Monday, April 21, 2014 · 10:41 a.m.

UT year in review: Position grades

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Tennessee players gather in the tunnel before facing Auburn. (Photo: David Johnston)

KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s 5-7 campaign came to an end at Kentucky a couple weeks ago. Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the season, here’s a position-by-position look at how the Vols performed on the field this year:

Quarterbacks: D+

The Vols came into 2013 uncertain of the future of the quarterback position. They leave the season in a similar place. Justin Worley started seven of the first eight games and had, at best, mixed success. He was briefly replaced by redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman at Florida, but ineffective play and a thumb injury ended that experiment. Worley peaked during a two-week span against Georgia and South Carolina. The junior appeared to be taking command of the offense, but a thumb injury of his own ended his season prematurely after the Alabama game. True freshman Joshua Dobbs took it from there – showing promising signs in the second half of the Alabama game and against Missouri and Kentucky, but struggling against Auburn and Vanderbilt. All three are scheduled to return in 2014 in addition to redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson, who may have the most pure arm talent of the quartet. Jones has already declared the competition open, so this storyline will continue.

QB statistical leaders:

Justin Worley: 109 of 196 passing, 1239 yards, 10 TDs, 8 INTs

Joshua Dobbs: 72 of 121 passing, 695 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs; 38 rushing attempts, 189 yards, TD

Running backs: B

Senior Rajion Neal set the tone for this unit. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark forthe  year and his 1,124 yards were the most in a single season since 2009 (Montario Hardesty). Marlin Lane was a nice complement to Neal. He took about half the number of carries of Neal and ended up with 552 yards. Both averaged slightly over five yards per carry on the season. Neal’s speed and Lane’s instincts made for a serviceable duo. Those two won’t go down among the all-time UT greats, but they got what they could in most situations. There wasn’t much help behind those two. Seldom-used backups Tom Smith, Alden Hill and Deanthonie Summerhill combined for less than 300 total yards.

RB statistical leaders:

Rajion Neal: 215 carries, 1,224 yards (5.2 ypc), 12 TDs; 27 catches, 108 yards

Marlin Lane: 101 carries, 552 yards (5.3 ypc), 4 TDs

Wide receivers/tight ends: C

Tennessee wide receiver Marquez North. (Photo: David Johnston)

The Vols found a pair of SEC-quality receivers – Marquez North and Pig Howard – who appear to have the potential to make a lot of plays over the next couple of years. That’s the good news. The bad news is they struggled to find consistency behind that duo. Jason Croom, Johnathon Johnson, Josh Smith and Devrin Young all had moments, but nobody else proved to be a consistent threat. True freshmen Paul Harris and Ryan Jenkins failed to produce. Harris struggled to crack the rotation regularly, while Jenkins missed the season with knee problems.

The tight ends themselves might deserve a lower grade. Starter Brendan Downs struggled in blocking and receiving and the Vols didn’t have much depth behind him. Joseph Ayres missed the season with a torn ACL, junior college transfer Woody Quinn rarely saw the field and freshman A.J. Branisel, who showed a few flashes of promise, had his season cut short early as well (ACL).

WR/TE statistical leaders:

Pig Howard: 44 catches, 338 yards, 3 TDs

Marquez North: 38 catches, 496 yards, TD

Jason Croom: 18 catches, 269 yards, 2 TDs

Johnathon Johnson: 13 catches, 189 yards

Josh Smith: 12 catches, 182 yards, TD

Brendan Downs: 12 catches, 70 yards, 2 TDs

Offensive line: B-

Statistically speaking, this group did a decent job overall. The Vols finished with 188.4 rushing yards per game and were third in the SEC in sacks given up (15). That’s a pretty impressive job, especially with all of the inexperience in the passing game. But while the numbers look pretty good, this group did fall short of its lofty expectations. Only on a few occasions did it take over a game in the way that a group with likely at least four future NFL players on it should. UT’s inability to convert a key fourth and short situation in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt might’ve cost the Vols that game and a trip to a bowl as well.

Tennessee defensive lineman Daniel McCullers. (Photo: David Johnston)

Defensive line: C

Like the O-line, this senior-laden group had some high points, but also disappointed at times. The season finale against Kentucky was the apex. Senior Corey Miller recorded 4.5 sacks, breaking the school record held by Reggie White, and a half sack added by Jacques Smith upped the team’s total to five sacks for the game. However, this unit didn’t record any sacks in the previous four games before Kentucky and seemed to virtually disappear during that stretch. Like several other position groups, the D-line perhaps played its best stretch against Georgia and South Carolina, recording five total sacks and 10.5 total tackles for loss during that two-game span. In the preseason Butch Jones said the team would go based on the play of massive nose tackle Daniel McCullers. The senior had his moments, but didn’t make the overall impression that Jones was likely looking for.

