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July 4, 2014

Camp Countdown: 28 things for 28 days

There seemingly are countdowns atop countdowns for football season, especially in the Southeastern Conference and arguably more so at the University of Tennessee, where the nationally acclaimed recruiting efforts of Butch Jones & Co. generate a future hope that's been rather missing.

In many ways, the countdown to the new season is peeling away days in a calendar crusade dating to last November.

This, however, might be the first countdown to training camp. With that in mind, we give you 28 things about the coming 2014 season here 28 days from the onset of the Vols' second-ever Jones-led pre-season camp that opens Friday, Aug. 1.

0: The number of times Tennessee has played at a Big 12 Conference member's home stadium. The Vols' first foray onto a Big 12 campus comes Week 3 in Norman, Okla., against the consensus pre-season top-10 Sooners. Additionally, UT has zero previous contests against its season-opening foe: the Utah State Aggies. And Jones will lead the Vols against four teams he's never faced as a head coach: Utah State, Arkansas State, Chattanooga and Ole Miss.

1: Might as well continue the already surging hype. One is the jersey number that true freshman and in-state five-star signee Jalen Hurd will don for the Vols in the fall. Moreover, Hurd begins his Tennessee career as the program's top running back signee in more than a decade. The Vols' last signee at the running back position with as much national acclaim was Gerald Riggs Jr. in 2002, when Riggs was ranked Rivals.com's No. 2 back nationally and No. 12 overall player. Despite missing his senior season at Beech High School with a shoulder injury, Hurd still ranked fifth nationally at the running back position and 33rd overall in Rivals' final 2014 class.

2: Tennessee is carrying its same head coach (Jones), offensive coordinator (Mike Bajakian) and defensive coordinator (John Jancek) for the second consecutive season. Might sound like a throwaway stat, but not for this program: the Vols have had back-to-back seasons with the same top three coaches in the football program just twice in the past decade: the '06-'07 seasons and '10-'11 campaigns.

3: Specialists the Vols are replacing this season; their entire unit from a year ago. Graduated are do-everything kicker Michael Palardy, holder Tyler Drummer and long-snapper J.R. Carr. Additionally, Palardy handled all three phases of the kicking game last season: punting, place-kicking and kickoffs.

9: Number of foes on the Vols' 2014 slate who went bowling in 2013, including their first four opponents of the coming season and five of their final six. Only Florida, Chattanooga and Kentucky did not reach a bowl or their respective postseason play.

4: Teams on the Vols' upcoming schedule that finished the 2013 season ranked in the top 10 of the final Associated Press Poll. UT has road games this fall against South Carolina (4th) and Oklahoma (6th) while it hosts Missouri (5th) and Alabama (7th).

5: Projected starters returning, on each side of the ball, for Tennessee in the coming year. Of course, while many of those spots appear likely to hold up on the defensive side of the ball, returning offensive starters Brendan Downs (TE), Pig Howard (WR) and Jason Croom face intense competition to retain their posts, as will safety LaDarrell McNeil on the other side of the ball.

6: The number of 'legacy' Vols in Tennessee's ballyhooed 2014 signing class. Dillon Bates, Evan Berry, Elliott Berry, Neiko Creamer and Todd Kelly Jr. are all donning the same Tennessee football uniform in the footsteps of their fathers. Vic Wharton is related to former All-SEC Vols basketball player Brandon Wharton.

7: The Vols' opener against the visiting Utah State Aggies marks the program's seventh all-time game on a Sunday. Tennessee is 3-2-1 in its previous six Sunday contests; the most recent was the Vols' season-opener 10 years ago, when they hammered UNLV 42-17 en route to an SEC Championship game appearance that season.

8: UT's placement on the NCAA's all-time football wins list. Tennessee notched its 800th win last season in Jones' debut and now enters this campaign with 804. It's the second-most wins all-time for any SEC program, some 38 ahead of Georgia.

