Put-up time for 5 players on Vol offense

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In its seven losses in 2013, Tennessee averaged just 15.4 points per game.

Behind four NFL Combine invites competing at five offensive line spots, the Volunteers averaged 188 rushing yards per game (44th nationally) but scored just 18 touchdowns on the ground. The passing attack was in the lower third nationally, averaging a mere 164.9 yards per game and tossed a total of 12 scores.

Between 17 interceptions and seven fumbles, the Vols were last in the 14-team Southeastern Conference in turnovers lost.

The Vols practice March 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 27, 29, 30 and April 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 10, 12.

Here's a look at five players InsideTennessee's managing editor selected as Vols that must improve this spring and make it impossible for coach Butch Jones and his staff to keep out of the starting lineup when the season kicks off in August (listed in alphabetical order):

Jason Croom

Third-year players are expected to have a marked improvement. Last season, Croom caught 18 balls for 269 yards and a pair of scores. Adding 10-15 catches to that total would be nice but the major need is his using his size (6 feet 5, 223 pounds) in the end zone to his advantage.

Croom contributing to putting six on the board at a higher rate is nearly imperative. Last season, Tennessee was one of the worst red-zone offenses in the country with 25 touchdowns (15 rushing, 10 passing) and nine field goals in 44 attempts.

The former Norcross, Ga., standout played a handful of snaps his true freshman year before a shoulder injury warranted a medical redshirt. Against Kentucky last November, he broke a collarbone. However, he's expected to be 100-percent for spring practices.

Mack Crowder

The replacement at center for four-year starter James Stone was a unanimous selection from the IT staff. Centers in the SEC must be able to steer NFL-ready defensive linemen, which is no small feat. In an offense like Mike Bajakian's, they must communicate with the other four offensive linemen without use of a huddle and in some of the most hostile environments of any sporting events in the country.

Crowder is a Tennessee boy and a Bristol native. Some of the Vols' best fronts ever were anchored by in-state products, including the 2013 version that gave up just 15 sacks.

If the redshirt junior plays at his listed 6-2, 280, then he's going to have to be an expert with his hands and pad level as well as being a technician. This is his fourth spring on Rocky Top as he enrolled in January 2011. Between receiving the tutelage of Harry Hiestand, Sam Pittman and now Don Mahoney, Crowder should have some tricks up his sleeve.

With trips to Oklahoma and Georgia as Games 3 and 4, respectively, in September, it won't take long to find out if Crowder is up to the task.

Josh Smith

Butch Jones has gone on record saying the Knoxville native had the best hands on Team 117. It's time that started showing up on Saturday's. Smith not only needs to hold onto balls that he gets his hands on, but he needs to stay on the field. Leg injuries slowed his progress last fall and in a normal season he likely would have redshirted.

The 6-1, 193-pounder totaled 12 catches for 182 yards and a TD but half of those receptions came in blowout wins over South Alabama and Western Kentucky. Smith needs to come up with grabs that extend drives in key situations. The rising sophomore has fluid actions and has shown the hands Jones raves about on Haslam Field.

Dylan Wiesman

Vols fans looking for a member of the all-new offensive line that wants to eat his opponent's face off need look no further. The Cincinnati product has a mean streak to him that wasn't there with previous guards. A second-year player looking to earn a starting job is going to need every advantage he can get and that's one of them for Wiesman.

Considering Wiesman (6-3, 308) was once committed to Cincinnati when Jones was head coach there and Tennessee wasted no time adding him to the pledge sheet when the staff came south, it's apparent he fits the mold of what they want out of their guards.

The redshirting of Marcus Jackson in 2013 shows how much confidence the staff has in Wiesman as he or Crowder would have been the next man up should Alex Bullard or Zach Fulton gone down with an injury. Wiesman played in 10 games last fall, primarily in the three-man blockade for punter Michael Palardy.

Justin Worley

Eighty percent of this list could have been made up of Vols quarterbacks, however, it made more sense to simply peg the guy expected to get the starting job.

In spite of an elite recruiting class coming in to add talent to over a third of the roster and at least a pair of starters — Jackson, Curt Maggitt — coming off redshirts, Tennessee football will not take down quality opponents and return to the postseason without much better quarterback. Now is the time for Worley, who hasn't come close to being the player many fans figured he'd be after throwing for 13,385 yards at Northwestern (S.C.) High School.

In 17 games and with 306 career passes, Worley has just 11 touchdowns versus 13 interceptions. He's also ran for a net of 34 yards and no rushing scores. For a starting quarterback at Tennessee, that's far below expectations (putting it lightly). But, Worley is on the list because of his 10 games of starter's experience and the direction he appeared heading when he broke the thumb on his throwing hand last October, which ended his junior season.

Worley also graces this list because of his fourth-quarter play against Georgia on Oct. 5. The Vols lost the game, his numbers weren't sexy (17 of 31 for 215 with one TD), the Bulldogs had a young secondary, but Worley completed a 16-yard pass to Croom, a 26-yard pass to Smith and a 28-yard pass to A.J. Branisel in the fourth quarter on third- or fourth-down situations. He then tossed a strike to Croom for a 9-yard gain on third-and-four in overtime.

Combine his looking like he was turning the corner with the other reasons listed, he figures to have the inside track on getting his job back.

Riley Blevins' top 5

Any quarterback, Mack Crowder, Jason Croom, Brendan Downs, Marlin Lane

Josh Woodward's top 5

Jason Croom, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, Marlin Lane, Devrin Young

Get in on the VolChat conversation about this list with IT reporters and subscribers by clicking here.

Danny Parker is currently the Managing Editor, Recruiting Analyst and Staff Photographer for InsideTennessee.com. He was previously the sports editor at Shelbyville Times-Gazette. He joined the Scout team July 2011.
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