With two-a-days and training camp merely a couple weeks away, the Tennessee Volunteers look to put an offseason of tremendous turnover and controversy behind them.
The Vol’s offseason, which began under new leadership for the first time in over 17 years in the likes of former Oakland Raiders Head Coach Lane Kiffin, found themselves in the national spotlight again. In many ways the spotlight was unwanted by many Tennessee followers. It included several recruiting violations, although none were major, the Alshon Jeffery recruiting situation in which Kiffin was accused of telling the kid he would be pumping gas if he did not come to Tennessee, and the constant war of words between Kiffin and, seemingly, every SEC coach that wanted to take a swipe back at him. The constant bickering between coaching staffs seems to have added fuel to what was already intense SEC football games.
With Rocky Top buzzing and the Vols firmly situated as front-line news in the college football world, Coach Kiffin had seemingly achieved one of his main goals: He made the Tennessee football program relavant again. For Kiffin, his biggest question and, more importantly, his biggest task was, and still is, how to keep the Vols in the primetime.
What, seemingly, gets lost amongst all the negativity that swirled around Lane Kiffin and the Volunteer program is that Kiffin was able to sign a top-15 recruiting class for the 2009 season during a coaching change. This is no small feat and should not be over-looked. Most coaches had over a full year to recruit players, but Kiffin had less than six months to sign his new Volunteers.
Kiffin was able to sign the No. 1 high school running back in the nation in Bryce Brown out of Wichita, Ka. Brown, who looked to be a possible replacement for graduating senior Arian Foster, may play an even more significant role this upcoming season due to the loss of tail backs Lennon Creer, who transferred, and a season-ending injury to the talented freshman Toney Williams, who suffered an ACL tear.
Kiffin was also able to recruit the highly sought-after high school wide receiver Nu’Keese Richardson out of Pahokee, Flo.
Richardson and other incoming freshman receivers like Zach Rogers, brother of senior wide out Austin Rogers, and Marsalis Teague were expected to play significant roles in the upcoming season as the program looked to replace three of their five leading wide receivers from last season, but, as of early Tuesday morning, the Vols' receiving corps took another significant blow, as their active leader in receptions, the man who picked off 76 balls, Austin Rogers, would be lost for the season with an apparent ACL tear.
The Vols have also lost junior wide receiver Denarius Moore for at least eight to 12 weeks with a broken bone in his left foot. For the Volunteers' passing game to be effective, the younger players will have to step up and accept a more prominent role in the offense. The equalizer of this situation is that since everyone is learning Kiffin’s new offensive system, no one has a distinct advantage. The players who play will come from those who seize the opportunity.
With the skill positions, offensively, relatively stock-piled with young talent, a much-improved offensive line—look for left tackle Aaron Douglas to have a fantastic season this year as he anchors the offensive line—and virtually the entire 2008 defense that was ranked fourth in the country returning, Lane Kiffin and the Tennessee coaching staff have turned their main focus to the position that was of much concern in '08, being the quarterback.
Last season, Jonathan Crompton, then incumbent starter to the graduating senior in Erik Ainge, struggled mightily in Dave Clawson’s offensive system. Clawson was relieved of his duties last season during the coaching turnover in Knoxville. This season, however, Crompton looks to regain the trust and faith back of Vols fans that saw such promise out of the young North Carolina gun-slinger during his earlier days on campus in Knoxville.
Crompton, who has stated that during last season’s debacle he received death threats, seems more determined than ever to hold onto the starting job and lead the Volunteer program back to the promised land. Crompton, who had a tremendous spring ball session and showed great progress and understanding of Kiffin’s offensive system, will still face stiff competition during training camp. In order to retain the starting job, he must show tremendous resolve as young competitors in Nick Stephens, who too had a tremendous spring, will be chomping at the bit to get a chance at starting.
Taking a glance at the Volunteer schedule, one can make the case that the Vols, have a good chance of rebounding from a disappointing 2008 campaign. Eight of the Volunteers 12 games this season will be played at home, highlighted by the early season rematch against the uprising UCLA Bruins. Tennessee looks to avenge last season second half meltdown and overtime 27-24 loss to the Bruins in Pasadena, California.
Tennessee will also face SEC rivals Georgia, Auburn, and South Carolina at home. These highlighted games are earmarked with intrigue because the Vols will face both Auburn and Georgia back-to-back weeks in October before going on the road to play Alabama. Volunteer fans should get a very good indication of what to expect for the ’09 season.
The Volunteers' October 31 match-up against South Carolina initiates the budding rivalry between Lane Kiffin and the “old ball coach” Steve Spurrier. The two coaches have exchanged words through the press during the offseason and now have this match-up bulls eyed on their calendar. The Vols also will be seeking revenge from last year’s no show against the gamecocks in South Carolina.
Though the upcoming season may look promising, by playing a retooling Georgia and a poor offensive Auburn club at home the Vols still face a very difficult road schedule highlighted by their third game of the season against the Florida Gators in the “Swamp” and their October 24 match-up against Alabama. ‘Bama, the defending SEC champs have a bit to prove this season. They are out to prove that last season was not a fluke and that they are going to be a constant within the SEC.
More importantly, the fierce rivalry between the Florida Gators and the Volunteers came to a head this offseason when both programs took verbal shots at one another. Words between Kiffin and University of Florida coach Urban Meyer have added fuel to the blazing rivalry. The two have since exchanged apologizes since their feud, but everyone knows neither has forgotten nor forgiven what has been said.
With the Gators returning former Heisman Trophy champion in Tim Tebow and arguably the best defense in the country, the Vols will face a tremendously difficult task once they step foot in the swamp.
Rounding out the schedule, you could surmise that the Vols have a realistic chance at improving from last season’s disappointment. Factor in that they are returning virtually their entire defense from last season and…well the offense has to be better than last year, there’s no reason not to think the Vol’s can’t contend in the SEC.
Final records of 10-2 and 9-3 are not entirely out of the question. Then again, if the team from last year rears its ugly head, it could be a long season for the Volunteer football program.
If this season is a tumultuous as the offseason, then throw all predictions out of the window, because no one knows what can happen. Knowing Kiffin and his motives, he has the boys believing that they can contend, and that’s surely the only thing that matters.
With most experts counting the Vols out and predicting a season similar to last season, the Vols are primed to be world beaters and take on the “us against the world” mentality. OK, so maybe it’s a little over-used, but in many cases it works. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team that believes and is motivated. So 10-2? Now wouldn’t that be something to sing “Rocky Top” to.
Vols 2009 Schedule
vs. Western Kentucky
at Florida *
3:30 p.m. ET
vs. Auburn *
vs. Georgia *
vs. South Carolina *
at Mississippi *
vs. Vanderbilt *