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VOL. 8 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 10, 2015

Vols Take Plenty of Momentum Into Offseason

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – There’s nothing like going into the offseason on a high note. The Vols will be riding the momentum from the resounding 45-28 victory against Iowa in the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl through the end of recruiting season, winter workouts, spring practices and into the summer months.

UT hadn’t won a bowl game since the 2007 team beat Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, but that seemed like a consolation prize after the Vols had lost to LSU in the SEC Championship Game.

This year is far different.

UT coach Butch Jones has preached his brick-by-brick mantra since his first day on campus, and his project appears to be taking shape.

The Vols (7-6) posted the program’s first winning season since Lane Kiffin’s 2009 team went 7-6 after a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Kiffin then abruptly left for Southern Cal.

Unlike Kiffin, Jones seems to like it here.

Not long after hoisting the TaxSlayer Bowl trophy, Jones was talking about the future of UT football.

“We already have the offseason mapped out,” Jones explained. “We just have to continue to get better. We have to develop depth. We have to get stronger. We have to continue to recruit.

“But if you’re a prospective student athlete, you want to be part of something special, you come to the University of Tennessee. Point blank.”

Jones has assembled another top-five recruiting class, and it will only reload a roster full of returning starters and backups.

Of UT’s 11 offensive starters for the TaxSlayer Bowl, 10 are eligible to return next season. Defensively, nine starters can return for 2015.

“This is the start of something big going on in Tennessee, momentum we can carry into the off season,” sophomore quarterback Josh Dobbs said after the bowl game.

UT’s had some attrition from the 2014 roster with eight players transferring: wide receiver Drae Bowles, running backs Derrell Scott and Justus Pickett, tight end Daniel Helm, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, defensive linemen Joe Henderson and Jaylen Miller and cornerback D’Andre Payne.

All except announced their decisions before the bowl game, except for Bowles and Pickett.

Here is a glimpse at who’s returning and who’s not from the 2014 roster.

Quarterback

Nobody was more important in the Vols’ bowl run than Dobbs and, thanks to him, there is no question as to the No. 1 guy entering spring.

UT went more than half the 2014 season before settling on Dobbs as the starter for the Nov. 1 game at South Carolina, where he solidified the job by engineering a stunning comeback victory.

In the TaxSlayer Bowl, Dobbs’ management of the offense was just as impressive as his stat line: 129 passing yards, 76 rushing yards, and three touchdowns (two rushing, one passing). In six games, Dobbs threw for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns (with six interceptions) and ran for 469 yards and the team-high eight touchdowns.

With his size (6-3, 216 pounds), athleticism and leadership abilities, Dobbs could become an All-SEC player if he stays healthy.

Incoming freshmen Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High and Quinten Dormady of Boerne (Texas) High will push current sophomore Nathan Peterman for the backup’s job, if Peterman stays at UT. The three-star Dormady is already on campus as a mid-year enrollee and gets the spring to learn the offense.

Running back

Jalen Hurd had a breakout freshman season and surprised many when he didn’t earn All-SEC honors. Hurd, of Hendersonville Beech High, ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns against Iowa and finished with 899 yards, five touchdown runs, and a 4.7-yard average.

Those who wondered if Hurd’s size (6-foot-3, 221 pounds) would hinder his running can put it to rest.

Hurd will have new faces below him in UT’s depth chart. Gone are Scott and seniors Marlin Lane and Devrin Young.

Look for junior Alvin Kamara to make an impact in the run game. He signed with Alabama out of Norcross, Ga., as the nation’s No. 2 all-purpose back, was redshirted by the Tide in 2013, and played the 2014 season at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. He ran for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in the fall.

Kamara, 5-11, 200 pounds, is already on campus and will practice with the Vols this spring. He’s a four- and five-star recruit and was rated the No. 2 JUCO back by 247Sports and ESPN.

UT has a commitment from Vincent Perry of Nashville Hillsboro High, and another newcomer, Ralph David Abernathy, could also be in the mix. Abernathy played for Jones at Cincinnati and plans to enroll at UT in January and finish his career with the Vols.

