Jones already working on Team 118
The Sports Xchange
NCAAF Team Report - Tennessee - INSIDE SLANT
That's the very situation that the Volunteers face after going 5-7 during coach Butch Jones' inaugural campaign on Rocky Top. A lack of depth compounded by injuries, combined with a brutal schedule, proved to be too much to overcome. After what appeared to be a potential breakthrough win over a ranked South Carolina team to end a 19-game losing streak against ranked opponents, the Vols lost their next four games to fall out of contention for a bowl bid before salvaging a win at Kentucky to finish the 2013 campaign.
Jones wasn't going to spend much time reflecting on his first season in the Southeastern Conference before going to work on the 2014 squad -- or Team 118 as it's known in-house, referring to what will be the 118th version of Tennessee football.
"We'll enjoy this one, but Monday we're back in the weight room getting ready for next season," Jones said following the 27-14 win over Kentucky in Lexington. "I want to continue to stay positive and move forward, but it's expected that we go to bowl games from here on out. That's our goal. We're going to have some time off and take advantage of the time we have moving forward and we'll be back and right into our offseason strength and conditioning program on Monday."
Tennessee played seven of its 12 games against ranked opponents, including back-to-back contests against Top 10 foes in a span of three weeks, but still enjoyed highlights -- especially in the ground game. Tennessee generated 2,261 rushing yards, the most for any Vols team since 2004.
Most of the personnel responsible for that gaudy total, both at running back and along the offensive line, must be replaced. Jones already has declared an open competition at every offensive position. Meanwhile, on defense, the only potential returning starter -- linebacker A.J. Johnson -- may decide to declare early for the NFL. Tennessee also must replace its do-everything specialist Michael Palardy, who did all the kicking and punting.
Add it up, and this will be one of the most anticipated and scrutinized spring practice sessions at Tennessee in quite some time.
NCAAF Team Report - Tennessee - NOTES, QUOTES
GAME OF THE YEAR: Tennessee 23, South Carolina 21 -- It had been nearly four calendar years since the Volunteers got the best of a ranked opponent, so ending a 19-game losing streak against ranked foes reverberated through Vol Nation. The future shined brightly during that game, with freshman WR Marquez North making a spectacular 39-yard catch on third down to prolong a game-ending drive capped by Michael Palardy's winning field goal in the final seconds.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: K/P Michael Palardy -- It's never particularly a good thing when a punter is your team MVP, but the contributions of Palardy cannot be ignored. Named a finalist for the Ray Guy award, Palardy had 19 punts that reaped 50 or more yards -- the most by any Tennessee punter since Dustin Colquitt in 2003. Palardy had five of his punts downed inside the 5-yard line, had a career-long punt of 69 yards during the 27-14 win at Kentucky in the season finale, and finished his career with a 42.9-yard average that ranks second among all Tennessee punters. As a kicker, Palardy went 14-of-17 on field goals as a senior and 34 of 35 on extra points.
FAST FORWARD: Tennessee endures massive attrition along both lines. Four of the starters on the offensive line were seniors and the fifth, junior OT Antonio Richardson, reportedly is leaning towards bypassing his final year of eligibility to go into the NFL. The situation is even more bleak on the defensive front, which is sure to lose at least six of seven starters and 12.5 sacks. Tennessee's underclassmen on defense combined to make just four sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss all season, so there's a huge playmaking void to fill. The lack of seasoning on the offensive line is even more obvious, with only two players with prior starting experience on the tentative 2014 roster. Keep an eye on the quarterback position, where all three signal callers who started at some point this season -- Josh Dobbs, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman -- return, along with redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson.
RECRUITING TRAIL: Tennessee has enjoyed fantastic success on the recruiting trail. As of Dec. 3, the Vols had the second-ranked class in the nation in Rivals.com's team rankings. The only team ahead of Tennessee in the rankings was Alabama. The Vols have 32 verbal commitments, which means at least a few players will be de-committing or take a grayshirt due to rules limiting the number of signees in a given year. Headlined by five-star RB Jalen Hurd, the class includes a slew of other coveted signees, six of whom hail from inside the Volunteer State. The collection of verbals also includes Evan Berry and Elliott Berry, the younger twin brothers of former Vol Eric Berry.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Like I said, they've been through so much. Someone told me 42 coaches including strength coaches in five years. That's a lot, that's a lot of transition. They've been remarkable in terms of buying in and doing everything we've asked of them. To get this victory was very special to them." -- Butch Jones, regarding Tennessee's senior class
NCAAF Team Report - Tennessee - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2014: