One of the main reasons people are so high on the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers is that there are so many future NFL players on the team. It has taken five years, but the Vols are ready to infuse a solid crop of talent into the next level over the next couple years.
We already know that Tyler Bray is one of these players. The questions for him are when he will leave, how high he will go and whether or not he'll be the first quarterback taken among Matt Barkley and Aaron Murray.
However, Bray is hardly alone in his high NFL hopes. The Vols have at least five others who are likely to become future stars on Sunday afternoons.
NFL scouts are licking their chops over the potential of Tyler Bray. Not only does he have a great arm and above-average accuracy, Bray stands at 6'6" and is weighing in at over 220 pounds for the first time in his college career.
He's the definition of a prototypical professional quarterback.
Bray needs to improve his decision-making over the coming months to maximize his pre-draft potential, but we have all seen what he's capable of when he's on point.
Even though he only has 12 starts entering his junior year, Bray is a consensus future first-round projection. A 3,500-yard and 30-touchdown season would vault him to the top 10 and initiate a great NFL career.
Jacques Smith was born to be an outside linebacker, and in less than one month, we'll get to see him stake his claim in the 3-4 defense.
Smith might be the most agile player on the entire Volunteer defense. He routinely got to the quarterback in mere seconds from the defensive end position last year but was undersized on the defensive line once Tennessee met bigger SEC foes.
That won't be a problem this year, now that he has moved back. The country will get to see the damage that Smith can do in a four-linebacker set.
Maybe, Smith's impending excellence in the 3-4 will coax the Ravens, Patriots or Steelers to give him a try at the next level.
Not as explosive as Smith or his fellow sophomore Curt Maggitt, A.J. Johnson is a model of consistent and reliable production. How many college players with one year of experience can you say that about?
We are still a few years away from Johnson appearing in any NFL mock drafts, but he already set himself apart from his fellow sophomores by leading all SEC freshmen with 80 tackles in 2011.
Johnson is a bit stocky, so the fact that he was still able to rack up the tackles is credit to his knack for positioning himself perfectly.
As he gains more experience in the next three years, Johnson's speed will improve, and he could find himself settling in for a long, strong NFL career.
Before an injury that changed the entire outlook of the 2011 season, Justin Hunter was off to, perhaps, the hottest start of any player. Now he's back, and he's got plenty of great fellow receivers to help keep defenses distracted.
Hunter's lean build, long stride and tremendous leaping demands NFL scouts to compare him to Randy Moss when he was at Marshall. There are simply too many similarities to ignore.
But one thing that does make Hunter and Moss different is Hunter's attitude, significantly more team-oriented than the perpetually troubled Moss. That only serves to boost Hunter's pro-level potential.
Hunter needs to show the NFL that he can overcome injury and relocate his former self in order to shine on Sundays one day.
Curt Maggitt is basically Jacques Smith except that he's taller and younger. Maggitt can't be more than a step behind Smith's agility, and fans must hope that the two can play "Meet at the Quarterback" all year.
Maggitt's speed style is a perfect counter to A.J. Johnson's strong style at linebacker, allowing the sophomore duo to help one another on the field.
He managed only one sack last year, partially due to the need for him to lay back in pass coverage, but that shouldn't be an issue now that the aggressive Sal Sunseri is calling the defensive plays.
If the offense can get quick scores early in games, Maggitt will be able to tee off on quarterbacks and show what he's capable of in the NFL.
In terms of last year's statistics, Da'Rick Rogers is, by far, the best returning wide receiver in the SEC. Even so, there would be many that argue he's not even the best on his team.
One thing that no one can take away from him is his incredible toughness. While Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray tore up the highlight reel with deep bombs and pretty lobs, Rogers did the dirty work over the middle with three different quarterbacks last year.
He's the unsung hero of the receiving corp. Of course, we all know how good Rogers is, but I think we vastly underestimate him.
Rogers' grit, significant game experience and undeniable swagger already mimic that of a professional. Appearing in a list of future NFL stars, Rogers just might be the brightest of them all.