 tackles for loss. Maggitt is the better pass rusher of the two – he came up with a team-high 11 sacks – but the pressure will come from all sides.

    The team will be far better if … the defense keeps teams outside of the 20. Pass protection is the most important upgrade needed, but on the other side, get into the red zone against Tennessee last year and points were automatic. A missed field goal by South Carolina in its three point loss was the only trip by a team into the red zone that came up empty until the bowl win – Iowa was stopped once. That means Tennessee allowed opposing offenses to score 32-of-34 times in the red zone giving up a whopping 23 touchdowns. Tennessee was 110th in the nation in allowing touchdowns inside the red zone – turn those into field goals, and life will be far better.

    The schedule: The improved team – the hot team – will get to show just how good it is early on starting out with a dangerous Bowling Green team to start before hosting Oklahoma in a showdown that could mark the true arrival of the program as a powerhouse again.
    – Having to go to Alabama is a bad break, but getting Arkansas at home and missing LSU and Auburn from the West is a good break.
    – The Vols take it easy with North Texas and Western Carolina in non-conference play, but the date with Oklahoma makes up for it. However, there aren’t any non-conference games on the road.
    – Alabama and Kentucky are the only back-to-back road games, but they come after a week off, and if there’s a team from the East to face after going to Alabama, other than Vanderbilt, it might as well be Kentucky.
    – WATCH OUT FOR … Home games against Georgia and South Carolina. The Vols have to go to Missouri and Florida, but the Bulldogs and Gamecocks should be the stars of the East. Having them in Neyland is a good break.

    Best offensive player: Junior QB Joshua Dobbs. He threw six interceptions in six games, and he sputtered at moments, but he showed over the second half of the season that he’s a Face of the Franchise type of player to build around over the next few years. He’s very smart, very athletic, and very, very good both on and off the field with the right personality and the right set of tools to blow up with one of the college football’s best young receiving corps to work with. What’s the big concern about him? His internship and schoolwork on the way to becoming an aerospace engineer might occasionally conflict with his quarterbacking duties … ooooooh.

    Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Derek Barnett. Linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Curt Maggitt are two velociraptors on the outside who’ll pounce all over everything, there are some nice veterans in the secondary led by Brian Randolph, and super-recruit Kahlil McKenzie is expected to be a next-level defensive tackle sooner than later. However, it’s Barnett who was shot out of a cannon last year as a force behind the line on a regular basis. Now that the defense is stronger overall, he should be turned loose whenever he’s not double teamed.

    Key player to a successful season: Senior OT Kyler Kerbyson. Write the depth chart in crayon with lots of movement and plenty of changes likely to be made among the four returning starters in an attempt to quickly boost up the production up front. A huge problem area going into last season, the O line wasn’t a total disaster, but it wasn’t good enough, especially in pass protection. Kerbyson is the likely starting left tackle again, and he’ll need to be one of the rocks to keep Joshua Dobbs in one piece.

    The season will be a success if … Tennessee wins the SEC East. Yeah, it’s a big leap for a team that came up with just seven wins last season, but with the returning experience and talent, anything other than a trip to Atlanta will seem a bit empty. Dealing with Arkansas and Alabama from the West won’t make it easy, but with Georgia and South Carolina coming to Knoxville, the Vols have their shot to make a massive jump.

    Key game: Sept. 26 at Florida. There was a time when this showdown ruled the college football world. This time around, it’s Tennessee’s SEC opener – Florida plays Kentucky the week before – with the Gators looking to come out roaring in the first really big home game of the Jim McElwain era. Last year Florida pulled out one of the ugliest wins of the entire season, but this time around, it Tennessee needs to return the favor with Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama up next.

