The Tennessee Volunteers are going through their worst stretch of football in a century, and as Butch Jones enters year two, there is still much work to be done.
As competitive as the SEC is, you cannot afford things like bad coaching hires, and Tennessee had two of them, in a row, in scoundrel Lane Kiffin and the likeable Derek Dooley. This led to Tennessee being passed by Vanderbilt, something forever thought unthinkable. No amount of emphasis on the new incarnation of the rivalry was enough to avoid a second straight defeat last season. Entering 2014, the Vols figure still to be looking up at too many for their liking.
Butch Jones seems to have the right idea, get back to traditional Tennessee football built on a power running game, a stout defense, and a big play passing attack. Justin Worley was named the starting quarterback, a classic drop back passer who if he can minimize mistakes and stay on script, can be effective.
Out wide the Vols return the able tandem of Marquez North and Alton “Pig” Howard, and add heralded JUCO Von Pearson, deep threats all. Freshman Ethan Wolf starts at tight end, someone who appears to be cut out of the Jason Witten mold. The running game will feature the diminutive Marlin Lane and the special talent, freshman Jalen Hurd who could remind fans of the great Tennessee backs of years past with his rare combination of speed and power.
Hurd, the pride of Hendersonville’s Beech High School, missed all but one game in 2013 due to a shoulder injury, but was still rated as one of the top if not the top prospect in the state coming out of high school last year. His’ 2012 season was legendary for the state champion Buccaneers rushing for a state record 3,357 yards and 43 touchdowns in being named “Mr. Football”. Hurd is clearly the best recruit Jones has landed at Tennessee.
The biggest problem with UT of late though has been on defense, and it figures to be a weakness this season also. A.J. Johnson at middle linebacker is the all-star candidate, the secondary could be a good one led by free safety Brian Randolph, but the defensive line, like the offensive line, is a work-in-progress. Up front is where Tennessee football hung its hat in the Philip Fulmer years, and that is what has been lost since. Senior Jordan Williams is the strength on a D-line higher on promise than on tangible results.
The SEC is a minefield, and Tennessee drew a shorter straw than most in terms of schedule. Even the openers are more difficult than thought when scheduled. Utah State features all-star QB Chuckie Keeton; Arkansas State features an offense first put in place by Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, and then a trip to Oklahoma which is over-ambitious at best. All of that is before league play which opens at Georgia, followed by Florida, after Chattanooga with at Ole Miss, Alabama, and at South Carolina. Yikes!
But Tennessee football was never based on excuses, and none will be given this year. The truth of the matter is, Tennessee is still a couple years away from where they belong, but they do seem on the right track. This season will be about experience and building the foundation; just catching up to the curve they fell from. A bowl is highly unlikely for this team, but it figures to be the last year we will be saying that for quite a while.