As January turns to February, you can bet your retro No. 16 Tennessee Volunteers jersey that the 2012 season is already underway in the backrooms of Neyland Stadium. The team has some key issues to address in their offseason to-do list in order to ensure a successful season this fall.
Head coach Derek Dooley is up against it, and we all know it. He absolutely must finish above .500, and even that might not be enough to secure a 2013 season for him.
But one thing is for sure: If he and his coaches don't address each of these five requirements this offseason, the Vols will be fighting yet another uphill battle come September.
Let's have a little faith. After all, Tennessee has never in 114 seasons had three consecutive losing seasons.
There was a collective cry of despair when stud wide receiver Justin Hunter went down with a torn ACL against Florida last year. He was on pace for 70 receptions, 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns.
Fans of the Tennessee Volunteers knew how much he meant to the offense, and our worst fears came to fruition.
But it's time for optimism! Hunter donned his No. 11 jersey just a few weeks ago for the first time in months and excitedly posted it on Twitter (picture on left).
Hunter's full and complete recovery from his knee injury has to be one of the top things on the Vols' offseason to-do list. He has the ability to win a Biletnikoff Award and set school receiving records if he get healthy and stay healthy for 2012.
If there's anything I want to be known for as a writer for the Tennessee Volunteers, it's that I'm a huge James Stone fan.
Call me crazy, but I like Freshman All-Americans. I also greatly dislike when they get benched behind a first-year transfer and a freshman.
The players I'm referring to, Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson, are terrific offensive linemen. But the numbers never lie, and the Vols' rushing stats were terrible in 2011 compared to 2010, and the only thing that changed was Stone's benching.
(OK, so JerQuari Schofield also lost his starting role, but that doesn't seem quite as dire.)
The reason Stone was benched? He had trouble snapping the balls on the laces with his right hand. That sounds normal, but Stone is left-handed and has always snapped it from the tip.
Is it just me, or did he and Tyler Bray have no problems with center-quarterback deliveries in 2010 when they were both freshmen?
Get the All-American back on the field. Let him snap it however he wants. Get the running game back.
The 3-4 defense is best suited for teams with bigger, slower defensive linemen and numerous athletic linebackers.
Check and check for the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers.
JUCO signee Daniel McCullers was born to play nose tackle at 6'6", 380 pounds. The Vols' top defensive linemen—Marlon Walls, Darrington Sentimore and Maurice Couch—are all perfect defensive ends in a 3-4 system, as they are bigger and stronger than a typical end.
Curt Maggitt is also a prototypical pass-rushing linebacker that 3-4 defenses become known for (the NFL's Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware are two examples). Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon are smaller defensive ends that could see time rushing the quarterback from the outside linebacker position, too.
A.J. Johnson's lack of speed due to his great size will be an asset rather than a liability as one of the two inside linebackers in the 3-4, and the Vols will be glad to see veteran Herman Lathers return to play alongside him.
Suffice it to say, the pieces are there. Now, the question is, can Sal Sunseri successfully implement the new defense in one offseason?
When I put out my complete projections for the 2012 starting lineup for the Tennessee Volunteers, I totally forget about safety Brent Brewer.
You can't blame me, can you?
After an exciting end to the 2010 season, where he started to blossom alongside Janzen Jackson, Brewer assumed a starting role in the 2011 secondary. Coaches and fans alike expected to see the former professional baseball player use his athleticism to make ton of tackles and level big hits.
Instead, Brewer tallied just 24 tackles and zero interceptions in a season that ended early with a torn ACL. It just wasn't meant to be.
Brewer's contribution to the 2012 squad is a huge X-factor. If he can relieve Prentiss Waggner of safety duties, that will allow Waggner to play his natural cornerback position, where he has shown his ball-hawking abilities before.
Add Brewer finding his 2010 self to the to-do list.
Finally, we arrive at the most pivotal need on the Tennessee Volunteers' offseason to-do list: Tyler Bray's continued growth as a quarterback.
I must admit that this requirement worries me more than the others because Bray has let a nonchalant side of himself show a few times in big games, and you simply can't have that from your quarterback.
A rejuvenated Tennessee offense will pump energy back into Bray in the coming months, but then he'll need take the step from young thrower to veteran passer, play-caller and leader, i.e., quarterback.
Alabama didn't win the national championship because they had a cannon at quarterback. They won because they had a player who united the team and studied opposing defenses.
If Bray can add those elements to his game, plus his ridiculous natural ability, watch out.
P.S.: Can someone get someone please help him get some weight? Ryan Mallett is the same height but a far different body type.