Tennessee Volunteer fans have been waiting patiently for their program to take a big step in the right direction after several sub-par seasons. This may be that year they have been waiting for, as Tennessee returns 18 starters from a year ago, including 10 on the offensive side of the ball.
But before we can say that this team will win eight games or so, there are players that must step up. This remains a very young team, and there are several questions that must be answered heading into September. But despite the youth factor, there are many talented players that are ready to take that next step in their collegiate careers.
With the regular season inching closer by the day, here are the top 10 Tennessee Volunteers heading into the 2012 college football season.
Malik Jackson is no longer on the roster, which means that workload has just increased for defensive tackle Maurice Couch. Couch started in four games last season and had a very inconsistent season despite finishing with 37 tackles and six tackles for loss.
Couch is a very strong player,who gets off the ball in a hurry. With a year under his belt, I expect to see him have a more productive season and become one of the key members of this year's defensive line.
Justin Coleman stepped on campus as one of the top recruits from the 2011 class. But he didn't quite fulfill expectations his freshman season, starting only four games and finishing with 10 tackles and two broken up passes.
Despite not being very productive his freshman year, the Volunteers will need him his sophomore season, especially with Izauea Lanier being ruled eligible for the year. Coleman is a speedy corner who has big playmaking ability. With a year under his belt, expect to see some of that potential come out this season.
Tennessee has several talented wide receivers, but there is also a solid tight end in Mychal Rivera that deserves some credit as well. He was the second top receiver last season, finishing his sophomore season with 29 receptions for 344 yards and a touchdown.
Rivera hasn't been consistent as many would like, but with 25 starts under his belt and his athletic skill set, the junior should end up having his best season yet and emerge as one of the better tight ends in the SEC.
With such a young team, it is important to have a few veterans and leaders to help balance everything out. Cornerback Prentiss Waggner is a fifth-year senior, and he will help guide this young group of players and become a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
He has started 25 games in the last two seasons and has the ability to play cornerback or safety. He finished last season with 48 tackles, two interceptions and broke up seven passes.
We know about many wide receivers in college football, but wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers is one of the better receivers you don't hear much about. The former 5-star recruit made his presence felt his sophomore season, hauling in 67 passes for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns.
He has the size at 6'3", 215 pounds, underrated speed and is about as competitive as they come. With Tennessee likely improving its record this season, expect Rogers to become a household name in college football this season, along with a few other players on this team.
The defense will get a huge boost when linebacker Herman Lathers steps back on the field. This is a guy who finished second on the team in 2010 with 75 tackles and had 2.5 sacks. He suffered a broken ankle last season and missed the entire year.
Lathers is a born leader, who will help this defense out tremendously once he is completely healthy. He is expected to be ready by the time September rolls around, and the coaching staff can't be more excited about getting him back.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter is another player that the Volunteers will have back this season. The former 4-star recruit got off to a very fast start last season, hauling in 17 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers were put up in just two games, as he suffered a season-ending injury in the Week 3 matchup against the Florida Gators.
The good news for Volunteer fans is that Hunter is looking good during the offseason and is expected to be back on the field soon. Hunter is a huge target at 6'4", 200 pounds and, much like Rogers, could quickly become one of the better wide receivers in all of college football. Yes, the ceiling is that high for this young man.
With all of the talk about the Volunteers passing attack, this team needs to be a lot more balanced than it was last season. Tennessee was ranked 50th in the country last season in passing yardage, but 116th when it came to running the football. It will be up to running back Marlin Lane to change some of that production this time around.
Lane played in all 12 games last season as a freshman, rushing for 280 yards and two touchdowns. He is a top recruit from the 2011 class and has a great combination of size and strength. He also catches the ball well out of the backfield, (17 receptions last year), giving this team another dynamic weapon in the receiving department.
If this running game can get going next season, watch out.
Linebacker A.J. Johnson really took the SEC by storm last season, starting 10 games as a freshman and finishing second on the team in tackles with 80. Johnson is somebody who can play both inside and outside linebacker and does nearly everything well. He can make plays in the backfield as well as drop back into coverage without missing a beat.
If he can build on a productive freshman season under defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, Tennessee will have another solid piece in place on the defensive side of the ball.
Then, of course, you have the quarterback position. Tyler Bray now has two seasons of starting experience under his belt, which means he should be ready to take his game to the next level, his junior year. Bray has shown flashes of greatness throughout his career, but he has yet to really become one of the top quarterbacks in the conference.
He certainly has the skill set to do so, and there is no question that the playmakers are around him to get the job done. Bray has yet to throw for over 2,000 yards in a season or 20 touchdowns, but don't be surprised when he sets career highs in every major statistical category in 2012.
The 2012 season should have good things in store for the Tennessee Volunteers, although it all starts with solid quarterback play.