For the first four days this week, leading into Thursday's pre-camp press conference inside Neyland Stadium, we at VolQuest.com are going to tackle the most pressing questions Tennessee's football team faces as it seeks to further solidify its Year Two foundation under coach Butch Jones.
We'll bring you this content each day at lunch, and we're opening up with what we're all identifying as our respective top objectives for the Vols during the course of this three-week camp, which officially begins under the lights Friday night on Haslam Field.
JOHN'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: JUSTIN WORLEY
I was incredibly tempted to pick Marlin Lane here, and I also think Curt Maggitt or Brian Randolph would be solid selections. But I'm taking the Vols' senior signal-caller Worley.
Why? Multiple reasons. Worley long has been a leader when there was little to no hope of playing time; he was peaking a year ago as the Vols were peaking on the field before his thumb injury.
Moreover, since the injury, Worley has responded in the best possible way. The Rock Hill, S.C., native and former Gatorade National Player of the Year showed progressive improvement throughout spring camp; additionally he displayed greater strength and comfort as he continued to get back to form following the season-ending hand surgery.
Now, all Worley has done has been go to California to work with noted QB guru George Whitfield while also drawing praise from multiple people who witnessed Worley's work in the Manning Passing Academy earlier this month.
Lastly, and as critical a component as all that Worley has done to position himself for success, Tennessee has vastly retooled its offensive weapons and by Butch Jones' own admission no longer needs its quarterback to play "perfect football." That's what having potential game-breakers like Josh Malone, Marquez North, Von Pearson, Jalen Hurd and others can do for an offense; having a veteran, level-headed quarterback itching to make the most of his final campaign should be the recipe for a vastly improved, far more entertaining and potent offense.
BRENT'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: TREVARRIS SAULSBERRY
I almost played in the gray area or used a loophole to pick a freshman who came in at mid-term, but I will answer the question the way it was intended and select a true returning player and my pick is defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry. The redshirt junior is a forgotten man thanks to injury, but before that injury last year Saulsberry was playing well. The Florida native had five tackles in the first two games, a half-sack and two quarterback hurries in the first two games. At 6-4, Saulsberry has the height coaches want on the defensive line and he has the athleticism that defensive line coach Steve Stripling has been looking for since his arrival. There's no doubt that the true freshmen are going to have to help on the defensive front. There's also no doubt that a breakout from Saulsberry would be a huge shot in the arm to the defensive interior.
PAUL'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: JALEN REEVES-MAYBIN
When I look at Tennessee roster and think of breakout player I turn straight to linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker had a very good first season at Tennessee on special teams, including his blocked punt against Georgia.
We also saw that he was a valuable special teams player, leading the team in tackles, and could make plays in the open field. That experience should serve him well this fall when he lines up at linebacker next to A.J. Johnson.
During the spring, Reeves-Maybin showed he had the ability to make plays in coverage for the Vols, making several interceptions in scrimmage situations. He's also put on more weight this offseason as he tries to grow into a linebacker.
Even though he was known for his offensive ability in high school, Reeves-Maybin has always been a defensive talent. From snagging three interceptions in a 7-on-7 game, to recording 20 tackles in his final high school game against Beech High School and Jalen Hurd, Reeves-Maybinn has shown he has a nose for the ball.
That's why I think with the added weight he's ready to step up and make some plays for this Tennessee defense this fall and why he's my breakout returning player.
ROB'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: CURT MAGGITT
Is it really going out on a limb to pick Curt Maggitt as the mostly likely returning player to really break out this fall? Not really, not since it's an opinion seemingly shared by the vast majority of the Vols' fanbase.
Maggitt has been a big ball of tantalizing potential since the moment he stepped on campus and was declared by then linebackers' coach Lance Thompson as being the most naturally gifted pass rusher he'd ever laid eyes on at that age. That put more than a little undue pressure on the freshman, and four years later, the take seems more than a little hyperbolic.
However, it's impossible to say how good Maggitt is or can be because he's battled so many injuries. No one knows exactly what he's capable of when fully healthy, probably not even himself. The last time he was full speed for an extended stretch was as a true freshman in 2011 when he started eight games and finished third on the team with 56 tackles.
