It's already time to start looking into the prospects for the Tennessee Volunteers' 2013 season, especially with a new coaching staff. The offense might feature a few different faces, but it looks like it could be nearly as effective as the potent 2012 group.
New head coach Butch Jones, in his words, said his offense will be "no huddle" and "pro-style." Athletic director Dave Hart also noted its "up-tempo" nature.
Quite the trio!
Jones has hit the phones hiring coaches and hit the ground recruiting prospects. A successful winter will lead to the beginning of a strong era of Tennessee football (finally).
Here's an early preview of the next year's offense.
Coach: Mike Bajakian
Lost from 2012: Tyler Bray
Projected Starter: Justin Worley
For the past three years, Mike Bajakian has served as Butch Jones' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. It appears as though he'll make 2013 his fourth year of assuming those roles for Jones.
As for Tyler Bray, I see him moving on to the next level. He has a tremendous arm and will get drafted, but he's always been limited as a complete quarterback. He'll need to develop the brains and touch of a professional if he plans to turn the corner in the NFL.
Justin Worley is the heir apparent to the starting job, but redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman could leapfrog him under a new coaching staff. Peterman was heavily recruited by Butch Jones at Cincinnati and very nearly became a Bearcat.
Both quarterbacks have a serious chance to become good college quarterbacks, at the level needed to win big games and bring back bowl trophies.
It's a safe position for the Volunteers.
Coach: Jay Graham
Lost from 2012: Ben Bartholomew
Projected Starter: Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane
The most improved aspect of the Tennessee offense in 2012 was the running backs, led by new coach and Volunteer legend Jay Graham.
After two consecutive years of Tennessee finishing dead last in rushing in the SEC, Graham took a group of unproven backs and produced the 8th-ranked rushing attack. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane were average backs in August but both were far above that by the end of the year.
The running back unit only lost senior fullback Ben Bartholomew. His leadership and run-blocking ability will be missed, but overall that's not too bad of a loss for an entire unit.
Tennessee is in the hunt for 5-star running back Derrick Green, who has remained interested in the Vols throughout the season. With the energy that Butch Jones is bringing to the program and to recruiting, Green could be a major coup for Graham and the running backs.
He could potentially start in 2013 and change the face of the Vol running game.
Coach: Tee Martin
Lost from 2012: Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers
Projected Starters: Alton "Pig" Howard, Vincent Dallas, Drae Bowles
**After going to press, Tee Martin decided to stay in USC. My prediction skills are getting a bit rusty...**
First things first. I'm projecting two pretty key things here. First, I firmly believe that Cordarrelle Patterson is going to the NFL, and Justin Hunter is slightly less firm but will still probably go.
Second, I believe Tee Martin will accept a job on the Volunteers' coaching staff and will likely end up coaching wide receivers, the position he has coached for the past three years at USC and Kentucky.
If so, he'll have a raw but talented group of pass-catchers to work with. Pig Howard got plenty of time in the wildcat formation and on end-arounds this fall. Vincent Dallas is a steady-ish receiver and will immediately become the unit's elder statesman.
Receivers Jacob Carter, Drae Bowles and Cody Blanc have all been talked up quite a bit off the field (Carter had a few nice places on the field). With a group of six quality athletes, Martin will have a good start on developing a few reliable targets for Justin Worley.
Coach: Mark Elder
Lost from 2012: Mychal Rivera
Projected Starter: Brendan Downs, Jason Croom
Mark Elder is another Cincinnati hire and has coached several different positions in the past, including tight ends. Elder most recently served as the special teams coordinator for Cincinnati, which makes him a reasonable candidate to fill that position, too.
Mychal Rivera capped off a solid Tennessee career with a First Team All-SEC selection for his performance in 2012. He has a chance to have a really nice NFL career with his consistency and versatility.
Brendan Downs has shown brief flashes in his two years on Rocky Top but has only reeled in six catches. Next season, he'll be the star of the tight end show.
Coach: Don Mahoney
Lost from 2012: Dallas Thomas
Projected Starters: Antonio Richardson, Marcus Jackson, James Stone, Zach Fulton, Ja'Wuan James
The third and final Cincinnati coaching carryover on the offensive side of the ball is Don Mahoney, who has a long history of coaching offensive lines in the Brian Kelly/Butch Jones schemes.
Mahoney fills the spot vacated by the popular Sam Pittman, whose 2012 offensive line saw incredible improvement over 2011. But I've got to say, the Tennessee offensive line is filled with so much talent that it's hard to tell how much was Pittman and how much was player growth.
There have been whispers about Ja'Wuan James leaving for the NFL draft, but I think that at the end of the day, he'll stay for his senior year. If so, he'll have a legitimate shot of being a first-round draft pick in 2014.
The 2013 offensive line will look very familiar with only Dallas Thomas leaving. His replacement, Marcus Jackson, has seen significant playing time in two years. Expect another fantastic season from this unit next year.