Volunteer progress report

Visit InsideTennessee often for the most in-depth and enlightening coverage of Vol football. Check out this position-by-position analysis of the team's progress from Game 1 through Game 9:

As Tennessee fans learned during the Derek Dooley years, some football teams get worse as a season progresses. Some get marginally better and a few get significantly better. Very few stay the same from Game 1 to Game 12.

With nine regular-season outings in the books and an open date providing time for reflection, you may be wondering: How do the 2014 Vols compare to where they were when the season opened on August 31?

What follows is a position-by-position answer to that question, with each area rated +2 (significantly better), +1 (marginally better), 0 (about the same), -1 (marginally worse) or -2 (significantly worse):

QUARTERBACK: Tennessee opened the season with a healthy but relatively immobile senior (Justin Worley) behind center. He played well in defeats of Utah State and Arkansas State but threw a costly pick six in a Game 3 loss to Oklahoma. He fired three touchdown passes in Game 4 and probably would’ve led Tennessee to an upset victory at Georgia if he hadn’t missed three second-half series with numbness in his throwing elbow. Worley sandwiched poor outings against Florida (two interceptions) and Ole Miss (three interceptions) around a strong effort against Chattanooga. A shoulder injury suffered in the fourth quarter of the Ole Miss game forced a switch to sophomore Joshua Dobbs, a less gifted passer but a dramatically better runner. Dobbs’ mobility has resurrected an offense that did not muster a touchdown versus Florida or Ole Miss. He generated two touchdowns and two field goals in a Game 8 loss to Alabama, then produced six touchdowns and a field goal in Saturday’s 45-42 overtime win at South Carolina. Whereas Worley was sacked 30 times in the first seven games, Dobbs has been sacked just once in the past two games. Clearly, Dobbs’ mobility has cured the Vols’ pass-protection woes and provided a spark at the QB position that was missing earlier. RATING: +2

RUNNING BACK: Although senior Marlin Lane started the first four games, Tennessee’s ground game basically begins and ends with freshman Jalen Hurd. His rushing totals zoomed from 29 yards to 83 to 97 to 119 in Games 1-4 but he mustered just 39 yards in a Game 5 start against Florida. Slowed by an ankle injury, he carried twice for seven yards against Chattanooga and 13 times for 40 yards at Ole Miss. With his ankle healed, Hurd showed flashes of brilliance with 59 rushing yards in Game 8 against Alabama and 125 in Game 9 at South Carolina. He also is proving to be a capable receiving threat, catching six passes versus the Tide and a team-high seven against the Gamecocks. Lane has been reasonably effective as a backup but hurt his ankle at South Carolina. Hurd has made dramatic strides but Tennessee desperately needs freshman Derrell Scott to provide some depth, especially if Lane's ankle proves to be an ongoing problem. RATING: +2

WIDE RECEIVER: Marquez North has seen injuries level off his production a bit after a promising freshman season. JUCO transfer Von Pearson, also slowed by injuries, hasn’t made the anticipated impact to date. Josh Smith played just three games before suffering an ankle injury that may prove season-ending and Jason Croom still teases with his size (6-feet-5, 243 pounds) but disappoints with his production. Freshman Josh Malone has been solid, as has Johnathon Johnson. Fortunately for the Vols, Alton Howard has elevated his game and is playing as well as anyone on the team these days. His performance versus South Carolina (5 catches, 109 yards) was the difference between winning and losing. “Pig” seems to be the only member of an injury-plagued wideout corps who has elevated his game since September, however. RATING: 0

OFFENSIVE LINE: After allowing 30 sacks in Games 1-7, the big uglies allowed just two in Game 8 against Alabama and none in Game 9 against South Carolina. In addition, Tennessee ran the ball much better against the Tide and the Gamecocks than it had earlier. Does a lot of the credit go to Josh Dobbs’ mobility? Absolutely. Still, the blockers have made progress, especially since fifth-year senior Jacob Gilliam has returned to action following a Game 1 ACL tear. Redshirt freshman Brett Kendrick seems to have solidified the left tackle spot and Gilliam has provided stability on the right side. Given what a disaster the O-line was in September, this grade is a no-brainer. RATING: +2

