ESPN's Jesse Palmer: 2015 'perfect storm' for Vols
KNOXVILLE – Jesse Palmer, having completed his first year as a lead analyst for ESPN, saw a lot of SEC football over the last several months.
One of the conclusions he reached? The future is bright in Knoxville.
The Tennessean's Matt Slovin spoke to Palmer about the direction in which the Vols' program is headed.
How did you enjoy working with Brent Musberger this season?
It was amazing. He's obviously a legendary figure and a guy that I was really familiar with at the start of the year. He's one of these people that, even if you don't know what he looks like, if you hear his voice you know who he is. Obviously, he covered me when I played, and since I've been working at ESPN, I've been watching him on Saturday nights on the primetime game.
Getting an opportunity to work with a legend was unbelievable. We had so much fun this year. It was great being back in the SEC where I played (Florida) and going back to a lot of familiar environments. The fact that I had a chance to work with him made everything that much more special.
No, I wasn't at all. I think you kind of have to dig a little further than just the record on the surface. He's generated so much excitement and energy around a program that was lacking all of that. Tennessee was so far removed from the teams that I played against in the late '90s when they were competing for and winning SEC and national championships.
I think Butch Jones has brought back so many positive vibes. He's done an unbelievable job recruiting. I think that's already started to demonstrate itself on the field with the young, budding stars. They were without a doubt more competitive in the SEC in his second year. There were a couple games that they lost that easily could've gone the other way. And I think the fact that they're in a bowl game was critical for him and this young team to get the extra 15 practices moving toward next year.
I really think Tennessee could be that team in the SEC, especially in the SEC East, that really takes the biggest steps next season. I think they're capable of doing that.
Are the Vols ready to contend for a division title in 2015?
Yeah, I think they are. It's kind of the perfect storm. Everything aligns really well for Tennessee next season. When you look around that division, Florida has a new coaching staff, Georgia's going to have a new quarterback, South Carolina's going to have a new quarterback. There's really an opportunity for Tennessee and Kentucky — I think both of those teams have an opportunity to make a big jump.
A big part for Tennessee is obviously they played a lot of freshmen the last two years. A lot of those guys having grown up gives them a leg up next season. I think they're settled in on a quarterback. They've found a guy in Joshua Dobbs that really gives them an opportunity. The offense looked completely different when he took over late this season. If he's able to stay healthy next year — with the receiving corps they have, everybody on the offensive line coming back, a young talent in Jalen Hurd, I think they'll continue to play phenomenal defense — I think next year could really be a special year.
How can this team overcome all of the injuries at wide receiver in the TaxSlayer Bowl?
It's definitely hard to overcome that. You can try and scheme things. You can try and be physical and run the football. I'd expect to see a lot of quarterback runs to try and make up for that. But it's hard to disguise when you have a lack of explosive runs. Josh Smith and Von Pearson and all these guys throughout the year that have kind of been banged up — it's hard to replace talent like that, especially when what makes Tennessee so dangerous is that not only do they have athletic guys, but they're so big. You have so much size on the perimeter of the field and when you lose that, it's tough to make up for it. But if this is a team that's able to stay healthy next year, this has a chance to be one of the best receiving groups not only in the SEC, but in the country.
Can you overstate how important the bowl practices are for development?
It's huge I think, especially for young players. I think back to myself when I was at Florida. I was a true freshman playing a little bit my first year. My whole true freshman year, I felt like I was just swimming upstream and I was just trying to catch up and understand what we were doing. It wasn't until our bowl practices that I really feel like I kind of got it and a light went on. I really believe that players make their biggest improvement, not just physically but mentally in football in college, between their freshman and sophomore years. I think having those 15 extra practices really goes a long way. Not necessarily for guys like Jalen Hurd and Derek Barnett and true freshmen that have had a lot of success, but backup players. Guys that are normally just special teams contributors. The light goes on for them.
It's really an opportunity to figure it out, get a chance to play in the bowl game, have some success and then set the tone for 2015. A good showing in this game can help recruiting, but a win in a game like this for Tennessee creates positive momentum and energy heading into the offseason. It sparks and kicks everything off for next year.
What can an offseason do for a player like (Brentwood Academy product) Derek Barnett?
The boy wonder — so often this year he was working off pure talent. From a fundamental standpoint — hand placement, footwork, not even the physical stuff, just mechanics I think can get a lot better. When that happens with the leverage he plays with and the strength he has and the natural quickness, the speed he has — he's one of these guys that could potentially become an unblockable guy. He's already 6-foot-3, 270. When he gets stronger and learns to become fundamentally better, this guy's going to be an absolute terror.
The secret's out. Next year, every offense that plays against Tennessee is going to have a plan in place specifically for No. 9 with respect to how to block him because he's going to be a problem. He's a game-plan wrecker. I would definitely expect to see that next year.
How do you see Tennessee handling the assignment of Outland Trophy winner Brandon Scherff?
I think oftentimes you play your scheme. I think Derek Barnett's the best Tennessee has and therefore he'll stay on the left side. He'll go play to the blindside of the quarterback, where he should be.
This is a great challenge for Barnett and it's also a great challenge for Scherff. This isn't a patty-cake matchup for him. This is a freshman All-American that's going to be a big-time player. For a guy that's trying to be a first-round pick and an early first-round pick, he needs to grade out well and he needs to finish the season well.
That is such a great matchup to watch and probably the best one-on-one matchup in that game. The boy wonder is going to be over there. That's where he's going to line up snap in, snap out. He's got a shot, not just to stalemate that all game, he's got a shot to win some of those matchups and make plays in the backfield. He's naturally that gifted and that talented.
Are bowl trips more business or pleasure?
It's a mix and match. I think a bowl game is a reward for players, coaches, fans and their families. It's usually earlier in the week that I think players are allowed to stay out a little bit later. They don't have the same curfew as they do when you approach game time.
We played the Citrus Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Citrus Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. It didn't really matter which bowl we played in — the closer we got to game day, Steve Spurrier got more and more serious. As a team, we did a good job of viewing those games as business trips.
There are a lot of programs that treat it the other way. Like it's a vacation, just go have fun. It's your last football game for a lot of seniors — enjoy it. But there are a lot of coaches that don't view it that way. They realize the significance of the extra 15 practices and how important that is to building toward next year and how that cant be a lost opportunity and why it's important to win the game and why that affects recruiting and team morale. I really think Butch Jones is that guy.
This is a tremendous honor to play in a January bowl game. That's amazing for them only in year two. I would expect them to take this as a business trip and treat it as such.
You played at Neyland Stadium twice in your career at Florida. Where it does rank among SEC environments?
Obviously, I'm biased having played in The Swamp. Neyland Stadium to me was my favorite stadium to play in in the SEC. It reminded me of The Coliseum in Rome. It's very vertical. Everybody just felt like they were on top of you. It was incredibly loud. Incredibly hard to communicate. It's a beautiful building. It's right by the water.
That to me was kind of the definition of going into a lion's den. I had the chance to go back this year with Brett when we called the Florida-Tennessee game. All of these memories rushed back when I finally got there. I walked the field and just remembered how tough of a place that was to play. We played there in 1998 and lost in overtime when Tennessee went on to win the national championship. That was an environment that I will never forget. We went back two years later and won on a touchdown pass with about seven seconds to go.
We always had tremendous games there, dog fights. It wasn't just the football team and the defense we were playing that made it difficult. It was the environment and the fans are just tremendous. It's one of the great SEC environments.
Reach Matt Slovin at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattSlovin.