After dominating the 90’s and the early years of the new millennium, the last 5 have been Rocky in Big Orange country.
Three Head Coaches in five years and four losing seasons (counting a 2010 Music City Bowl loss) including three in a row under Derek Dooley have left a once proud national brand in shambles. While things have gone just about as well as they could for new coach Butch Jones before he’s coached a game in Knoxville (24 commits and top 5 recruiting class assembled by July) the Vols have a long road to hoe in order to return to their former glory.
It starts up front for the Vols offensively who boast one of the most talented and experienced offensive lines in all of College Football. The Vols return four starters from last year all of which have award winning and possible all American potential. The Anchor of the line is junior left tackle Antonio Richardson who is expected to be an NFL first rounder come next spring’s draft.
Two seniors, Zach Fulton and Ju’Wuan James secure the right side and fellow Senior James Stones is one of the most experienced centers in the league. The only new face on the line is junior Marcus Jackson. The Vols also have talented yet unproved depth along the line with Alex Bullard, Kyler Kerbyson and Alan Posey. Make no mistake about it, despite the flashiness of the up-tempo Jones offense the heart and soul of this Tennessee team will be the bulldozers clearing the way up front.
Much like Kentucky, the Vols have plenty of talented but inexperienced quarterbacks this places a premium on the running back duo of senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane. Despite experience at the tailback position, neither Neal nor Lane has shown the ability to ability to deliver long plays from scrimmage with constancy. Along with a lack of depth the lack of production in the backfield are a major concern for a unit that has lost all of its weapons to the NFL and graduation.
Tennessee only returns three wide receivers with any game experience and as mentioned above they have talented but inexperienced quarterbacks. Nathan Peterman and incoming freshman Joshua Dobbs may have more raw talent but Justin Worley has the most experience and should be the starter in game one vs. Austin Peay.
The bottom line for this offense is that with a strong offensive line they will go as far as their skill players will lead them and with so many question marks at all skill positions that may not be very far.
After one of the worst defenses in recorded football history helped speed up the demise of Derek Dooley the Vols will return to the 4-3 a scheme that better fits the Vols defensive talent. When you look at the roster and simply look at talent and experience the Vols should have a rather stout defense on all three levels. Dan McCullers, Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls anchor the defensive line, which could make an impact if defensive coordinator Steve Stripling can coach them up to match the physical nature of the SEC.
In the line backing core A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt lead another solid unit bolstered Dontavis Sapp, who had a terrific spring, and Brent Brewer (27 tackles in 2012) who moves from the secondary.
Speaking of DB’s they should improve just based off having another year of experience their belts in the SEC. Senior Byron Moore is leader of the secondary but Justin Coleman, Brian Randolph and LaDarell McNeil will all have to contribute for this unit to be successful. Much like the offense there is plenty of talent on the Vols defense but with the question marks surrounding the offense’s effectiveness, this unit may struggle simply for the fact that they might have to play 70-80 snaps a game against high powered and physical SEC offenses.
The UT coaching staff would be wise to allow senior Michael Palardy to focus on mastering one task rather than be average all ; Once again, UT will have other options, like Matt Darr at punter and Derrick Brodus at kicker. Any projected improvement from UT’s special teams will be equaled out by the reduction in the return game production, as replacing a player of Patterson’s skill would test any staff in the country.
6-6, 3-5 in the SEC