TIGHT END: Much as freshman Jalen Hurd has become the whole show at running back, freshman Ethan Wolf has emerged as the cornerstone at tight end. After catching eight balls for 46 yards in Games 1 and 2 combined, he missed Game 3 due to injury, then bounced back to post five receptions for 68 yards in Game 4 at Georgia. He caught just one ball each in Games 5, 6, 7 and 8, then reeled in a couple in Game 9 at South Carolina. Fellow freshman Daniel Helm and junior Alex Ellis have begun showing up lately, with Ellis posting a 25-yard catch against Bama and a 24-yard grab versus South Carolina the past two weekends. The improvement at this position hasn’t been dramatic but it has been steady. RATING: +1

DEFENSIVE LINE: Freshman end Derek Barnett is evolving into a superstar right before our eyes. Showing a knack for playing his best in big games, he recorded five tackles in Game 3 at Oklahoma, eight in Game 4 at Georgia, six in Game 5 against Florida, 10 in Game 7 against Ole Miss, six in Game 8 against Bama and five in Game 9 at South Carolina. He has been a one-man pass rush the past three games, sandwiching three sacks each against Ole Miss and Carolina around a 1.5-sack game versus the Tide. Corey Vereen and Curt Maggitt have stepped up their games on the other flank, so Tennessee’s end play has steadily improved. Because of injuries to backups Trevarris Saulsberry and Owen Williams, however, starting tackles Jordan Williams and Danny O’Brien are playing way too many snaps. Their fatigue was evident against Bama (183 rushing yards) and South Carolina (248). Saulsberry and Owen Williams need to get rested and healthy during this open date. RATING: 0

LINEBACKER: A.J. Johnson has recorded double-digit tackles in five of the past seven games, including a 17-tackle performance in Game 4 at Georgia. That's an average day at the office for him, however. Sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin may be the team’s most pleasant surprise but his numbers have tailed off a bit since midseason. After recording 44 stops (8.8 per contest) and seven tackles for loss in the first five games, he has registered just 27 stops (6.5 per contest) and one TFL over the past four games. Johnson and Maybin desperately need this bye week to recharge their batteries for the home stretch because Tennessee’s defense has been shredded the past two games. RATING: -1

SECONDARY: It’s difficult to find a silver lining after Vol defensive backs were torched by Bama’s Amari Cooper (9 catches, 224 yards) and South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper (11 catches, 233 yards) the past two weeks. The two Coopers rank among the premier receivers in college football but you can’t let one guy beat you. Amari essentially did, and Pharoh came alarmingly close. An injury to Vol cornerback Michael Williams has forced freshman Emmanuel Moseley to play a beefier role than he was ready for. Still, the back line needs to get its act together in a big hurry if Tennessee is to go 4-0 in November. RATING: -2

SPECIAL TEAMS: Like the defensive backs, Tennessee’s kickers have struggled of late. Matt Darr recovered from a slow start in Games 1, 2 and 3 to punt brilliantly in Games 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8. Maybe he was due a poor outing but his performance against South Carolina was somewhat alarming, featuring a pooch kick that didn’t even get to the 20-yard line and an 18-yard shank that set up the Gamecocks near midfield. Kicker Aaron Medley made 12 of 15 field-goal tries before missing his first two at South Carolina in swirling winds. He made the game-winner in overtime, however, and stands 27 of 27 on PATs. Medley appears much more confident in November than he was in September, and Darr deserves the benefit of the doubt coming off a superior stretch of games in October. Tennessee’s kick and punt coverage units have been very good all fall. The kick returns have been adequate all season and the punt returns have been mediocre all season. RATING: +1

A.J. Johnson after Tuesday's practice

Butch Jones post-practice presser

Aaron Medley details game-winner

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