If there was ever an opportunity to erase past, or in this case only momentarily forget it, the Tennessee fan base would jump at the opportunity to forget the 2008 season.
After capping off the 2007 season with an Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin, hopes were high in Knoxville for the Vols to compete for the SEC Eastern Division.
After all, they had won the East in 2007 and had some playmakers returning for the '08 campaign.
But, then came the overtime loss to UCLA followed by losing five of their first six conferences games.
Does the Volunteer program return as a contender in 2009? Or, is it just another repeat of 2008 with different names and faces on the sidelines?
Here's a look at the UT football program heading into the fall football season.
Here’s one situation where you just can’t escape, or ignore, the numbers.
The 2008 edition of the Volunteer offense finished 11th in the SEC, and 115th in the nation in total offense, 107th in the nation in passing, and 107th in pass efficiency.
The Tennessee staff held high hopes the QB situation would work itself out in spring camp—in a sense it did.
Senior Jonathan Crompton exited the spring drills of 2009 as the starting quarterback for the Vols, but it was a less of a staff decision and more of a promotion by default.
With Nick Stephens dealing with a broken wrist this spring Crompton was the man leading the Vol offense.
Yet, this still looks to be a battle come fall camp. Who actually holds the reigns of the offense when UT hosts Western Kentucky to open the season is one of many questions to be answered.
With the position rivaling Auburn and Mississippi State for the conferences worst performance, the Vols best prospect to resurrect their offense should be Stephens.
His performance last season wasn’t that different from Crompton’s, but when he did take over the offense his first few games were relatively mistake free.
Even with his accuracy being a major stumbling block last season, he holds all the tools to operate the pro-style offense new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney wants to run in Knoxville.
Along with a rough schedule to start the year, the QB position will likely tell the tale of the 2009 season.
If it holds true to the form displayed in 2008, the Vol Nation’s highest hopes look to be a trip to Shreveport or Nashville—if that.
The cliche’ “carry the rock” should be re-worded to “carry the load” for the Vols running backs this season.
With so many questions lying under center, the new Tennessee staff will look for a north and south type of running attack to keep the team competitive this fall.
That style of running fits with what Monterio Hardesty brings to the field of play. In 2008 Hardesty started the season strong, but finished with a whimper getting very few of the carries as the fall came to a close.
It’s definitely his time to step up or he’ll be seeing a group of younger players getting the nod for more playing time.
Waiting in the wings is a true sophomore, Tauren Poole. However, the chances of both seeing the majority of the playing time doesn’t look to promising with new-comers Bryce Brown and David Oku coming in this fall.
If Brown is even half of what the hype says he’ll be, he’ll probably be the leading ball carrier for the Volunteer offense by the time October rolls around—if not sooner.
By no means is that discounting the potential Oku has for their offense as well. If it wasn’t for finally landing Brown, Oku would be the player Volunteer fans would be talking about at length and rightfully so.
Much like the quarterback performances of last season, the UT wide receivers were basically non-existent in 2008.
There’s reason for hope with Gerald Jones. After leading the team last year in receptions he’ll be relied on heavily to be their “go-to receiver” for possession downs and the one to offer that “big play threat.”
On the opposite side there’s hope that Austin Rogers returns to his sophomore form.
After catching almost 60 passes in 2007, Rogers only had 14 receptions for less than 200 yards in 2008. Rogers has the ability to be a play-maker for the Volunteer offense and he possesses the speed to stretch the field when needed.
Yet, with the disparity seen between the last two seasons the question remains if he can be relied on if Jones isn’t open.
In a word, power.
One of the biggest advantages the Volunteer offense will enjoy this year is size along the offensive front.
Led by returning senior Josh McNeil at center, they also have the luxury of experience as well with the starting five all seniors save one.
Much like the other groups on offense, the Volunteer line did well in 2007 but failed to live up to expectations in 2008.
In 2007 their pass protection was successful but fell apart last year. This spring, there was still doubt remaining on the outside with their two tackles.
