published Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

Greeson: Major questions face youthful Vols

We can say this for sure: The Tennessee Volunteers' new depth chart will mean record-setting success for the folks who sell pregame programs.

Butch Jones and the rest of the coaches have offered up the depth chart for the season opener Sunday night against Utah State, and the mantra Team 118 may be as accurate describing the number of combined starts from the 22 first-teamers as its historical place.

The names have been bandied about from those who follow recruiting, and the names bring promise of the infusion of young talent.

That phrase -- young talent -- is troublingly engaging and engagingly troubling.

Tennessee has more playmakers and speed on each side of the ball this season, and that's a great thing. A vast array of those talented cats are a year or two removed from high school, and a massive chunk -- as many as 19 newcomers are on the Vols' first and second strings -- arrived in Knoxville within the last eight months or so.

So Jones and Co. will roll with 15 freshmen in primed positions to contribute. That leaves questions to be sure, but the questions that immediately surface as Tennessee awakes five days from its opener -- an opener, mind you, that is far from a gimme considering the Utah State Aggies won nine games last year and the best offensive player on the field Sunday night will be Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keaton.

Here are three questions and answers for the Tennessee Vols:

1. Is Justin Worley ready for prime time?

We believe so, and we believe the biggest game for the Vols in general and Worley in particular is the season opener against Utah State. If Worley can grab the job Sunday night and convince his coaches, his teammates, Johnny Vols Fans everywhere and most importantly himself that he is QB1, then the season has more potential promise than most would expect.

In fact, would it be so shocking for Worley to deliver on the promise that made him a record-setting high school player in South Carolina? He was better than we remember in games he finished a year ago, and while less-than-stellar highlights against Oregon and Alabama are hardly a condemnable offense, that seems to be the tape for which Worley is measured.

His weapons are improved -- especially a receiving corps that could be among the nation's best by year's end -- and his ability to grab control of the offense, the huddle and his own self-confidence sooner rather than later will speak volumes.

2. Will the new offensive line be ready for prime time?

We're not sure about ready for SEC prime time, but here's saying the O-line will be better than expected considering that all five starters are new.

Guard Marcus Jackson redshirted a season ago even though he likely would have contributed, because Jones and Co. knew of the dilemma ahead. We believe center Mack Crowder will overachieve because, well, he's an overachiever. Plus, the future of Dontavius Blair is on the horizon, and when the horizon features someone 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, those shadows can be impressively large.

3. Will the new defensive line be ready for prime time?

Here's the biggest problem on the UT team, and it comes at a position that demands a certain level of talent in the SEC. You don't have to have an LSU or Alabama defensive line filled with future Sunday players to have success in the SEC, but, man, you have to have a certain skill level, a baseline of expectation of which UT appears to fall short.

The Vols defense will have troubles all season stopping people because the front four will have difficulty controlling the line of scrimmage, which means the Vols will have to bring reinforcements up to stop the run or to get pressure on the quarterback. And that's hardly a recipe for success.

Tennessee's biggest defensive line starter is Danny O'Brien, the starting noseguard at 6-2, 286 pounds. O'Brien anchors a line that averages a touch more than 272 per man. That's a great number if Bear Bryant was still in the league, but in the modern SEC UT will be outmuscled by almost 30 pounds per man in most league games.

The future is bright, of course, with almost as many true freshmen (five, including specialists) as seniors (six) listed among the starters on offense, defense and special teams.

But the future of this morning is the promise of another fall. The future this morning is five days away.

And the young talent in Knoxville will have to be asked to carry a monster load.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com and follow him on Twitter at @jgreesontfp. Listen to him and David Paschall on "Press Row" on 105.1 FM weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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