Tennessee’s regular season recap: Vols just need more athletes

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SDS recaps every team’s 2013 regular season:

Tennessee Volunteers

Final Record: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

2013 wasn’t kind to first-year head coach Butch Jones, who inherited a depleted roster and one of the nastiest schedules in college football. The Vols played six currently ranked teams, including a span of Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Missouri and Auburn in a row. Specifically, the Vols faced four currently top 10 ranked teams in consecutive weeks. That’s brutal.

Related: Final SEC division standings

Let’s start with offense. Losing trio Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson was sure to take a toll on the offensive production. Any time any team loses a 3,600-yard passer, a 1,000-yard receiver and a 700-yard receiver, production is going to dip. Tennessee scored over 36 points per game in 2012, and it fell to 23.8 in 2013. The Vols rode their strength along the offensive line and running game the whole season. The O-line was experienced and talented, but I actually thought they weren’t as good as advertised. I also thought Antonio Richardson took a step back this season at left tackle. He was often called for penalties, whether holding or for false starts. Still, this group helped produce a 1,000-yard rusher in Rajion Neal, who quietly had a big season, but I actually thought Marlin Lane was the better running back, talent-wise.

Justin Worley was the most consistent quarterback before he was injured; Nathan Peterman actually got the start over Worley against Florida, which was a mistake, and freshman Josh Dobbs finished the season after Worley and Peterman were injured. But several are quick to say fellow freshman Riley Ferguson is the future; he redshirted this season.

Related: Compare Tennessee’s recruiting class to the rest of the SEC

The defense improved numbers-wise from a very poor 2012 under Sal Sunseri, which became statistically the worst defense in Tennessee history. The Vols gave up over 35 points per game last year; they gave up 29 per game this season. AJ Johnson had another big season numbers-wise, making 106 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. While Johnson is a big-time tackler, he was somewhat exposed this season in coverage and looked a little slower than 2012. Losing tackles Maurice Couch and Trevarris Saulsberry early in the season was a big hit to the run defense, but the secondary really improved their play, led by safety Brian Randolph. Randolph is a star, and LaDarrell McNeil is a future NFL-caliber player. Freshman Cameron Sutton is going to be a star, too, and all he lacks is experience. There’s a core nucleus of players around whom Butch Jones can build for the future.

Kicker Michael Palardy had a big senior season, and it was a redemption year due to past struggles. Palardy finished third in punting and sixth in field goal percentage this season.

Overall, Tennessee just lacked speed and athletes. The coaching staff in place can take this program to the next level, but the incoming recruiting class has to compete and add a splurge of speed in 2014.

Here’s a look at the team stats:

Category (SEC rank)
Scoring Offense 23.8 PPG (11th)
Rushing Offense 188.42 YPG (7th)
Passing Offense 164.9 YPG (13th)
Total Offense 353.3 YPG (12th)
Scoring Defense 29 PPG (10th)
Rushing Defense 207.33 YPG (13th)
Passing Defense 211.1 YPG (6th)
Total Defense 418.4 YPG (11th)

One that got away: Two games stand out as the ones that got away. First, the Vols took Georgia into overtime, and if it had not been for just pure bad luck with Pig Howard fumbling at the goal line, the Vols could have beaten a ranked Georgia in addition to South Carolina. The biggest game that got away, however, was Vanderbilt. Leading 10-7 late in the fourth quarter, the Commodores found a way – thanks to a couple questionable calls by the referees – to pull it out with a fake jump pass touchdown run. We knew the Vanderbilt game would determine whether or not Tennessee would go bowling. Ultimately, they did not.

Offensive Stud: Nobody is talking about the season Rajion Neal had. Neal was the backbone of the offensive attack, and he rushed for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Neal may get a chance to play on Sundays. Several younger players like WRs Marquez North and Pig Howard are a big part of the Vols’ future.

Related: Final SEC Power Rankings

Defensive Stud: A couple different players could be mentioned here, but I’m going with safety Brian Randolph. It was obvious how far Tennessee’s defense sunk in 2012 after Randolph was lost for the season against Florida, and just his sheer presence in 2013 made the defense and secondary much better. Last year, the Vols gave up over 282 passing yards per game and only picked off 12 passes. This year, with Randolph in the lineup, the Vols defense gave up just 211 yards and picked off 14. I know AJ Johnson is a great player and racks up the most tackles, but Randolph gets overlooked too often.

What’s next: Jones is on the right track to getting Tennessee back into the national scene. First, he’ll need to get them back into the SEC East scene. A bowl game would have been huge for a young team that needed more practice time, but Jones is hitting the recruiting trail very hard and will likely sign the largest class in the country. The influx of talent, speed and athleticism will be a boost for a roster that just needs more athletes on both sides of the ball.

Photo Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

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