Any Tennessee football fan will quickly admit that Derek Dooley’s first two seasons in Knoxville have been anything but a breeze. The Vols have struggled enough to the point that Dooley’s job could be on the line after the 2012 season.
Due to two coaching changes and the natural roster attrition that follows, the Tennessee roster wasn’t overflowing with talent when Dooley took the job. In turn, Tennessee was forced to throw freshmen into the fire on many occasions.
After two good recruiting years, and a small amount of stability at the top, the Vols enter 2012 with their best roster of talent in several years. Derek Dooley won’t be forced to call upon as many freshmen to play keys roles as he has in the past—at least that’s the hope around Knoxville. However, a few freshmen will find their way into the starting lineup at some point.
Here are the freshmen who will start for the Vols in 2012.
Tennessee signed arguably the country’s best wide receiver class in 2012. Most people are expecting big things from junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson, but he enters as a junior, and therefore is not qualified for this list.
Alton Howard is by far the smallest of the four receivers the Vols signed, but it’s not his size that will get him on the field this fall. Howard was known in high school for his speed and elusiveness—qualities that will be perfect in the return game.
Tennessee’s return game has lacked explosive ability over the last few seasons. Devrin Young provided a spark in 2011 as a true freshman, and Howard will have the opportunity to do so in 2012.
One of the many spots where Tennessee has been thin in Derek Dooley’s first two seasons has been the defensive line, especially in the middle. That will still be the case, to some degree, in 2012.
The Vols will be changing over to a 3-4 defensive scheme this fall, which won’t require two defensive tackles on the field. However, it’s reasonable to expect Tennessee to line up in a more traditional 4-3 look at times as well.
Danny O’Brien signed with the Vols out of Flint, Michigan in February, and already has the size to compete in the SEC. At 6’2” and 310 pounds, O’Brien won’t need to bulk up much before hitting the field.
O’Brien was an All-State defensive tackle in Michigan, and he plays a position in which the Vols are very thin. The opportunity will be there for his name to be penciled in at the top of the depth chart in 2012.
As previously mentioned, Tennessee has been very thin across the defensive line over the past few years. Defensive end hasn’t been as big of a sore spot for the Vols as defensive tackle during that time, but it has been a weakness.
Trent Taylor was one of seven members of the 2012 signing class that enrolled in Knoxville for the spring semester. Therefore, Taylor had the opportunity to go through all of spring practice with the Vols.
Taylor tallied over 160 tackles and 29 sacks during his junior and senior seasons combined, playing in one of Florida’s highest classifications of high school football.
With a new defense being installed for 2012, every defensive player must learn a completely new system. For Taylor, being there for spring practice puts him on level ground with every returning member. For that reason, his chances to start during the 2012 season go way up.
The Tennessee secondary was a revolving door during the 2011 season. Derek Dooley and company struggled to find a combination they liked, and the secondary was continually beat down the field by opposing passing games.
The Vols would love to be in a position where Prentiss Waggner would be able to play his natural position of cornerback. In order to make that happen, they have to find two safeties they feel comfortable with.
Brian Randolph seems to be a lock for one spot after his solid freshman campaign. Brent Brewer would be the next likely choice for the other safety position, but he is coming off a season cut short by a torn ACL, and nothing is a guarantee coming back from an injury like that.
With one look at the highlight videos, it is easy to see what there is to like about LaDarrell McNeil. The hard-hitting safety from Dallas, Texas plays physical enough to fit in well in the SEC. The question will be can he play well enough in the passing game to get on the field.
If he’s not in the starting lineup on defense, something tells me the coaching staff will find a spot for his hard-hitting prowess on special teams.
It’s no secret that the Tennessee kicking game was atrocious in 2011. Michael Palardy struggled with field goals and punts, Matt Darr also struggled with punts and both struggled on kickoffs.
Enter local Knoxville product George Bullock. Bullock doesn’t come with the hype that Palardy and Darr did when they signed with the Vols. However, those who have seen him think that he can compete right away.
Don’t expect Bullock to win the field goal duties. Even with his struggles, it seems like Derek Dooley still has confidence in Palardy in that area.
His best shot will come in the kickoff department.
Tennessee’s kick coverage unit wasn’t the problem last season. The problem revolved around kickers not getting the ball far enough down the field. If Bullock has the leg to put the ball near the goal line, the kickoff spot will be his.