Tennessee’s football team is 3-3, and the Vols are 1-2 in the SEC. The lone bye week is in the rearview mirror. It’s time for six straight games that include five conference opponents.
With No. 8 Alabama waiting (and surging), the Vols need to continue to improve to ensure they build upon last season’s 6-6 regular season record. There aren’t many guaranteed wins left on the schedule.
Here is a countdown of the five players the Vols need to step up:
- Darrin Kirkland Jr., LB, Freshman
The ballyhooed freshman took longer than most thought to win the starting job. He finally surpassed walk-on Colton Jumper, who started the season. As a recruit, much was made of Kirkland’s physique and photographic memory. Kirkland has started three games, has 22 tackles, two sacks and two quarterback hurries. He has shown flashes, but the Vols need a more consistent presence from their middle linebacker.
- Corey Vereen, DE, Junior
Spring practice in 2013 was all about Corey Vereen. The incoming freshman was destined to be a star. That hasn’t happened. Vereen has just 15 tackles this season, 1 ½ tackles for a loss and five quarterback hurries. With senior Curt Maggitt (hip) out, the Vols need more from Vereen. Without Maggitt at left defensive end, teams have been able to pay more attention to the other end of the defensive line. Former freshman sensation Derek Barnett, now a sophomore with a reputation, has just 3 ½ tackles for a loss, including two sacks. There’s simply not enough pressure on the opposite side with Maggitt out. Barnett has become the focus. Vereen needs to even the playing field.
- Owen Williams, DT, Senior
Williams has started five games this season and played in all six. He has eight tackles with 1 ½ for a loss. That’s not enough. Tennessee needs more productivity out of the defensive tackle position, especially with freshman Shy Tuttle out for the season. The Vols essentially have four defensive tackles that have proven themselves. Williams is considered one. He needs to make more plays.
- Marquez North, WR, Junior.
North started 11 games as a freshman and caught 38 passes for 496 yards in 2013. Since then, North has only 34 catches for 358 yards in a season and a half. Injuries have been a legitimate factor, but the Vols need the explosion that North flashed as a freshman. There’s no better candidate for a jump-ball receiver when Tennessee needs one than North. That has been missing from this offense throughout the season.
- Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Freshman
Welcome to the unfair world of modern-era college football. There are plenty of reasons McKenzie shouldn’t be depended on yet: 1. He’s a freshman. 2. He didn’t play his senior season due to a transfer rule. 3. He didn’t enroll until summer school. 4. He was hurt for much of preseason camp. Too bad. The Vols don’t have the luxury of allowing McKenzie to mature. With Tuttle out, coach Butch Jones hasn’t refrained from challenging McKenzie. He did so during his press conference on Monday. Jones said McKenzie played his best college football in the second half against UGA. The Vols need much, much more of that.