Each season is full of surprises and my guess is that the 2014 season will have some rather large ones in store for Tennessee fans everywhere. Every year certain players emerge and take on roles that few would have predicted before the season began. Players that weren’t expected to make an impact are suddenly the ones making big plays in crunch time to win games.
I’m no wizard, and I certainly wouldn’t bet my house on all of these guys emerging as bonafide stars, but here are five players I think will have a significant impact on the 2014 season after a less than stellar 2013.
Alton ‘Pig’ Howard led the Vols in both total catches and touchdown catches last season, catching 44 passes for 388 yards and 3 touchdowns. The question with Howard has never been about his ability, but about whether or not he could take care of his business off the field to get back in good standing with his teammates and coaches.
Howard took a leave of absence over spring practice to “take care of some personal issues” and many felt like the junior from Orlando had suited up for the Vols for the last time. Butch Jones and his staff privately laid out a series of steps that Howard had to complete in order to regain his position on the team.
Many around the program did not expect Pig to get back with his team by the summer, but that is exactly what he did. He isn’t exactly out of the woods yet, but those close to the program say he is doing all the right things on and off the field to suit up this fall.
Prediction: At this point the biggest hindrance to Pig Howard’s success may have nothing to do with Pig Howard, but rather his teammates at wide receiver. The addition of Von Pearson and Josh Malone has given the Vols both size and speed at the position while the continued maturity and development of players like Jason Croom and Marquez North has done nothing but solidify their roles within the unit.
Howard, however, possesses a unique ability to make defenders miss in the open field and will undoubtedly benefit from being surrounded by more talented players than he was a year ago. While defenses focus on the size, speed and/or strength of Malone, North, Pearson and Croom, look for Howard to sneak up on teams and benefit from the lack of attention.
Jason Croom was hit or miss last season. He made plays that would turn heads, only to follow them up with bad drops, poorly run routes or suspect run blocking. The redshirt sophomore from Norcross, GA possesses massive size and strength at 6-5, 240+ pounds, but never seemed willing to use that size and bulk to his advantage in 2013.
Croom had 18 catches for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns last season as the Vols’ passing game never really developed thanks to inconsistency at both receiver and quarterback. He often looked confused and hesitant on the field, which, to his credit, is common of receivers in a new offense with a new quarterback(s).
Prediction: Croom put together an outstanding spring practice. He looks to have started developing the mindset that he can use his size and strength to his advantage to help this offense. He was extending to make tough catches in the red zone over smaller defenders (and when you’re his size, they’re all smaller defenders) and driving both defensive backs and linebackers out of the play with his run blocking.
Croom may not be a highlight machine all season long, but look for him to be the leader of the group and the veteran who will always be in the right place at the right time. His physical play will open up holes in the running game and he will be a solid target for quarterbacks in one-on-one situations in both the open field and in the red zone.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was Tennessee’s special teams ace last year. He had a team-high 11 tackles on special teams and made one of the best plays of the season when he blocked a punt against Georgia that was returned for a touchdown. It’s hard to say that any play in a loss was a defining moment, but the blocked punt against the Bulldogs seemed to give credence to the work that Butch Jones and his staff were doing.
Now, Reeves-Maybin will likely take over one of the starting outside linebacker spots in the Vols’ 4-3 defense. He saw limited action at linebacker last season against Auburn where he tallied 3 tackles, but will almost certainly be expected to assume a much larger role as we enter the 2014 season.
Prediction: Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a flat-out football player. He is a guy that seems to always be around the football disrupting the opponent and making plays. Now that he will be on the field in a greater capacity as a starting linebacker, more big plays seem to certainly be in his future.
Jalen came in as a safety and is now transitioning to linebacker, so expect him to make some plays in the passing game against tight ends or slot receivers, an area where the Vols were significantly picked apart in 2013.
After two years and limited success at running back, Devrin Young spent last season at wide receiver where injuries hampered not only his playing time but also his development. Young suffered a broken wrist in practice leading up to the game against Western Kentucky that would leave him sidelined for five games. Young showed his playmaking ability in the final game of the season against Kentucky when he had four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown while adding two kick returns for 67 yards.
Young moves back to running back this season thanks to an influx of talent at wide receiver during the off-season. While many, myself included, thought this would result in him being buried on the depth chart, Devrin made the most of the opportunity in the spring. He seems to be most comfortable in the backfield and consistently made big plays from his new/old position.
Prediction: Devrin will not lead this team in carries or yards rushing. He will not be the workhorse back for Tennessee’s ground game, but he will provide an excellent change of pace on third down or in unique situations where he will be used to create mismatches for the Vol offense. Look for him to move around a lot pre-snap, shifting from the backfield to the slot, coming in motion for pitches, flares or reverses…etc. Instead of running him between the tackles or using him on curl routes, the coaches are going to get him the ball moving laterally, allowing him to use his vision and cutting ability to turn the corner and get up field.
I saved this one for last because I am officially #TeamDobbs. Josh saw limited success last season when he was forced to play after both Nathan Peterman and Justin Worley missed games due to injury. The plan all along was for both Dobbs and the now former Vol, Riley Ferguson, to redshirt and compete for the job with Worley and Peterman this fall.
Even the best laid plans…
Instead, Dobbs received trial by fire, facing Alabama, Missouri and Auburn in his first three games as a collegiate athlete. Those teams finished 2013 with a combined record of 35-6.
Despite the circumstances Dobbs was still able to showcase his talent, completing 60% of his passes or better in three of his four starts; something junior Justin Worley accomplished only once in seven starts. Dobbs also added 38 rushes for 189 yards and a touchdown with three of those runs going longer than 30 yards.
Prediction: I’m going to go way out on a limb on this one and say that Dobbs finishes this season as the starting quarterback based on talent, not injury. I would say that I think he starts the season, but I need to see him in camp to be sure. The fact that Justin Worley was not selected to attend SEC Media Days is worth noting here.
From where he started last fall to where he finished the spring, Dobbs has progressed immensely. He is bigger, stronger, faster and is starting to understand not only the offensive system, but also what it takes to be a high-level quarterback. His accuracy problems from last fall were nonexistent in the Orange and White Game, where he went 6 of 9 for 199 yards with 3 touchdowns and added another score on a 59-yard scramble off a busted play. If he can improve as much in fall camp as he did in the spring, he may end up being the man to beat.