9: Number of opponents on the Vols' 2014 slate who went bowling in 2013, including their first four opponents of the coming season and five of their final six. Only Florida, Chattanooga and Kentucky did not reach a bowl or their respective postseason play.

10: They big - Tennessee's physical size at receiver could be a match-up problem for defenses. Of the Vols' 12 scholarship receivers, 10 are 5-foot-11 or taller. Tennessee's top four receivers coming out of spring, Marquez North, Josh Malone, Von Pearson and Jason Croom, go 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 and 6-5, respectively. Tennessee also signed 10 in-state players in its '14 recruiting class, one of the program's largest in-state hauls in a decade.

11: Career touchdown passes for Justin Worley heading into his senior season, a number that stands to grow considerably as the Vols are scheduled to return 11 of their top 12 pass-catchers from a year ago and also brought in one of the nation's top recruiting hauls at the wide receiver position with the signings of Josh Malone, Von Pearson and Vic Wharton.

12: Games guard Marcus Jackson appeared in during both the 2011 and '12 seasons before voluntarily redshirting last season to help return as an anchor of the Vols' O-line in 2014. Despite sitting out last season, the Vero Beach, Fla., native and former Freshman All-America selection is Tennessee's most experienced offensive lineman.

13: Quite simply the magic number for Tennessee in 2014: The Vols must get to a 13th game and a bowl appearance for the first time since 2010. Tennessee never has had five consecutive losing seasons in its program history; the Vols' only other streak of four-straight losing campaigns came from 1903-06.

14: Midterm enrollees in the Vols' 2014 signing class, Jones' first full haul at Tennessee, who arrived on campus in January. The group will have had eight months on campus when Tennessee opens against Utah State, and several of the players exited spring drills first or second on the depth chart, including tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm, wideouts Josh Malone and Von Pearson; right tackle Coleman Thomas; tailback Jalen Hurd; defensive end Jakob Johnson and defensive tackle Owen Williams, as well as fellow tackle Dimarya Mixon and offensive tackle Dontavius Blair.

15: True freshman Vols who made their debuts during the 2013 season, the third-highest number in the Football Bowls Subdivision. Five of those players --- Devaun Swafford, Joshua Dobbs, Marquez North, Cam Sutton and Josh Smith --- started at least one game apiece. Fifteen also is the number of starts Tennessee returns at the quarterback position: likely starter Justin Worley, entering his senior season, has 10 career starts; Dobbs notched four last year following Worley's injury and redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman owns one career start.

16: After his first career 100-yard receiving effort came in the Vols' stunning upset of South Carolina last season, then-freshman wideout Marquez North showed he was hitting stride with a combined 16 catches in his team's next three games against top-10 opponents. Now North enters the '14 season as the Alpha male, assuming more of a leadership role throughout spring and summer workouts, for an exponentially more talented receivers corps that should free up North for even more opportunities in his sophomore campaign.

17: Touchdowns returning for the Vols at the running back and wide receiver positions combined. Marlin Lane is the top returning scorer on the ground, with four trips into the end zone last season. Alton 'Pig' Howard, who did not participate in spring practice but has been working this summer to reposition himself to be a full team member in the fall, led UT with three receiving scores a year ago.

18: Hit the quarterback - Jakob Johnson and Curt Maggitt have been moved to defensive end. Why? To get to the quarterback. With a sophomore cornerback (Cam Sutton) and likely a true freshman cornerback (Emmanuel Moseley) as projected starters, pressuring the quarterback is a must. The defense recorded just 18 sacks last season; 12 of those came from seniors and one from a departed cornerback, leaving a Vols' defense returning just five sacks from a year ago. Additionally, 18 is the number of career double-digit tackling performances for senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who's averaged more than 100 tackles in each of his three previous seasons.

19: Combined wins last season for Oklahoma and Georgia, the Vols' first two road games --- back-to-back affairs separated only by an open date --- in September.