Logic says the offensive staff takes advantage of the size and tries to play power football behind this group.
If the offensive staff strays away from taking advantage of their size, and decides to move to a more spread open attack the lack of agility from their offensive lineman will likely result in another season marked by expectations left unfulfilled.
The UT defense was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the offense last season finishing third in the nation in total defense, was fourth against the pass, 12th against the run, and 10th in scoring defense.
The line should be good in 2009 but there is definitely an odd combination in the middle.
On one hand you have defensive tackle Dan Williams who was pushing 325 lbs this spring. On the other hand, lining up beside Williams you have Wes Brown who was lucky to push 260lbs this spring.
One, too big for a traditional 4-3 defense and the other on the light side.
Brown should have no problem getting around slower, bigger interior offensive lineman this fall and offers promise for the UT defensive staff in terms of the ability to sustain a pass rush.
Chris Walker and Ben Martin will be manning the two defensive end positions. Both players have very good first steps and are unusually quick off the ends.
The Vols should be provide a very stout pass rush against teams they face this fall. However, once you get past their starting four inexperience plays a large factor.
If they can get through the season relatively injury free they should be just as successful against the run as they were last year and even better at putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
If the injury bug hits?
Coming out of the spring camp Rico McCoy and LaMarcus Thompson appear to have solidified their starting slots.
What’s still left to be determined is who is going to man that third position which happens to be a very crucial piece in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s “Tampa 2″ defense.
Right now the position may remain a three man race for the early part of the fall schedule. Nick Reveiz, who has spent the majority of his time in special teams work, will battle with Herman Lathers for the position.
Lathers, a very athletic and a player possessing a lot of natural speed, looks to be the long term answer.
It’s a safe assumption to expect a lot of different personnel groupings early on until Kiffin decides which middle linebacker fits his system the best.
With little doubt the Volunteer secondary features one of the top safety prospects for next years NFL draft in one Eric Berry.
While other players and units suffered a let down in 2008, Berry continued his dominance tying for the most interceptions in the nation.
Who lines up at the free safety spot alongside Berry is a question mark, albeit a small one.
Expect some competition from Prentiss Waggner and Stephaun Raines with the latter likely to grab the position and hold on to it when their season starts September 5th.
Dennis Rogan has one of the cornerback slots locked down but could be moved around to a safety position if needed.
The other side? Yes, here we go again…it’s a position likely to be fought for throughout fall camp.
Brent Vinson was thought to be “the guy” this fall, but his situation doesn’t look as solid as it did just a few months ago. Look for Art Evans to be one player seen quite a bit on the playing field this fall.
Like so many of the Volunteer players filling starting roles this fall, kicker Daniel Lincoln has a question mark over his head as well.
Will the Vol faithful see the steady focus and results they saw from Lincoln in 2007 or see a repeat of 2008 this fall? He has the ability to be a solid field goal kicker.
But, he can just as quickly can become a guy the staff wonders about come crunch time.
Chad Cunningham will handle the punting duties this fall. He saw a little time on the field last year when discipline problems forced Britton Colquitt out of the lineup due to suspension.
Like Vanderbilt, and like Kentucky as well, the Volunteer team for 2009 is a mystery shrouded in itself.
So many of the players have proven in the past they are capable of handing their duties but have also had less than spectacular efforts in 2008.
The defense will once again be the teams’ strength in 2009.
Their pass defense should give some of the average passing attacks fits this fall. But, to expect the same success they had last year is asking for quite a lot and frankly borders on unrealistic expectations.
As mentioned earlier, if the injury bug hits the front seven of the defensive corps the season could take a turn for the worse—quickly and dramatically.
There is no doubt there are two very large obstacles facing the Vols this fall.
One, their schedule, and two the woeful performances of their quarterbacks last year.
If the coaching staff is smart they’ll limit the responsibilities of their quarterbacks and stick with a power rushing attack. If they do that, improving on last years record is easily within reach.
SEC East No. 6 – Vanderbilt