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Tennessee Volunteers: Team Overview

This is a critical year for the Tennessee program. The fans are near riot stage thanks to a 5-7 record in 2011 that saw the Volunteers not only miss the postseason, but also lose to Kentucky, something that had last happened when Ronald Reagan was still president. Head coach Derek Dooley is all but gone, and the Vols will probably have to win 8 or 9 games for Dooley to keep his job. In the meantime, Tennessee continues to deal with off-the-field distractions, and is rebuilding its defensive line to boot.

 

Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, TE, RT, RG, C, LG, LT, QB, FB)

Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, LDT, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)

Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)

 

Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UA, MSU, UF, UGA, VU)

Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UA, MSU, UF, UGA, VU)

Projected SEC East Record: 3-3 (UF, UGA, VU)

 

Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)

Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Fr

Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av

Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Av

Offensive Line: Vg Special Teams: Av

 

OFFENSE

 

Tennessee’s offense has become greatly imbalanced in theory, thanks to the presence of a stud quarterback and good receivers. But distractions in the receiver group, a veteran offensive line and the coaches’ desire to take some pressure off a thin defense is leading Tennessee to seek more balance. The Vols ranked almost dead last in the nation last year in rushing offense (116th), so there’s work to be done here. The Vols utilize a standard I-formation attack.

 

QUARTERBACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 3rd overall)

Starter Tyler Bray has drawn a ton of publicity for his strong throwing arm, but lost in the hype is Bray’s scattershot decision-making and his build, which doesn’t lend itself to taking a lot of shots from SEC defenders. Fortunately for Bray, he has a solid offensive line, but he also has a long way to go before he becomes an elite quarterback. Tennessee has good depth behind him in the form of Justin Worley, who played in relief of Bray last year after Matt Simms proved to be a poor option. True freshman Nathan Peterman rounds out the depth chart.

 

RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av; 5th SEC East, 10th overall)

Tennessee is hoping Raijon Neal, who has flipped back and forth between running back and receiver over the years, can finally find a home as the team’s featured back. Neal has the size for the job after an offseason of conditioning work, but the real question is whether he has the running instincts and the ability to find holes. Depth at tailback is not stellar; scatback Devrin Young is listed as the top backup at the moment, but he’s most effective on gotcha plays and not running between the tackles. Marlin Lane and Tom Smith are bigger players, but neither has impressed much yet. The Vols do, however, return one of the conference’s best fullbacks in Ben Bartholomew.

 

WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 5th SEC East, 10th overall)

Tennessee was set to have an awesome starting tandem coupled with depth concerns; now, the Vols just have concerns. Da’Rick Rogers was kicked off the team early in fall camp and has apparently transferred to a lower division. Justin Hunter is a home run hitter from his split end position, but he’s trying to come back from major knee surgery. Hunter’s batterymate will be junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, who has talent to spare but is unproven on this level. Only Zach Rogers has had any appreciable experience among the other players on the roster. Vincent Dallas might have to move back from defensive back, because the only other receiver of note is true freshman Cody Blanc, who was not highly recruited. Tight end will be fine if Mychal Rivera is able to shake the injury bug. Cameron Clear gives Tennessee a solid backup there. Greg King was moved over from linebacker to add to the depth situation. Brendan Downs will back up tight end and fullback.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Vg; 1st SEC East, 3rd overall)

The last two years spent developing younger players has paid off, as Tennessee returns a veteran line with six players having prior starting experience. Alex Bullard will start at center flanked by guards Dallas Thomas and Zach Fulton. Ja’Wuan James and Antonio Richardson will be the tackles, while the do-everything James Stone will compete at all five positions. Reserve tackles Kyler Kerbyson and Marcus Jackson look like the next wave in waiting.

 

DEFENSE

 

Tennessee runs a 4-3 alignment, but new coordinator Sal Sunseri promises to bring a more aggressive approach as well as a sprinkling of the 3-4 over/under scheme of his most recent boss, Alabama’s Nick Saban. The Vols were good against the pass (12th nationally) and respectable in total defense (28th) last year, but didn’t stop the run well enough and didn’t make enough game-changing plays. The defensive line is going through transition and doesn’t appear to have adequate personnel to run some of the things Dooley and Sunseri would probably like to run.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 7th SEC East, 12th overall)

This is going to be an issue, especially early. Assuming Tennessee stays in a 4-3 alignment, which most of its personnel is best suited for, it will have some combination of Steven Fowlkes, Darrington Sentimore, Daniel Hood and Daniel McCullers inside. The problem with that idea is that Fowlkes and Sentimore aren’t big enough for tackle, while McCullers is a pure 3-4 noseguard. Maurice Couch and Marlon Walls will also flex between tackle and end. Jacques Smith, an end in the prior team’s alignment, looks to be the Jack linebacker/rush end of this group, backed up by Jordan Williams. When the Vols line up in a pure 4-3 set, Walls will have to go outside. It’s very possible Tennessee’s defensive line will become a unit of Jacks of all trade, masters of none.

 

LINEBACKERS (rating: Av; 5th SEC East, 10th overall)

Tennessee’s linebackers are trying to transition from pure 4-3 players to something else. In the process, though, Herman Lathers, who is probably at his best on the weakside, has to move inside, while A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt stay outside at weak and strong linebacker, respectively. There is no depth in the middle, which led to fullback Channing Fugate and defensive end Willie Bohannon making position changes. John Propst, a borderline SEC linebacker, is being counted on for key depth along with Dontavis Sapp. Lathers always gives his all, while Johnson has breakout potential, but it’s going to take another year before this unit is ready to execute Sunseri’s plan.

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 7th overall)

The cornerback trio of Justin Coleman, Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague is as experienced as any in the conference; now, they just need to start making more plays. Physical receivers have given Tennessee trouble in recent years and the arrival of Sunseri ought to help a bit. The safety group of Brent Brewer, Brian Randolph, Rod Wilks and Byron Moore is similarly solid but unspectacular. Tennessee overachieved a bit in 2011; it will be interesting to see if this group progresses, or reverts to the mean.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 8th overall)

Placekicker Michael Palardy and punter Matt Darr both arrived at Tennessee with high expectations, but neither has lived up to them so far. Injuries also didn’t help Palardy’s case in 2011. Derrick Brodus backs up both spots and could see work if the struggles continue. The kickoff and punt returns weren’t bad in 2011, but they weren’t anything special, either. Devrin Young will try to spice things up a bit in 2012.

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