The Tennessee Volunteers had one of the most prolific offenses in school history during 2012. Can the 2013 squad repeat that production? The first step to answering that question is taking a look at the depth chart.
Offensive producers like Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson are all leaving early for the NFL draft. But contrary to popular opinion, I'm not convinced that next year's group is going to take such a huge step back.
Returning four of the five starting linemen and filling the fifth spot with an experienced junior is one of the main reasons.
The recruiting dead period lasted from December 17 to today, January 3, which means Butch Jones' staff can begin contacting recruits again, potentially voiding several areas of my depth chart.
But with names like Derrick Green and Marquez North popping up as possible additions, I'll be glad to be wrong by omitting their names from the 2013 offensive depth chart.
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Nathan Peterman
There is still a lot of practicing and coaching that has to take place before I can make a confident prediction on who Tennessee's next starting quarterback will be.
Worley is a junior with playing experience, which can't be understated. Most of his playing has come in unexpected situations, like when Tyler Bray broke his thumb and Matt Simms played poorly in 2011.
In a matter of seven days, Worley went from third string to starting against No. 13 South Carolina.
As a sophomore, his most meaningful minutes came during a quarterback flip-flopping episode against Vanderbilt. He ended the game with eight completions on 11 attempts.
Suffice it to say, we can't accurately assess the quality of play from the former Gatorade Player of the Year.
Peterman, on the other hand, was being recruited by Butch Jones to Cincinnati this time last year. His style of play and knowledge of a Jones kind of offense gives him an edge in those arenas.
Stay tuned on this one. For now, I'll give it to the player with more experience.
Starter: Marlin Lane
Backup: Rajion Neal
For the first time since 2008, the Volunteers will have an identical one-two punch in the backfield. Joining Lane and Neal is Devrin Young (though you should keep an eye on him), Quenshaun Watson and Alden Hill, who is coming off a redshirted 2012.
Lane emerged as the preferred starter by season's end over the workhorse Neal. Lane certainly has more physical talent, but this unit is more of a two-headed monster due to Neal's grit. Think of it as a poor man's Jamal Lewis-Travis Henry situation.
And then there's Derrick Green. Green is a 5-star running back from Virginia who has narrowed his college choices to Michigan (slight lead), Tennessee, Auburn, Florida State, Miami and USC. In my opinion, it's going to be one of the first three.
If the Vols were to receive the commitment of Green (Merry belated Christmas!), don't be surprised to see him start. Jay Graham was able to develop a true freshman starter at South Carolina—some guy named Marcus Lattimore.
Starters: Vincent Dallas, Alton "Pig" Howard
Backups: Jason Croom, Drae Bowles
Unquestionably the unit undergoing the biggest overhaul is the wide receivers. With Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson heading for the NFL, Dallas immediately becomes the most experienced Vol pass-catcher.
Howard was an exciting player who caught, ran and even threw as a true freshman in 2012. His role is bound to increase as his game matures.
Croom and Bowles leapfrog the veteran (relatively speaking) Jacob Carter because they have much higher potential. Croom has waffled back and forth between wide receiver and tight end, while Bowles was redshirted last year.
Again, a commitment from a high schooler could change things. North Carolina's Marquez North has narrowed it down to Tennessee and North Carolina, according to a tweet of his. Depending on how he fits in with the unit and with the quarterback, North could crack the two-deep depth chart.
Starter: Brendan Downs
Backup: Justin Meredith
Downs caught his first career touchdown for the Volunteers in 2012 after starting the season with a knee injury. With only six receptions in two years, Downs hasn't yet been able to show his stuff because Mychal Rivera occupied the starting spot.
But now he's healthy and the likely starter on day one, which is good because you like what you've seen from him in his short time on Rocky Top.
Meredith was a 3-star recruit from North Carolina last year who had offers from Notre Dame, South Carolina and Clemson, to name a few (per Rivals). He'll be a redshirt freshman in 2013 with the potential to be a reliable target alongside Downs.
Starters: Antonio Richardson, Ja'Wuan James
Backups: Kyler Kerbyson, Alex Bullard
The bookend tackles for the Tennessee offensive line are big, talented and experienced. Both Richardson and James can be first-round picks in the 2014 NFL draft with strong junior and senior campaigns, respectively.
Kerbyson redshirted in 2011 and played in seven games last season. As a redshirt sophomore, you'll see him slowly entering more and more games leading up to a 2014 season, where he'll likely start.
Bullard is the ultimate utility man on the offensive line, and that's not an insult. Having started at center and guard for Tennessee in the past, he rounded out his skills by working on exterior blocking in 2012 as a tight end. Bullard is a valuable piece to the offensive line's depth.
Starters: Marcus Jackson, Zach Fulton
Backups: Alex Bullard, Alan Posey
The 2013 offensive line won't skip a beat. Dallas Thomas was a great three-year starter, but Jackson has been groomed since his freshman year in 2010 to step in one day, and that day has come.
Fulton joined Ja'Wuan James when he announced he'd be returning for this senior season. Fulton and James have started 28 games beside each other and are nearly impossible to beat on the right side.
Bullard appears as a backup here again and is joined by Posey. Posey is the biggest reserve lineman, standing at 6'5", 321 pounds. He redshirted in 2011 and appeared in one game last season.
Starter: James Stone
Backup: Mack Crowder
Stone had a great bounce-back season in 2012 after having snapping issues in 2011. That's good for the Vols since Stone is an excellent anchor in the middle of the line and wouldn't commit to Tennessee until Lane Kiffin left, which is endearing.
Crowder has been an exciting up-and-comer for a few years now and made his on-field debut last year against Georgia State. With Stone graduating next year, Crowder will be the heir apparent in 12 months.