    2014 Fun Stats:
    – Red Zone Scores: Tennessee 50-of-54 (93%) – Opponents 32-of-34 (94%)
    – Fourth Down Conversions: Tennessee 7-of-12 (58%) – Opponents 6-of-15 (40%)
    – Penalties: Opponents 78 for 620 yards – Opponents 54 for 444 yards

    Players You Need To Know

    1. DE Derek Barnett, Soph.
    Sometimes good recruits need a little while to figure out what they’re doing as they mature into their jobs, especially in the SEC. That wasn’t a problem for Barnett, who started ten games in his first year and came out roaring making 72 tackles with ten sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss on the way to all-star honors. He was a big get for the program, but he wasn’t a superstar of superstar prospects – that changed in a big hurry. The 6-3, 268-pounder showed tremendous quickness off the ball and a great motor into the backfield, tearing up Ole Miss and South Carolina for three sacks each, and camping out behind the line on a regular basis throughout the second half of the season. Best of all, it’s not like he cranked out his big games against the average teams on the slate – he was getting the job done in the SEC showing off good fight against the run to go along with his pass rushing skills. He’ll be a marked man this year, but the rest of the defensive front seven is in place to produce when its star is getting keyed on.

    2. QB Joshua Dobbs, Jr.
    It’s not like he took the world by storm when he got his chances as a freshman. He showed flashes with 189 rushing yards and a score in his little bit of work, and he hit 60% of his passes, but he threw two touchdown throws and gave up six interceptions over the second half of the 2013 season. The second go-round in 2014 – when he once again took over in the second half of the year – was far different. The 6-3, 212-pound sophomore was far sharper and far more mature in his play, completing 63% of his passes for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns when thrown into the meat of the SEC schedule, and while he gave up six more interceptions, he showed far more as a runner taking off for 166 yards and three scores against South Carolina and running for 469 yards and eight touchdowns in just six games. The sky is the limit for a young blossoming playmaker with great size, excellent mobility, a good enough arm, and the smarts to be a better decision maker on the field, and work toward being an aerospace engineer off of it. He’s the franchise now, and if he can cut down on the interceptions and be able to utilize all the weapons at his disposal, look out.

    3. LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jr.
    A reserve who got his feet wet as a freshman, he blew up when he got his chances as a sophomore tying for the team lead in tackles and doing a great job of getting into the backfield. The 6-1, 225-pounder was phenomenal on the weakside coming up with 101 stops with an interception and two sacks with 11 tackles for loss, beating up Iowa for 13 tackles and coming up with ten against both Utah State and Georgia. Very active and extremely quick, he’s not all that big, but he can move fluidly to get to the ball when attacking the run. With a year of experience, now look for him to do more in pass coverage.

    4. LB Curt Maggitt, Sr.
    Part strongside linebacker, part defensive end, the 6-3, 246-pound senior turned into a terror into the backfield leading the team with 11 sacks to go along with 48 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. While he was steady against the run, he made his mark as a playmaker behind the line coming up with two sacks in four SEC games and continually generating pressure. All back full from the knee injury that cost him all of 2013, he has a great blend of skills no matter where he lines up with tremendous athleticism – he’s a former high school wide receiver – who bulked up but got back his wheels after getting hurt. He’ll be used in a variety of ways, but he’s a linebacker now.

    5. SS Brian Randolph, Sr.
    Able to play any safety spot, the 6-0, 208-pound veteran is very smart, very tough, and good enough when the ball is in the air to make some big plays now and then when he isn’t being used like another linebacker against the run. He finished second on the team with 75 tackles with a team-leading four picks in 2013, and followed it up with 88 tackles last year with two interceptions – taking one back for a score against Kentucky – while getting around the ball on a regular basis with 14 tackles against South Carolina and 13 against Florida. All back full after suffering a torn ACL early in his career, he had enough time to rest up, heal and come back to be one of the team’s key players in the defensive back seven.