Jones would like to sign at least another back to the 2015 class.

Wide receiver

UT’s receiving corps was depleted due to injuries for the bowl game, but should be a strength by the time 2015 season begins.

Marquez North, Josh Smith, and Cody Blanc sustained season-ending injuries in the fall, and Jason Croom suffered a patella injury during bowl practices and missed the game. Also, Von Pearson missed two games and wasn’t full speed with ankle problems, and Josh Malone played through multiple injuries.

All return for 2015.

Alton “Pig” Howard returns for his senior season after leading the Vols with 618 yards and 54 catches. Pearson, a JUCO transfer from Feather River (Calif.) College, also is poised for a big senior year after leading UT in the bowl game with seven catches for 75 yards and a touchdown.

Freshman Vic Wharton of Independence High in Spring Hill started the bowl game and caught a 49-yard halfback pass from Lane for a touchdown. Also returning is redshirt freshman Ryan Jenkins, former standout at Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga.

UT’s big commitment at wide receiver for 2015 is five-star Preston Williams of Lovejoy High in Hampton, Ga. He’s 6-foot-4, 191 pounds.

Ethan Wolf returns at tight end after earning the starting job as a freshman out of Minster (Ohio) High School. He had 23 catches for 212 yards this season, including two for nine yards in the bowl.

Also back is junior Alex Ellis, a former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship by Jones before the bowl; freshman athlete Neiko Creamer, who played several positions in the fall; and A.J. Branisel, who sat out the season with a torn ACL.

The departing Helm played in all 12 regular-season games, started two, and had six catches for 37 yards.

Offensive line

Sure, the most beleaguered unit on the team got better with Dobbs in the lineup, but it still had issues (six sacks vs. Missouri) and must improve for the Vols to take the next step into SEC East contention.

Only senior right tackle Jacob Gilliam has completed his eligibility. That doesn’t mean the Vols won’t benefit from an influx of new, young linemen.

Returnees are junior Kyler Kerbyson at tackle, junior Marcus Jackson and freshman Jashon Robertson at guards, and junior Mack Crowder at center. Robertson was chosen to the All-SEC freshman team.

Kerbyson is a converted guard, and UT’s line would probably benefit if he’s able to return to that position.

Enter junior offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who was redshirted by UT in 2014 after not breaking into the O-line rotation. Blair is a four-star tackle from Anniston, Ala., and spent two productive years at Garden City (Kan.) Community College before coming to UT.

Redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick should also be in the tackle mix.

UT line commitments include tackle Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High, tackle Zach Stewart of Coalfield High, and Venzell Boulware of Creekside High in Fairburn, Ga.

Defensive line

Freshman defensive end Derek Barnett, a four-star recruit out of Brentwood Academy, had a monster 2014 season and earned All-SEC Freshman and Freshman All-American honors. His 10 sacks ranked fourth in the SEC, behind Missouri’s James Ray (14), UT’s Curt Maggitt (11), and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (11).

Sophomore Corey Vereen started at the other end with Barnett in the 4-3 defense, and sophomore LaTroy Lewis was the backup. Each was solid, but should be pushed by at least four incoming freshmen: Andrew Butcher of Alpharetta (Ga.) High, Darrell Taylor of Hopewell (Va.) High, Marques Ford of East Bay High in Gibsonton, Fla., and Kyle Phillips of Nashville’s Hillsboro High.

Danny O’Brien returns for his junior season as the starter at defensive tackle, while senior Jordan Williams, the starter inside alongside O’Brien, is out of eligibility. Junior Owen Williams was O’Brien’s backup and could move into the starting role, and freshman Dimarya Mixon will benefit from an offseason of workouts and could be a bigger factor in 2015.

Defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, son of former Vol Reggie McKenzie, now the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, will join the Vols in the fall as a freshman.

(Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

UT stocked up with four incoming freshmen on the defensive line led by Kahlil McKenzie of Clayton Valley Charter School in Concord, Calif. He’s the son of former Vol Reggie McKenzie, now the general manager of the Oakland Raiders.

