Everyone in Big Orange Country is fully aware that the 2012 season is as important as any in recent memory. The results of this upcoming fall will determine the direction of the program for years to come.
Two years into his Tennessee coaching career, Derek Dooley’s teams haven’t produced the kind of results he and all Tennessee fans would have liked. Back-to-back losing seasons, including the program’s first loss to Kentucky in over a quarter of a century, have clearly put Dooley in a win-or-be-fired position.
In 2011, the Vols were very hot coming out of the gate. Tennessee opened with an easy win over Montana, then followed with a dominant offensive showing against Cincinnati. The Vols seemed set up for a strong run until several key injuries derailed those hopes.
The upcoming season has a chance to be a very good season on The Hill, and frankly Dooley needs it to be in order to keep his job. However, Tennessee can’t encounter injuries like it did in 2011 if it wants to be successful.
Here are five Vols that nothing can happen to in 2012.
When a list like this is put together, the quarterback is generally going to appear. The quarterback is the leader of the offense, touches the ball on every play, and is entrusted to make the right decisions each and every time he steps to the line.
Also, when a player makes this list, it’s usually because the player backing him up is not very good. That’s not the case in this situation however.
Tennessee has a backup quarterback, Justin Worley, who showed plenty of potential in the three starts he made. Should Tyler Bray suffer an injury in 2012, Tennessee would seem to have adequate quarterback play to replace him.
The reason Bray makes the list is the separation between he and Worley. Bray is entering his junior season, but is already projected by many to be a first-round draft pick following the 2012 season, and some are going as far as to project him as a potential top-five pick.
There’s no doubt Bray is a special talent. With him on the field, Tennessee’s offense can be extremely explosive. With him not on the field, the offense greatly declines, as Tennessee fans saw in 2011.
Derek Dooley and everyone else around the Tennessee program will be holding their breath all year hoping Bray is able to remain healthy.
Tennessee's offensive attack centers around the previously mentioned Tyler Bray, and his core group of wide receivers. When the offense is clicking, the Vols have the ability to put a lot of points on the board. However, when pieces are missing, it quickly falls apart.
Tennessee has one of the top wide receiving duos in the country in Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers, but quickly found out in 2011 what happens when one of them is missing.
Hunter suffered a torn ACL on the opening drive of the Florida game in 2011, and it forced Rogers to carry the load over the final 10 games. While Rogers was still able to have an All-SEC caliber season, the offense clearly was not the same.
Questions about both have filled Tennessee's offseason. Will Hunter return to the receiver he was prior to the injury? Will Rogers get everything straightened off the field to be ready for the fall? So far, so good. But it's a long way to Aug. 31.
If both receivers are healthy and on the field at the same time, Tennessee's offense will thrive in 2012. Take one of them away, and it could look like a repeat of 2011.
The Tennessee offense will be the unit that gets the most hype heading into 2012. However, the defense brings back eight of its 11 starters.
We know one thing for sure about Prentiss Waggner. He will for sure be in the starting lineup against North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome to open the season. What position he starts at, though, is still to be determined. That's part of what makes him so valuable.
Waggner has the ability to start for the Vols at either safety or cornerback. In 2011, Waggner started 11 of 12 games at free safety, with the other coming at cornerback. Cornerback is his natural position and where he is at his best. However, out of necessity, Tennessee has had to play him at the safety position.
Regardless of where he plays, he is Tennessee's top defensive back. The ability to move him around the field allows the defense to show multiple looks and make it more difficult to prepare for.
Make no bones about it, the Vols' defense is much better when Waggner is on the field and at his best.
Tennessee's linebacker situation entering 2011 was not one for fans to get excited about. In the opening game of the season against Montana, Tennessee started two true freshman and a converted fullback at the three linebacker spots.
By the end of the season, linebacker turned out to be the strongest defensive unit for the Vols. Alongside fellow freshman Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson turned in a stellar freshman campaign. Both were actually named to the All-SEC Freshman team.
Johnson finished second on the team with 80 tackles, playing a position that wasn't the best spot for him on the field, as many in the program are willing to admit. With Austin Johnson occupying the middle, A.J. Johnson was forced to play on the outside where his speed was exposed to an extent.
With new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri calling the shots in 2012, the Vols will be switching to the 3-4 defense, one in which Johnson is a perfect fit for. Johnson is projected to occupy one of the inside spots, and many believe he will be a terror in the middle of Tennessee's defense.
Tennessee will need Johnson at his best and healthy in 2012 because the Vols are very thin at linebacker, and the talent level drops drastically after the starters.
No team in the country will return as much experience on the offensive line as the Vols will in 2012. Tennessee returns every member from the two-deep along the offensive front.
The offensive line took a lot of heat for its performance in 2011. While Tennessee improved drastically in pass protection, the run game still ranked among the worst in the country. Many people were quick to put all of the blame on the boys up front, and while some of the blame falls on their shoulders, it wasn't completely the offensive line's doing.
Expectations will be very high for the line in 2012 with every member back. Sam Pittman comes in as the new offensive line coach, and fans will be looking for marked improvement.
Ju'Wuan James is the anchor of that veteran bunch. James has started all 25 games at right tackle in his first two seasons in Knoxville, and figures to start every game through the rest of his career barring unforeseen circumstances.
Tennessee's offensive line has a lot of interchangeable parts. Several members are capable of playing multiple positions should an injury or something else arise during the season. In fact, the Vols have several positions along the line where they still need to determine who the starter will be.
There's no question though that James will be firmly planted at the right tackle position. If James were to go down, Tennessee would have plenty of choices to replace him, but there would be a drop off at a position where Tennessee couldn't afford one.