DL statistical leaders:

Corey Miller: 36 tackles, 7 TFLs, 6.5 sacks

Daniel McCullers: 33 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, .5 sack

Jacques Smith: 28 tackles, 2 TFLs, .5 sack, INT, defensive TD

Marlon Walls: 20 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks

Daniel Hood: 20 tackles, 2 TFLs, INT

Jordan Williams: 18 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks

Corey Vereen: 13 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack

Danny O’Brien: 12 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 sack

Linebackers: C

Playing without junior Curt Maggitt, who sat out the entire season after tearing his ACL in 2012, this group still managed to do some good things. A.J. Johnson, the Vols’ resident tackling machine, hit the 100-tackle plateau for the second straight season, finishing with 106 stops. Jones wanted to see more big plays out of Johnson and his 8.5 TFLs – the exact same number he had in 2012 – show that he didn’t make much progress in that area. Senior Dontavis Sapp stepped up and had a quality season, finishing third on the team in tackles with 66 (8 TFLs). Senior Brent Brewer, a converted safety, was inconsistent, but he did record a few big plays, including a pair of interceptions and a forced fumble. John Propst, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Christian Harris were among the reserves who saw some spot duty. Overall, however, they didn’t find much consistent depth behind the three starters.

LB statistical leaders:

A.J. Johnson: 106 tackles, 8.5 TFLs

Dontavis Sapp: 66 tackles, 8 TFLs, 3 fumble recoveries

Brent Brewer: 27 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 INTs

Secondary: C+

It might not be saying much, but this group improved over the 2012 bunch – one of the worst units in school history. The return of safety Brian Randolph (ACL) and the emergence of freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton were two very positive storylines for this group. Safety LaDarrell McNeil won the starting job over senior Byron Moore, but McNeil had somewhat of a sophomore slump and Moore could never fully overtake him. At the other cornerback spot, Justin Coleman made some strides, but he was beaten badly in several circumstances. Walk-on Devaun Swafford and former walk-on Jaron Toney did what they could at nickelback, but the Vols will need to upgrade that spot if the secondary is going to improve. Tennessee finished in the middle of the pack in the SEC in pass defense (6th – 211.1 yards given up per game), but credit this group for being opportunistic. The secondary recorded 10 interceptions, three of which were run back for TDs.

DB statistical leaders:

Brian Randolph: 75 tackles, 4 INTs, 7 passes defended

LaDarrell McNeil: 54 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 4 passes defended

Justin Coleman: 46 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 8 passes defended

Cameron Sutton: 39 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 2 INTs, 9 passes defended

Jaron Toney: 37 tackles, 1 TFL

Byron Moore: 25 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 passes defended

Devaun Swafford: 17 tackles, 1 INT

Tennessee kicker Michael Palardy hits a game-winning field goal to beat South Carolina. (Photo: David Johnston)

Special teams: B

Michael Palardy was a one-man-band in the kicking game. He handled kicking off, punting and place-kicking. He did all three tasks admirably. He hit 14 of 17 field goals, converted all but one of of his extra points and averaged 44.5 yards per punt, while regularly pinning opponents inside their own 20 with well-placed punts. The return game was solid, though not spectacular. When healthy, Devrin Young gave the Vols a sure-handed option at punt and kick returner. He’s not a true scoring threat every time he touches the ball, but he does a good job fielding kicks and has enough athleticism to get a decent return in most cases. Jacob Carter did a good job filling in when Young was hurt earlier in the season. Coverage took a big step forward before falling back at the end of the season. Auburn exposed it, running two kicks back for TDs in addition to multiple other huge returns.

STs statistical leaders:

Michael Palardy: 14 of 17 FGs, 44.5 yards per punt, 33 punts downed inside the 20, 19 punts of 50+ yards, 61.7 yard average on kickoffs, 19 touchbacks

Devrin Young: 7.9 yards per punt return, long of 17; 25.9 yards per kickoff return, long of 58

Coaching: C-

Nobody confused this team as a national championship contender before the season started, but six wins and a bowl appearance seemed to be a reasonable expectation. The Vols fell just short of that. Tennessee peaked in a two-game stretch against Georgia and South Carolina in the middle of the season, but except for a win over hapless Kentucky in the season finale, the Vols really struggled down the stretch, albeit against a very high level of competition. As always, there were some questionable calls by the coaching staff. Starting Nathan Peterman at Florida didn’t work out well at all and the fake field goal call against Vanderbilt was heavily scrutinized as well. This is a multi-year rebuilding job. There’s no denying that at this point. It may even get a little bit worse before it gets a lot better in Knoxville. Off the field, Butch Jones is taking some of the steps UT needs to get back to a more competitive level, but it currently remains a huge work-in-progress. 

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga

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