He started off 2012 in excellent fashion, making the biggest play of his career with a sack and strip of NC State quarterback Mike Glennon in the end zone during the season opener that resulted in a safety. That play in the Georgia Dome has turned into the indisputable highlight of Maggitt's career, unfortunately, because of his injury luck, it's also been one of his last highlights.
He limped through the next eight games in 2012 after the NC State win on a nagging turf toe injury that never went away. It robbed him his explosion and made him a game-to-game question mark the remainder of the year. Finally disaster struck when he tore his ACL in the ninth game against Missouri.
That injury also ended up costing Maggitt all of 2013 as well when he decided to take a redshirt.
So here he is, in his fourth year in the program and still something of a mystery. Everyone still seems to believe he's got the talent and make-up to be an impact player as a pass rusher, which is something this team desperately needs. But at the same time, as a redshirt junior with 2.5 career sacks to his credit, he's still got much to prove.
The Vols' on-field problems have been numerous in the recent past but none stands out as consistently as an anemic pass rush. In a day and age where disrupting an opposing offense's timing is pivotal, Tennessee has been able to do very little to make opponent's uncomfortable by pressuring the quarterback, ranking dead last in the SEC in sacks a year ago.
Fans are excited--and rightly so--about an incoming class well-stocked with defensive line talent. History strongly suggests though, that in this league, that young talent is going to need some seasoning before being ready to make an impact.
If the Vols are going to fix the considerable problems that have plagued the pass rush, a healthy Maggitt living up to his potential is the surest bet to make it happen. If he can can catch a break and finally stay healthy, the guess here is that he'll make the kind of impact fans have been waiting to see.
AUSTIN'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: CAM SUTTON
This is hard because I feel like there will be a lot of young guys that play major roles as the year goes along. I'll take Cam Sutton because I believe the added athleticism and depth in the secondary will only help the sophomore defensive back. Sutton played more mature last season than his true freshman tag would have indicated. He and Brian Randolph will be the old heads in the back half of John Jancek's defense and they'll need to be leaders.
Butch Jones stressed a need for more team speed and a big part of that improvement needed to come in the secondary where the Vols have struggled the last two seasons. Sutton showcased a bright future last season with his solid play. He has a long frame and that allows him to play taller and get to the ball easier when it's at it's highest point. The only thing that could hurt Sutton would be the lack of experience on the Tennessee defensive line. If the Vols can get to the quarterback at all then I think Sutton has a real chance to improve on his interception total and he could very well play a key role in allowing others to have more opportunities to make big plays this fall.
GRANT'S BREAKOUT RETURNING VOL: MARQUEZ NORTH
North deserves all the hype he gets. At 6-foot-4, 221 pounds, the sophomore is a physical freak with all the tools a wide receiver needs and a ton of football in front of him. But for all the talk, the former Rivals four-star prospect had just one touchdown catch as a true freshman in 2013 --- the diving, jaw-dropper in the south end zone against Georgia --- to go with his 38 catches (second on the team) and 496 receiving yards (a team high).
The explanation for catching just one touchdown pass isn't all that complicated. North and slot-man Pig Howard were all Tennessee had to trot out at wide receiver, at least in terms of production (Howard had 44 catches for 388 yards and three touchdowns) last year. Obviously, attention was rarely diverted from North.
The explanation for why North could be headed for a breakout season isn't all that complicated, either. Tennessee revamped its wide receiver corps like no other position between 2013 and 2014. The Vols added Rivals five-star Josh Malone, who led all receivers with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns in the Orange & White Game, and JUCO transfer Von Pearson, who was a human highlight reel during spring camp. Split those two added options wide with North and Howard, or Jason Croom or whomever, and opposing defenses could be stuck picking their poison.
Add to all that two quarterbacks --- Justin Worley and Joshua Dobbs --- who are both a year older after both getting their share of snaps in 2013. And North produced with both quarterbacks under center. He had four catches from Worley for 47 yards and the touchdown against Georgia and the 102-yard outburst in the upset of South Carolina. With Dobbs under center he had 87 receiving yards at Alabama, 68 at Missouri (with a season-high seven receptions) and 58 against Auburn. North accounted for 315 of his 496 receiving yards on the season in four of Tennessee's last five games --- from South Carolina to Auburn --- before turning his ankle after just one catch for 2 yards against Vanderbilt. For North, and Tennessee's added talent at wide receiver, picking up where he left off down the stretch in 2013 could make for a huge 2014.