What Tennessee Fans Need To See Against Utah State
It’s been a long, tough road for Tennessee fans these past few years. Once an annual contender, the Vols are a far cry from dominance, finishing under .500 in each of the last three seasons. 2014 marks a new days in Tennessee football as Butch Jones enters his second season as head coach. Jones boasts a top-5 recruiting class that leaves many fans optimistic of the future, but still faces plenty of unanswered questions for the here and now. As the Vols enter Sunday’s season opener against Utah State, the Tennessee faithful need to see several things from the Big Orange moving forward.
Is Justin Worley the best option at Quarterback?
Justin Worley has once again won the starting quarterback job entering the season. The senior provides the most experience of any Tennessee signal caller and was the team’s most productive passer last season, despite injuries. A former Gatorade National Player of the Year, Worley was deemed a “product of a pass-first system” in high school. Ironically, it’s the opposite case with Tennessee’s read option offense. Worley may have the best arm of any Vol quarterback, but lacks the running ability that his younger competition possesses. Health issues are also a major concern. Despite starting in 10 career games, Worley has never played a full season without missing time due to an injury. Tennessee’s offense has plenty of talent at the skill positions this season. The burden will be on Worley to produce and stay healthy. Utah State may not be an SEC defense, but its hardly a pushover either. Facing a talented front seven, Worley must prove to Vol fans why he was the right selection to take the reins of the Tennessee offense.
Will the inexperienced offensive line ready?
Tennessee is looking to replace all five starters on its offensive line. With the departures of Ja’wuan James, Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Antonio Richardson, the Vols’ offensive line lacks prior starting experience. Redshirt senior Jacob Gilliam and redshirt juniors Marcus Jackson, Kyler Kerbyson and Mack Crowder have the longest tenures with the team. Otherwise, Tennessee’s depth chart is compiled mostly of sophomores and freshmen. The offensive line may be the biggest concern for the Volunteers entering this season. Facing a talented front seven, Sunday’s game against Utah State will provide an early example of whether this corps has enough talent moving forward.
Jalen Hurd vs. Marlin Lane as leading rusher
Marlin Lane is the early favorite to get the majority of carries heading into the 2014 season. A solid contributor, Lane provides a strong advantage in experience over incoming freshman Jalen Hurd. Hurd has the advantage in size and speed and is regarded as one of the top prospects in Tennessee’s 2014 class. But, coming off of major shoulder surgery, Hurd may be used conservatively this season with the presence of a capable Lane. If carries are distributed evenly, the standout back between the two will hold an early advantage as the team’s leading rusher. Should Hurd make an early splash, he will likely see an early increase in carries.
Return of “Wide Receiver U”?
Marquez North had a decorated freshman season in 2013. North was responsible for two of Tennessee’s biggest plays in 2013: a touchdown to start an overtime forcing rally against Georgia and a crucial first down to set up a game-winning field goal against South Carolina. With a year of experience, North is expected to be an elite SEC wide receiver in 2014. JUCO transfer Von Pearson is also expected to start for Tennessee this season. The 4-star prospect recorded a nation-leading 93 receptions for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns for Feather River College (Calif.) last year. He also single-game totals of over 200 yards on five occasions, including a school record 311 yards and three touchdowns on 19 receptions. Added to the mix is freshman Josh Malone, a five-star prospect from Station Camp High School. Malone has progressed in each season since gaining national attention for his raw, athletic ability as an underclassmen. Whether he will see enough playing time early is the biggest question. Malone has the ability, size and speed, but lacks the experience of the other two receivers. If all three players see enough playing time, Tennessee may have one of the most talented receiving corps in the SEC.
Defense must stop Chuckie Keeton
Chuckie Keeton is one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in college football. After suffering a season-ending knee injury, Keeton returns to high expectations entering the 2014 season. His name has been mentioned among the elite college football signal callers, receiving preseason watch list honors for several awards including the Heisman Trophy and the Davey O’Brien and Maxwell Awards. Tennessee will match Keeton with an inexperienced front four. Much like the offense, Tennessee’s defensive line returns zero starters from the previous season. Freshman Derek Barnett and sophomore Corey Vereen are the projected starters at defensive end, while senior Jordan Williams and redshirt sophomore Danny O’Brien plug up the middle. Senior A.J. Johnson will pose as the greatest threat to stop Keeton. Johnson, a decorated middle linebacker, has recorded 100 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons and has been the brightest spot for several poor Tennessee defenses. It will be his responsibility to prevent Keeton from showcasing his skills to a national audience.
Curt Maggitt’s health questions must be answered
Curt Maggitt is one of the most talented players on Tennessee’s defense. The former 4-star prospect is looking to bounce back after missing the entire 2013 season following a late-season ACL tear in 2012. Injuries have plagued Maggitt during his entire collegiate career and Vol fans are hoping to finally see Maggitt at 100 percent. Whether he lines up at outside linebacker or defensive end, Maggitt will provide a major spark to an inexperienced Tennessee defense and must show that he is healthy in the team’s opening game against Utah State.