What a difference a year makes.
The Tennessee Volunteers entered their 2014 spring practice as an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference. The Vols hadn’t made a bowl appearance since 2010, suffered through four straight losing seasons and had one of the SEC’s youngest rosters.
Seven wins later, Tennessee finds itself as a potential dark horse contender in an open SEC East. The Vols return the majority of their 2014 starting lineup with an added year of experience.
Joshua Dobbs emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC during his 4-1 stretch as Tennessee’s starter. The dual-threat Aerospace Engineering major enters his junior season as the unanimous signal caller and could be poised for a career season.
Freshman sensation Jalen Hurd carried the load at running back in 2014. The former five-star prospect rushed for a team-best 899 yards — the third most in school history. However, the Vols were otherwise thin at running back and will now be without the services of departing senior Marlin Lane.
Enter four-star JUCO transfer Alvin Kamara. The all-purpose back experienced a forgettable freshman season at Alabama before transferring to Hutchinson Community College (Kan.) and recording a team-best 1,469 yards of total offense and 21 touchdowns. Kamara is ready to assume his rightful place in the SEC and looks to make up a strong tandem with Hurd, who continued to show improvement through his debut season.
Tennessee returns all of its starting wide receivers from 2014, including four players whose seasons were cut short due to injuries. Alton “Pig” Howard — who led the Vols with 618 yards and 54 receptions — and Von Pearson enter their senior seasons with high expectations. Howard has excelled as an x-factor in the Vols offense, while Pearson showed glimpses of why he was one of the top JUCO prospects of 2014 during a limited debut season.
Marquez North, who many suspected to have a breakout sophomore campaign, was limited due to injuries. Returning as a junior, North looks to live up to the preseason All-SEC hype he garnered in 2014. Jason Croom also looks to bounce back from a shortened season as a rising junior. The 6-foot-5, 243-pound wideout is the largest of Dobbs’ targets and could continue his progress in 2015.
Yes, Tennessee is one of the most talented offenses in the SEC at the skill positions, but the team needs to see improvement in the trenches. The Vols had the worst offensive line in the FBS, ranking No. 122 overall in sacks allowed (43.0) and second-to-last in tackles for loss allowed (101.0).
Tennessee’s o-line could best be described as “makeshift” in 2014. The Vols returned zero starters from the previous season and had limited combined in-game experience.
Starting right tackle Jacob Gilliam played through an ACL tear just five weeks after experiencing the injury in the team’s season opener. That’s how thin the Vols depth chart was in the trenches.
The question I kept asking was “where is Dontavius Blair?” The former four-star JUCO transfer redshirted during his first season with the team, despite the Tennessee’s desperate need for improvement on the offensive line.
Blair should earn a starting role on a depleted line who, despite its struggles, showed some improvement in its final game of 2014.
Early enrollee Jack Jones should also be a serious candidate to compete for playing time as a true freshman. Alongside top in-state prospect Drew Richmond, the four-star prospect is one of the Vols’ top incoming freshman who could make an immediate impact on the o-line.
There’s nowhere else for Tennessee’s o-line to go but up, and improvements should be made in 2015. Aside from Georgia’s impressive stable of running backs, the Vols have one of the most talented offenses in the SEC East and should be a dark horse favorite to play in Atlanta in December.