Tennessee Football: 5 Players Due for Breakout Seasons in 2012
Every season players, like teams, burst forward from the unknown or average ranks to have great, and in some cases difference-making, seasons.
In 2011, it was players such as Da’Rick Rogers and Austin Johnson who had breakout seasons for the Vols.
Rogers went from a high-profile recruit with lots of potential to an All-SEC wide receiver. Johnson made the jump from rarely used fullback to starting middle linebacker and leading tackler.
Which Vols will have breakout seasons in 2012? Here are five candidates.
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Jacques Smith signed as a member of Derek Dooley’s first signing class in 2010. Smith was ranked by most recruiting services as the top player in the state of Tennessee. As is the case with most high-profile recruits, lofty expectations were set for Smith.
Smith was named to the All-SEC Freshman team by the coaches following his first season in Knoxville. After a successful freshman campaign, expectations continued to rise. However, 2011 wasn’t near the season Smith, the Tennessee coaches or Tennessee fans had hoped.
Smith recorded 35 tackles and only one sack over 12 games.
Now Smith enters his junior season with a new defensive scheme in place. Sal Sunseri brings in a 3-4 defense that seems perfectly suited for junior from Ooltewah, Tennessee.
In the new system, Smith fits as a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker. The position allows him to stand up and takes advantage of his skills as a pass-rusher. The changes leave Smith with an opportunity to have a game-changing impact in 2012.
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Like the aforementioned Smith, Antonio “Tiny” Richardson came to Knoxville widely regarded as the top high school player in Tennessee. His ability to make an impact in 2011 was greatly limited, however, due to the majority of the Vols’ offensive line returning.
Richardson is as unmistakable as any player on the Vols’ roster. The official Tennessee roster lists him at 6'6", and 329 pounds. It’s easy to understand why any quarterback would love to have “Tiny” protecting his backside.
The entire offensive line returns in 2012 as well, but the opportunity is there for Richardson to unseat a returning starter. This spring, the mammoth offensive lineman has been working with the first team at left tackle, a spot formerly occupied by Dallas Thomas.
It’s not all bad news, though, for Thomas, who has moved inside and is fighting for a starting position at left guard.
Tennessee’s offensive line will be expected to improve drastically in 2012, and Richardson anchoring the left side could pay huge dividends.
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Tennessee opened the 2011 season set at the safety position. However, Randolph’s emergence afforded the Vols the luxury of moving Prentiss Waggner to cornerback.
Brent Brewer’s torn ACL in the second half of the season turned Randolph from Tennessee’s luxury to a necessity.
Randolph, by all accounts, had a terrific freshman season. He recorded 55 tackles, which ranks as the fifth-most all time by a Tennessee freshman.
His spot on this list is based on the opportunity he has in 2012. Randolph is currently penciled in as the starting strong safety. Given the results of his freshman season, Tennessee fans are salivating at the possibilities of an entire season with a starting job.
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Many recruiting experts tabbed Maurice Couch as an instant impact junior college player when he signed with Tennessee in February of 2011. Therefore, much was expected of the defensive tackle from Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
Couch, like many junior college players, required some time to adjust to playing football at the highest collegiate level. This caused some Vols fans to question what kind of an impact Couch could actually have.
Those talks seem to have been a little premature. In 2012, Couch steps into a starting spot as the nose tackle in Sal Sunseri’s newly-installed 3-4 defense. He’ll have the unenviable task of replacing Malik Jackson, who anchored Tennessee’s defensive line in 2011.
With a year of experience, and a full year of conditioning under his belt, the chance is there for Couch to make a name for himself in 2012.
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Raijon Neal had an interesting 2011 season. Tauren Poole had a firm grasp on the starting running back job. Most believed Neal was the front-runner for the backup position. However, true freshman Marlin Lane emerged as Poole’s backup coming out of fall camp.
Things didn’t work out as Neal would have hoped early in 2011, and it resulted in a position switch from tailback to wide receiver. Neal had shown the ability make plays when the ball was in his hands, but Tennessee had to find ways to make that happen.
While Neal had moments where his play-making ability showed, his full impact was not felt.
With Poole departed from the team due to graduation, carries are up for grabs. Lane will be first in line, at least for now, but Neal is back in his comfort zone at running back and ready to make his impact felt in 2012.