Tennessee Football: 5 Things the Volunteers Learned from Last Year

Daniel HudsonCorrespondent IIIMarch 7, 2012

Tennessee Football: 5 Things the Volunteers Learned from Last Year

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    The 2011 season was one heck of a roller-coaster ride for the Tennessee Volunteers. In order to make sure that last year wasn't a waste, the Big Orange must learn from it and use it to improve in 2012.

    There are numerous issues from 2011 that Tennessee could address, but five stick out as the most important.

    One thing is for certain: If the Vols don't make the necessary changes, regardless of which five or six issues  they focus on, next year's article will be entitled, "5 Coaches the Volunteers Could Hire for Next Year."

Kicking Game Needs an Overhaul

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    The Tennessee kicking game was atrocious in 2011. The team can't expect to make a serious bowl push in 2012 without addressing it head-on.

    The Vols' 36.4-yard average per punt, most of which came from the leg of redshirt freshman Matt Darr, was dead last in the SEC.

    Coming out of high school, Darr was rated the fourth-best punter in the nation, so the natural ability is there, but it must be realized this year.

    Meanwhile, Michael Palardy made only 50 percent of his field-goal attempts from 30 to 39 yards, the most active distance during the 2011 season in the SEC. That percentage also was last in the conference.

    While the kicking game isn't the most exciting part of football, it is still one of the most vital aspects of the game. If that fact weren't enough, General Robert Neyland stressed its importance in his Sixth Maxim: "Press the kicking game! Here is where the breaks are made.''

    Let's listen to the General.

Defense Has to Get More Sacks

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    The last time the Vols were in the top five in the SEC in team sacks was 2007. Coincidentally enough, that's the last time the team won the SEC East and appeared in the SEC championship game.

    Or maybe it's no coincidence.

    In fact, in each of the last three seasons, the SEC title game has featured two of the three most-prolific sacking teams in the conference.

    Tennessee had 1.33 sacks per game last year, hardly enough to alter an opponent's game plan. With the likely switch to the 3-4 defense, the Volunteers will have a chance to unleash speed rushers Curt Maggitt and Jacques Smith on quarterbacks.

    They had better be able to bring them down.

Passing Attack Must Carry the Offense

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    As bad as things got in 2011, Tennessee learned that they have an extremely potent passing attack.

    Tyler Bray must take the next step as a leader and quarterback. But even if he doesn't, his cannon of an arm will find friendly targets in Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and two-time JUCO All-American Cordarrelle Patterson.

    Even without his top target Hunter, Bray threw for 539 yards and completed 54 percent of his passes against Florida and Georgia, his two toughest defenses.

    In those games, the passing attack kept the Vols in the game even when winning seemed out of reach.

    The receivers all have the ability to leave after this year, and I already have a prediction on which one it will be.

Prentiss Waggner Needs to Play Cornerback

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    In 2010, Prentiss Waggner's five interceptions were the most by a Vol since Eric Berry. The three he returned for touchdowns remain a single-season school record.

    Unfortunately, Waggner had to split time between his natural cornerback position and safety in 2011.

    In the first six games as a safety in a young secondary, Waggner had 26 tackles, one sack and zero interceptions.

    In the last six games at cornerback, where he is clearly more valuable, Waggner had 21 tackles, one sack, two interceptions and 57 interception return yards.

    Brian Randolph is now an All-SEC freshman safety. He can man one safety slot. The X-factor is safety Brent Brewer, who is coming off an ACL injury. If he can find his groove, Waggner will be free to play cornerback and wreak havoc on opposing wide receivers. 

Derek Dooley Has to Prove Himself

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    Here are my three scenarios for Derek Dooley's future as head coach at Tennessee:

    1. If the Vols finish below .500, he is gone, even if the additional loss is from a bowl game.

    2. If the Vols finish 6-6 and win their bowl game, he stays.

    3. If the Vols finish 7-5 and lose their bowl game, he is gone.

    The discrepancy between scenarios No. 2 and No. 3 is somewhat ironic, but if you take a second to think about it, it makes sense.

    A team that manages a 6-6 season and ends on a high note with a bowl win will grant Dooley his fourth year as head coach. But a team that squeaks out an extra regular-season win but loses its last game (again) is a much different story.

    Some fans think I'm being too kind with my scenarios. But the reason the bar is somewhat low is because of the dearth of noticeable coaching talent available if Tennessee decides to begin searching for its fourth coach in six years.

    That being said, what Dooley learned from 2011 is simple: The 2012 season better be the one. There is too much talent and too much experience to not make a move this coming fall.