Last year was disappointing. There are no other words to describe the feeling of walking back from Neyland Stadium week after week without a win. The losses to Alabama and LSU aren't the issue, and most fans expected us to lose those games. But with all the exceptional young talent on the current roster, the Vols faithful are expecting more wins this year, or there will be no happy campers on Rocky Top.
On this list are the names of players who need to step up if the Volunteers are going to be successful next year. Some on this list are underachievers and other are names you are familiar with, but they all need to play their part for the team to win consistently again on Saturdays.
Tyler Bray is at a crossroads in his career. Through his first 10 games as a starter, he looked great. He has a large frame (which will need some muscle on it), and he did a good job finding the open man and being patient. Then, when the big play was set up, he would find someone deep and show off his arm strength.
However, he then had to face Florida and Georgia, which were games where he had lost his star WR and favorite target. Without his security blanket and incredible wide receiver, Justin Hunter, Bray seemed lost and confused. Even through his confusion, however, you could tell he was trying to make his reads and he was playing at an adequate level. After all he was only a sophomore, and better QBs have looked worse without their favorite targets.
So while Big Orange Nation may not have been as enamored with Bray as they once were, they expected him to grow from it.
Then came the Kentucky game. Glossing over his mediocre performance against Vandy (who did have an exceptional defensive backfield last year), Bray ended his year with the Vols on a sour note, and that is being kind. I can't describe to you the feeling in the pit of my stomach watching Bray leave the ball lazily at his side while he waited for the defense to give him something easy. He looked disinterested and like he didn't want to be in uniform, which makes me cringe a little knowing that the team is in his hands next year.
I love Bray as a player; he has all the skills to be the best quarterback in the NCAA next year without exception. Will he put it all together? I don't know.
However, if the Vols are going to try to make a bowl game next year, they need their field general to step up and lead them there.
Curt Maggitt should be as thrilled as anyone to learn of the new scheme change that the Vols will be undergoing this year. As an OLB in the old 4-3 system, he was asked to cover more and read and react. While he proved he can do that, where I think he will excel is on the edge in a 3-4. If he is allowed to pin his ears back and attack the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle, I think he has the strength and speed to win consistently.
With the weak defensive backfield, Maggitt will play a huge role in this scheme change. He will need to be disruptive enough play after play to keep the QB off his launch point, the area where he wants to throw the ball from. Also, he may be asked to hold the edge in the run game and will have to fight the urge to go screaming at play actions and reverses.
All in all, I expect Curt to step up and take charge of the defense. Not as much as No. 5 on this list, but enough for opposing offensive coordinators to have to scheme around him. If he can't do that, then this will put a huge strain on the Vols offense that they do NOT need.
Justin Hunter. A mild-mannered guy off the field who is humble and respectful, but when you put pads on him, he changes into something extraordinary. He has incredible speed for his size, and his jumping ability and ball skills will make him a day one pick whenever he decides to declare for the draft. Though he was sidelined by a knee injury, this year, he has everything he needs to have a good season.
In addition to a great high school recruiting class, Hunter will have the luxury of playing with another huge target with plus speed. That man's name is Cordarrell Patterson.
At 6'3", 200 lbs., the JUCO prospect has an abundance of talent and a frame most receivers would kill for. He is quick enough to be an effective screen player and tall enough to be a slant-and-go nightmare. If he and Bray can get in rhythm during spring practice, he, Hunter and Da'rick Rogers (if he can get his act together) could be the best QB/WRs threat in the nation.
Another name to keep an eye on is Drae Bowles. A former standout at JCS, Bowles is 6'1", 205 with room in his frame to be an intimidating 220 by his senior year. He plays mean and loves contact. I think fans will really be impressed by how many different ways the Vols could play him. He has potential at X, Z and in the slot.
James Stone will need to return to his freshman year form if he hopes to stay a starter this year. The offensive line looked pitiful last year, especially when run blocking. A coaching change may help the situation, but I expect there to be some good competition this spring in camp to figure out who is playing where.
Stone has the luxury of being versatile, so he will most likely be placed where he is most comfortable on the line. No matter where that is, he will have to do a better job with hand placement and quickness.
The SEC defensive line talent actually seems weaker this year than most other years. In the past two years, the conference will have lost Melvin Ingram, Michael Brockers, Marcell Dareus, Jake Bequette, Nick Fairley, Josh Chapman and many others. If Stone struggles this year, it will be time to look at benching him in favor or the best available option.
A.J. Johnson was definitely one of the most impressive defensive players last year. In his first year, he became the captain of the defense while racking up 80 tackles. While the scheme may have changed defensively, I fully expect to see increased production from him as an ILB in the 3-4. He can take on a block and shed beyond his years, and that is a trait that is always useful in the run-heavy SEC.
While physically, I'm sure he will do fine, the biggest area he needs to show up in is the mental aspect. He needs to understand exactly what everyone is supposed to be doing on the field, not just himself. If the nose tackle is shaded the wrong way or if a CB is playing the wrong coverage, he needs to identify that and take care of it. He has to be the eyes, ears and mouth of the DC out there, and there will be defensive slip-ups now more than ever after all the offseason change for the defense.