Other defensive linemen for the 2015 class are Chance Hall of Roanoke (Va.) Northside High, Quay Picou of Buford (Ga.) High, and Shy Tuttle of North Davidson High in Lexington, N.C.

Linebacker

Maggitt came off his redshirt season in 2013 in full force this season and earned All-SEC second team honors. He’s a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker, and he combines with Barnett to give the Vols a premier pass rushing duo.

Barnett had 20.5 tackles for loss (minus-79 yards) and Maggitt had 15 tackles for loss (minus-68 yards). Each was on the All-SEC second team by the Associated Press.

Junior Chris Weatherd was Maggitt’s backup and had 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.

Losing senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is a blow, as the Vols found out after he was suspended for the last two games of the regular season when he was named in a sexual assault investigation. Freshman Jakob Johnson took over as the starter for Johnson, and although Jakob Johnson has loads of potential at 6-4, 230 pounds, wasn’t the player A.J. Johnson was.

Kenny Bynum also returns for his junior season at middle linebacker after being limited to seven games with one start in the fall.

At the outside, Jalen Reeves-Maybin emerged as the key player in 2014 and tied for the team-high in tackles (101) with A.J. Johnson. Freshman Cortez McDowell played in all 13 games as Reeves-Maybin’s backup and should also improve with work in the weight room.

Freshman linebacker Dillon Bates returns from a medical redshirt season due to a torn labrum, and freshman Gavin Bryant also is back after being redshirted.

UT’s linebackers got a big addition with the commitment from Darrin Kirkland Jr. of Lawrence Central High in Indianapolis. Kirkland was committed to Michigan before switching to the Vols over Ole Miss, Texas, and Oklahoma. Another linebacker commit is Austin Smith, a teammate of Picou at Buford (Ga.) High.

Secondary

The Vols return all starters in the secondary except for senior cornerback Justin Coleman, who started all 13 games and led the team with four interceptions.

Cameron Sutton returns for his junior season at the other corner, and if he continues progressing could opt for the NFL Draft in 2016. The 6-1, 180-pound Sutton had three interceptions and team-highs with 13 break-ups and 16 deflections.

Sophomore Malik Foreman was Coleman’s backup and played in all 13 games, while freshman Emmanuel Moseley was behind Sutton and played in all 13 games (two starts). Sophomore Michael Williams is a question mark as he was named in the sexual assault investigation with A.J. Johnson.

Moseley took over as the corner in the Vols’ nickel package late in the season, with Foreman and freshman Rashaan Gaulden backups in the nickel.

UT has three promising corners among its 2015 commitments: Micah Abernathy of Greater Atlanta Christian, Darrell Miller of Cedar Hill (Texas) High and Justin Martin of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. Martin played for Overton High in Nashville before going to junior college.

Starting safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeill return for their senior seasons in 2015 along with Todd Kelly Jr., who played in all 13 games (three starts) as a true freshman and had three interceptions. Kelly Jr. played at Webb School of Knoxville.

The Vols have incoming freshmen for the secondary in cornerback with Miller, Hillsboro’s Phillips as well as Joc Bruce of Knoxville’s South-Doyle High.

Special teams

Freshman Aaron Medley had no problems handling the placekicking duties in his first season and gives the Vols stability there for the next three years.

Medley made 20 of 26 field-goal attempts 2014. He made all seven from inside 30 yards, was 12 of 13 inside 40 and 1 of 6 from inside 50.

The Vols lose senior punter Matt Darr, who averaged 42.2 yards on 60 punts.

Medley could take over the punting duties, or the Vols could look to 2015 commit Tommy Townsend, a senior at Boone High in Orlando, Fla. Townsend is one of the nation’s top high school punters. Walk-ons Troy Waites and Trevor Daniel will also contend for the punting job.

Senior Devrin Young departs as kick returner, and freshman Evan Berry, his backup, should contend for the job in 2015. Sutton returns as the No. 1 punt returner.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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