20: Combined games appeared in last season for UT offensive linemen Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson. The duo closed spring camp as two projected starters for the Vols' retooled offensive front, with Crowder at center and Kerbyson right guard. Kerbyson nabbed the Harvey Robinson Award in spring camp as one of the Vols' most improved offensive players. That number also reflects the career games played for defensive end Curt Maggitt, a member of the Vols' player-staff council and projected captain who's widely seen as a critical component for continued defensive improvement for UT this season. Maggitt hasn't played since tearing his ACL in November 2012 in the Vols' home loss to Missouri. Also, 20 is the number of projected starters returning for Sugar Bowl-champion Oklahoma, a popular BCS Playoff contender in 2014.

And finally, it's been 20 years since Tennessee had a scheduled SEC opener against an opponent other than Florida; it was Georgia on the road in 1994 and it's Georgia again 'Between the Hedges' in '14.

21: Consecutive starts for senior cornerback Justin Coleman, who moved into the nickelback position in spring camp and continued to show a greater physical presence to defend interior receivers. Coleman's starting streak began Sept. 22, 2012, when he reclaimed his cornerback spot in a win against Akron.

22: Before he takes another crack at his home-state school on Nov. 1, 2014, Steve Spurrier owns a 14-8 record against the Vols as a head coach coming into this season. However, Spurrier lost in his first meeting to Jones --- a game that denied South Carolina a spot in the SEC Championship game and potentially the BCS Championship.

23: Career starts entering this season for safety Brian Randolph, the football-smart quarterback of the Vols' defense. Randolph is the anchor in a unit that returns almost entirely intact from a year ago and also expects to have several potential impact players from a signing class that including multiple four-star prospects in the defensive back-end, including Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden, Evan Berry and Cortez McDowell. Tennessee also returns 23 letterwinners on its offensive side of the ball.

24: Offensive touchdowns scored last season by five-star wideout Josh Malone before he enrolled at Tennessee in January. The Mr. Football winner, U.S. Army All-America selection notched 19 receiving touchdowns and five on the ground. Malone's end zone visits, however, hardly ended there. The sublime 6-foot-3 playmaker also had two kickoff returns for touchdowns and five pick-six interceptions in amassing 31 total scores.

25: Turnovers forced by Tennessee during the '13 season in Jancek's first season running the defense, nearly a 40 percent increase from the '12 season (18) and only the third time since 2005 the Vols generated at least 25 turnovers. In their five wins, the Vols amassed 15 turnovers; their seven losses saw them muster just a total of 13 takeaways. They were outscored by 76 points combined in the three games they failed to force any turnovers.

26: Tennessee was outscored by 26 points total, 83-57, in the third quarters of games last year --- a trend Jones has discussed as one the Vols must rectify in their hopes to progress toward the postseason in 2014. In his debut start a year ago, subbing in for the injured Worley, Dobbs completed 26 passes in a blowout loss at Missouri --- the Vols' most completions in a single game all year. Interestingly, UT completed fewer than 20 passes in four of its five wins last season.

27: Tennessee owns 27 wins in its last 30 games against Vanderbilt, with the 'Dores' only victories coming in 2005-12-13. And despite five different coaches in the past five years, Arkansas State --- the Vols' Week 2 opponent at noon inside Neyland Stadium on SEC TV --- has combined for 27 wins in its past three years.

28: Wins by Tennessee against Kentucky in the past 30 years; only Derek Dooley and Johnny Majors lost to the Wildcats since 1984. The Vols host the Wildcats much earlier in the season this year --- Nov. 15 --- in what is certain to be a pivotal stretch for Tennessee's bowl hopes. The Vols enter this season with just 28 wins in their past five years combined.

OK, so that technically was a 29-list countdown, since it went from zero to 28. Here's hoping it's a handy primer as VolQuest.com kicks full-gear into its coverage for the 2014 season. Position breakdowns, opponent previews, SEC Media Days coverage and more all are on tap in the coming weeks before VolQuest.com provides blanket coverage from the moment the 2014 pre-season camp begins until the 2014 season concludes --- perhaps somewhere in a bowl game.

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