    6. RB Jalen Hurd, Soph.
    There are subtle, shifty runners who use speed and quickness to make things happen, and then there’s Hurd, a 6-3, 230-pound Mack truck of a runner who pounded away for a team-leading 899 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman, while showing off nice hands catching 35 passes for 221 yards and two scores. Tennessee’s Mr. Football in 2012, he missed almost all of 2013 with a shoulder injury before coming aboard last year. He showed he was ready to roll with 119 yards and a score against Georgia and four 100-yard games on the year, destroying Iowa in the bowl win with 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries. He’s not going to have to be a workhorse who carries the offense, but he can do it at times if he needs to.

    7. DT Kahlil McKenzie, Fr.
    Okay, big guy, no pressure, but step in and gum up the works. The Tennessee defensive front isn’t massive, but now it has its anchor in the 6-3, 327-pound superstar recruit who was Scout’s 2014 No. 1 prospect. Originally from Wisconsin, he moved to California where he became a terror for De La Salle as a pass rusher and an all-around force, showing off the motor and quickness off the ball to fit any scheme and any style. He has the power and toughness to work on the nose and become the anchor everything else works around. The big question mark will be his weight, able to get up to around 340 pounds or more without a problem, but likely trying to play around 325 if everything goes well. In terms of NFL tools and upside, and with the right personality to be the leader of the line, McKenzie is it.

    8. WR Alton “Pig” Howard, Sr.
    Out of the mix early last year for “personal” reasons, he returned and showed to take his game to a whole other level. He followed up a 44-catch, 388-yard, three score season by leading the team with 54 catches with 618 yards and a touchdown last year. Far more explosive than his stats, he only averages 9.5 yards per catch over his career, but he’s great whenever he has the ball in his hands rushing for 98 yards and two scores last season and averaging five yards a pop in his career. He’s only 5-8 and 187 pounds, but he’s ultra-quick and reliably steady as a target. Now he needs to use his skills to make more big plays.

    9. WR Von Pearson, Sr.
    The coaching staff has done an outstanding job of loading up at receiver with plenty of star recruits to build for the near-future, but Pearson was for the right now, coming in as a JUCO transfer and finishing second on the team with 38 catches for 393 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns. He didn’t come up with too many big games, topping out at 75 yards and a score in the bowl win over Iowa, but he was still a key veteran presence for an offense that needed it. The 6-3, 187-pound former star at Feather River College has excellent athleticism to go along with his size, and he showed at the JUCO level just how unstoppable he could be catching 132 passes for 2,358 yards and 22 touchdowns in his two seasons. All the tools are there to be an even bigger part of the attack.

    10. WR Josh Malone, Soph.
    While he only caught 23 passes for 231 yards and a score, he showed off the potential and upside that made him one of the team’s biggest recruits of 2014. Is he the next great Tennessee receiver? At 6-3 and 198 pounds he has the size, and he knows how to use it with the ability to outphysical his man and fight the ball when it’s a 50/50 shot. He’s not going to blaze past anyone, and there are other star receivers in the mix, but he has the talent to be the best of the lot. Tennessee’s 2014 Mr. Football will combine with Marquez North and Jason Croom to push Pig Howard and Von Pearson for plays.

    Head Coach: Butch Jones
    3rd year: 12-13
    9th year overall: 62-40
    Sept. 5 Bowling Green
    Sept. 12 Oklahoma
    Sept. 19 Western Carolina
    Sept. 26 at Florida
    Oct. 3 Arkansas
    Oct. 10 Georgia
    Oct. 17 OPEN DATE
    Oct. 24 at Alabama
    Oct. 31 at Kentucky
    Nov. 7 South Carolina
    Nov. 14 North Texas
    Nov. 21 at Missouri
    Nov. 28 Vanderbilt
    Ten Best Tennessee Players
    1. DE Derek Barnett, Soph.
    2. QB Joshua Dobbs, Jr.
    3. LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jr.
    4. LB Curt Maggitt, Sr.
    5. SS Brian Randolph, Sr.
    6. RB Jalen Hurd, Soph.
    7. DT Kahlil McKenzie, Fr.
    8. WR Alton “Pig” Howard, Sr.
    9. WR Von Pearson, Sr.
    10. WR Josh Malone, Soph.


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