We are in the “Tweener’s Days”, those days between the Big Orange “All Sports Picnic” in Nashville and the start of Fall Practice. This is a special year. For the first time in my memory EVERY SINGLE Football Player signed for Fall 2014 is on campus and working out before Fall practice starts. WOW!
I figured that this would be a great time to talk about the “Forgotten Players”. Fans have long memories for some things and very short memories for other things. It seems that every year fans forget about the Non-Starters who are coming back for another year of play. They remember the Starters and all the good things they have done and every miscue that they have had. They also know all of the incoming Freshmen and JUCO’s and all they have done. The memory gap is the players that were not regulars or were Redshirts as Freshmen.
Coaches in every sport will tell you that the greatest growth in players skill and understanding of the game comes after year one. There are big jumps for kids from high school to college just as the jump from college to the pros is a huge jump. I think the high school to college jump is the most significant due to two factors. First, most the kids are still growing and have not come close to physical maturity yet; and secondly, for the first time most of them are having to compete on a field against other players that all have as much or more physical skill and strength as they have. The third factor for the adjustment is that many of them are coming into new positions and systems of play that are completely different than their high school systems.
The great coaches are great gardeners of players. Just like plants not all players need the same thing to produce their best results. Excellence in players comes from the combination of skill with knowledge of how to play their position. When you look at the NFL draft you will see that most of the players drafted did not start four years. When you look at the NFL Pro Bowl you have players that were not first round picks or starters from day one. Some were not even all conference on their college teams. The lesson is that players develop at different speeds.
I spent a rainy day looking at the Volunteer Media Guide for this season. It did not surprise me that there were players on the team that I would label as this year’s “Forgotten Players.” These are kids with talent that needed time to grow, time to learn, and time to mature in order to reach their full potential. During this year some will show that they are ready to be “Prime Time Players”, some will not, but we need to keep an eye on them to see if they bloom. I think that the growth of this Volunteer team will be measured by the improvement in depth due to both the addition of new players and perhaps more significantly by the growth of these players. Why are these players potentially significant for their contributions? First they have been with these coaches since Butch has been here. They should have learned the systems. They have been in the physical development programs 2 plus years, and they should be more physically capable of matching up with our opponents.
First, let’s look at the skill positions: WR – Drae Bowles RS Soph (1 ltr/ Special Teams); Jason Croom Soph ( 1 ltr/ 7 starts); Ryan Jenkins RS Freshman (Injured); Jonathon Johnson Junior (JUCO Slot Back/ some injuries); Josh Smith Soph (1 ltr/ 4 starts). There is talent and speed in this group. They have to step up to compete with the incoming Freshmen and JUCO players. The big issue will be consistency. Run good routes, catch the ball, and BLOCK for the running game. Butch wants the WR’s to contribute to the long run game with downfield blocking. TE – A.J. (injuries) and Woody (physicality) these guys will have to step up to get on the field and get playing time.
Second, how about looking at the OL positions: Brett Kindrick RS Freshman; Austin Sanders RS Freshman. Last year these kids were buried behind a mature OL that has every starter in an NFL camp. There are some quality incomers and some DL players moving to the OL. This year they are in the deep end of the pool. The next class will include even more talent. How will they step up?
Third, last year the DL was not productive. They were not terrible against the run but they did not put pressure on a single QB and the unit sack total was terrible. The Seniors were missing in action. So let’s look at the DL: Corey Vereen Soph (Played in 9 games); LaTroy Thomas RS Soph (Played in 6 games); Danny O’Brian RS Soph (Played in 12 games); Kendal Vickers RS Freshman; Trevarris Saulsberry RS Junior (2 ltr/ played in 4 games/ injured). This is a mixed group. Vereen reminded me of Horace Morris, a very physical speedy guy who loved to rush the passer and would not see the RB with the ball running past him. He has to learn discipline and contain the run. Saulsberry if he is healthy could be the guy who finally reaches his potential and gets a shot at the next level. O’Brian has the most playing experience and a mean streak. Will he step up and be more consistent, and can he learn to generate some pass rush from the inside? Coach Mathews said last week that if he does not improve this year, that he would be a prime candidate for the OL next year. This could be the area that we need the most improvement in game to game if the Volunteers are to have a better season record in 2014.
Fourth, the Safeties and CB’s: LaDarrell McNeil Safety Junior (2 ltr/ All SEC Freshman); Riyard Jones CB SR (JUCO Injured most of the year). The secondary was in a hurt last year. Very few big plays and when the DL was not getting pressure (which was most of the time) they gave up big plays in close games. Both of these guys have shown potential and have not realized that potential. This is the single area that will get the most pressure from new players due to the lack of depth and talent (SAY SPEED) in the returning players. McNeil was victimized by QB’s bad pursuit angles and poor tackling. Jones was hurt and could not practice and play enough to pick up the game at the SEC level. These guys have to step up this Fall or they will ride the bench. One thing that is certain this year, “THE DEFENSIVE SECONDARY WILL SEE A LOT MORE OFFENSIVE SPEED AND TALENT ON THE PRACTICE FIELD.” This will help them in games. It is an old coaching saying that to play against talent you have to prepare against talent.