Following a off-season of turmoil: 11 players getting into some sort of trouble with the law, an almost complete turnover of the offensive coaching staff, and a hometown columnist calling for Phil Fulmer to step down or be fired. Going into the 2008 season there are many questions about the most recent version of the Tennessee Volunteers. Replacing four offensive coaches including Offensive Coordinator David Cutcliff was not easy but for the first time in the Fulmer era, an offensive coordinator was hired from outside of the Tennessee coaching tree. Enter former Richmond head coach Dave Clawson. New wide receivers coach Latrell Scott followed Clawson from Richmond. New running backs coach Stan Drayton bolted to Knoxville from Florida -- and previously worked with Clawson at Villanova. The recent additions gave Tennessee's coaching staff an infusion of youth -- of the four newcomers, Clawson is the oldest at 40.
Long time starter Erik Ainge is gone, but if you are expecting a quarterback controversy forget about it as Phil Fulmer declared fourth-year junior Jonathan Crompton QB1 at the very beginning of spring camp. After two years of backing up Ainge, Crompton finally gets his chance to lead the Big Orange full time. Crompton (6-4 220) brings a different style to the offense then the cerebral Ainge. Crompton has a gunslinger mentality reminding me of Brett Favre possessing the arm strength to make plays down field such as his memorable bomb to Robert Meachem in the 2006 LSU game as well as his 74-yard touchdown pass to Denarious Moore on the very first play of the Spring Game. However, Crompton has also shown a tendency to force bad throws and take risks for example the terrible interception he threw on the last play of the Spring Game. Vol fans can also expect a lot less balls thrown out of bounds when the protection breaks down this season Crompton will not be afraid to tuck the ball and scramble for extra yards. He became a crowd favorite for ending his runs in Tebow-like fashion plowing over safeties in the 2006 Cal and LSU games. If Crompton can keep his mistakes and turnovers down Tennessee fans can expect lots of production from the quarterback position. Crompton was highly touted coming out of high school and his expected by many to live up to his potential this season even landing on the Maxwell Award watch list. Backing up Crompton are Sophomore Nick Stephens (6-4, 215) and Red-shirt freshman B.J. Coleman (6-3, 210). It is unclear who the second string is both players had inconsistent springs the competition will continue into fall camp.
Believe it or not, Arian Foster is on pace to become the all time leading rusher in UT history, Foster trails Travis Henry by only 684 yards. However, the more important Foster statistic is in the nine games last season when the San Diego native carried the ball 16 or more times Tennessee went 8-1. Foster has also slimed down in the off-season now listed at 215. UT Strength and Conditioning coach Johnny Long says that Foster now has 4.5 speed, which should reassure Volunteer fans that have memories of Foster being caught from behind more than once last season most notably in the SEC Championship game on a play that could have been the game winning touchdown. Tennessee fans should also expect Foster to receive more balls through the air in Clawson’s multiple formation offense. Clawson has stated numerous times that he wants to get the ball to playmakers in space whether this means more screens or Foster flaring out of the backfield more often it remains to be seen.
Behind Foster, is New Bern, North Carolina product Montario Hardesty (6-0 210) Hardesty has shown explosive ability in the past but staying healthy has been a challenge. Hardesty sustained a stress fracture in his lower leg in Spring Practice yet another injury in his UT career. If Hardesty can’t effectively spell Foster, look for speedy sophomore Lennon Creer (6-1, 210) to get the call. Creer will also return kick offs this season. Freshmen Tauren Poole could also see the field after impressing coaches with his work ethic this spring.
Percy Harvin, Early Doucet, and Earl Bennett might have had the most publicity among SEC receivers last season, but Lucas Taylor had more yards than all of them. In fact, Taylor was 3rdin the conference with 1,000 yards. This year Taylor (6-0, 185) is now a senior and returns along with Austin Rodgers and Josh Briscoe.
Clawson and Wide Receiver Coach, Latrell Scott, have said they would like to have rotation of 5 to 6 receivers this season. Despite having three returning starters, the pecking order in the new coach’s rotation is up for grabs. This is because of the emergence of former Oklahoma Mr. Football, Gerald Jones (6-0, 185) who demonstrated his talents with a remarkable touchdown catch in overtime against Kentucky last season. Not to mention he is also one of the fastest players on team. Jones was all over the field in the Spring Game making plays in the G-Gun formation. The formation was Jones the former high school quarterbacks lines up under center. Quintin Hancock the former 4-Star prospect also made a name for himself in the Kentucky game last season. I expect Taylor, Jones, and Hancock to emerge as the starters with Briscoe, Rodgers and Sophomore Denarius Moore (6-1, 185) all seeing action.
Chris Brown and Brad Cottam are gone returning are junior Jeff Cottam (6-8, 260) and sophomore Luke Stocker (6-6, 245). The pair look to be pretty good tag team Cottam started six games last season and Stocker split most improved honors with WR Ahmad Paige in Spring Camp. However, the player that makes all Tennessee fans excited is Florida State transfer Brandon Warren. Warren (6-2 230) is an Alcoa, TN native who received freshmen All-American honors at FSU but left after deciding he wanted to return closer to home. However, Warren is currently waiting to receive clearance from the NCAA to play for Tennessee.
The O-Line is the only position that retains its position coach, Greg Adkins returns to lead what looks to be a very promising group. Returning all five starters from a group that offered excellent pass protection all season long. The one change is that Clawson has eliminated the right and left designations the players it’s now the strong and quick side the boys will flip sides depending on their position on the field. Clawson hopes to create mismatches by doing this and force defenses to prepare for many different looks. Ramon Foster (6-6 325) and Chris Scott (6-5 310) return at tackle.
Guard is the position with the most depth Senior Third Team All-American Anthony Parker returns alongside the Tennessee bench press record holder Jacque McClendon (6-3 320) both are pushed for playing time by Vladimir Richard who looks to continue to be a tenacious sub in the rotation and keep all the guards fresh for all 4 quarters.
Center Josh McNeil (6-4 280) missed spring practice but isn’t expected to miss a beat after starting all of last season if he does falter Parker will move over to center who also filled in for him in the Spring.
However, behind the starters there is not much depth outside of Richard the second string unit was labeled as “soft” by Fulmer in the spring.
Check back later in the week for my preview of the defense.