SEC spring football forecast: Tennessee Volunteers

With the offseason officially underway, SDS will examine what’s next for spring football for all 14 teams. Next up, Tennessee.

Tennessee opens up spring practice Friday afternoon, and the Butch Jones-Tennessee transformation is well underway. Relationships are being made and the fruits of effective communication between Jones and high school coaches are already obvious. Tennessee’s goal in 2014 should be to get back to a bowl game, and the continued improvement and development starts this spring.

RELATED: See where Tennessee ranked in SDS’ final 2013 rankings

What’s changing?

Tennessee will look like a completely different team this season, but that’s not a bad thing. The Vols lose every starter on both lines of scrimmage, including one of the strongest tackle tandems in college football. The Vols welcomed 14 early enrollees who will be injected into the offensive and defensive units, and there’s no time to waste. All 14 may be counted on this coming season. The coaching staff has stayed intact for two straight years, and that should pay dividends in 2014.

Position of concern

No position will have a bigger impact on the success or failure of 2014 than the offensive line. The SEC is a line of scrimmage league, and the Vols replace every starter on a veteran-laid line. There’s no other team in college football that will tackle that feat this offseason. So, who all will replace the Tennessee big uglies? Redshirt freshman Marcus Jackson is a great place to start. He has two years of eligibility and will anchor the Vols’ front five at guard. JUCO transfer Dontavius Blair could start at tackle, and he’ll battle with tackles Kyler Kerbyson and Marques Pair. Mack Crowder is likely projected as the starting center, but regardless of whoever is projected to start, this spring will tell Coach Jones all he needs to know about who his starting five will be.

RELATED: SEC Pre-Spring Power Rankings

Position of strength

The Vols will be loaded at wide receiver. Led by Marquez North, the receiving corps has a little bit of everything mixed in. North has All-SEC potential, and Pig Howard – assuming he returns this fall – is arguably the offense’s biggest playmaker. Jason Croom is another receiver who needs more touches in 2014. Add in early enrollees Von Pearson and Josh Malone, and the position goes from good to great. There’s plenty of numbers and firepower; now, the Vols just need an effective quarterback to get them the football.

Three signees who will get you excited

1. Jalen Hurd, RB: Tennessee has a long legacy of talented running backs, and Hurd could be the Vols’ next top back. He has great size and athleticism, and he’ll compete this spring for playing time.

2. Josh Malone, WR: Any time a coach locks down the No. 1 overall player in the state, you’re doing something right. Malone is a weapon and will get touches next season.

3. Todd Kelly, S: Much has been made about the Vol legacies, but Kelly could be Pied Piper when this class matures. He’s a specimen at safety who has incredible ball skills and awareness. I really like his game as a safety.

MORE: Tennessee National Signing Day recap

Spring’s primary position battle

Not to beat a dead horse, but Tennessee will have one of the most popular quarterback battles of spring practice. Returners Justin Worley, Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman headline the group, but redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson could be the one to watch. After all, the one who has never played is always the favorite, right? Ferguson redshirted because of a 2013 injury, and he’s probably the most physically gifted of the four. But it wouldn’t be surprising if Worley exits spring as the top quarterback.

Emerging spring player prediction

Exiting spring, we’ll all be talking about Marquez North. He’s as physically gifted as AJ Green or Julio Jones. He’s 6-4, 220 pounds, and he’s begging for someone to get him the football. He can go up top, and he can run after the catch. North could become one of the SEC’s biggest breakout players in 2014. It starts this spring, as we saw flashes of greatness last season.

Offseason’s burning question

Should a six-win season be the goal for 2014, looking ahead to becoming a real contender in 2015?

Vols’ offseason crystal ball

Tennessee’s defense will improve the second year into the new scheme and coordinator, but replacing every starter on both lines of scrimmage is troubling. The Vols need freshmen Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone SEC-ready by game one, along with the other 12 early enrollees and a huge freshmen class. There are needs on both sides of the ball, and the line of scrimmage play will determine Tennessee’s fate in 2014.

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