The sun is baking, the snowballs are melting and the patio at Calhoun’s drips with even more barbecue sauce spills than normal. All signs point to summer, the time when football inches closer to a reality yet seems the farthest away it’s ever been.
The newest crop of Vols are trickling onto campus to join the rest of the team and speculation abounds on message boards across the country. Summer is a time when you unrealistically analyze every aspect of your favorite team, down to the equipment manager and nutritionist. Every program is undefeated and has the pieces in place to win a championship. Every player is primed to have a breakout year with a couple of lucky bounces. Every coaching staff has made the proper adjustments to take their team to the next level. If you don’t believe these things, you’re either the worst guest at a party ever or a Purdue fan.
As we sift through these final months before the glorious moment when foot meets leather in September, InsideTennessee takes a look at some intriguing questions marks heading into the summer that will all turn into answers when fall concludes.
After breaking onto the scene in 2013 as an SEC Freshman All-American, Marquez North has been slotted to become a breakout star in the league. The rising junior turned in a frustrating 2014, hauling in 320 yards and four touchdowns after battling an unlucky streak of injuries that eventually shut down his season. He’s yet to reach his apex in the orange jersey, and this needs to be the year it happens. Tennessee’s receiving corps doesn’t lack for talent, and North is but one of a handful of gifted pass catchers who have the ability to provide Josh Dobbs a consistent target. But the Vols need a stud a la Josh Reynolds at Texas A&M or Pharoh Cooper at South Carolina, one who can be relied on in the clutch and defenses must focus on intently. North can absolutely be that guy if he stays healthy.
Hog Mollies pigging out?
The offensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball. This year, the Vols return seven guys who started at some point last year for a combined 64 starts to a unit that made obvious strides in the spring. The early additions of Jack Jones and Chance Hall add critical pieces of depth to the roster. There are position battles at almost every spot and Scout four-star tackle Drew Richmond will vie for serious playing time. The Vols gave up 43 sacks last season, good for the sixth worst mark in college football, and fans are expecting that number to drastically improve with fresh, highly-touted faces combined with the exponential growth of presumed starters like Kyler Kerbyson, Brett Kendrick, Jashon Robertson.
Third down for what?
The Vols finished No. 79 in the country and No. 11 in the SEC last season in third down conversion percentage. In 208 total attempts, the offense gained a first down only 81 times — a 38 percent success rate. Alvin Kamara joining Jalen Hurd in the backfield will surely give Tennessee an opportunity to bring that conversion rate up, but the Vols will have to put themselves in manageable third down situations by controlling the tempo. Then again, Georgia beat Tennessee last year after going 1-for-10 on third down, so what do we know?
This is the year Butch Jones and company have to turn in a signature win, which will both stoke the hype flames that have begun to flicker this summer and provide the team with tangible momentum heading into the back stretch of the schedule. The elusive one recently has been Florida, which would inject the Vols with an unbelievable amount of juice before the meat of SEC play begins. Another option here is Georgia, a team Tennessee gets at home without a proven quarterback or Todd Gurley. One of these games has to be won for this season to be a reasonable success. I’m sure most of Vol Nation would sacrifice a body limb to beat the Gators again, especially in The Swamp as they break in new head coach Jim McElwain, but a win over a talented UGA squad would be even more impressive. These are both entirely winnable games, and either one would go an enormous way toward building the bricks that will define the Vols’ season as we head to September.