The proud football program at The University of Tennessee has been in the news fairly regularly for the past 18 months. However, this popularity has not been fueled by victories on the field, as it was in the mid to late 1990’s under Phillip Fulmer. Instead, it has been fueled by the demise of Fulmer, the second most successful head coach in the history of the program behind General Robert Neyland, an ugly incident at a Knoxville area convenience mart that led to the dismissal of heralded recruits Nu’Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards, and the January bailing of controversial coach Lane Kiffin back to his beloved University of Southern California to replace Pete Carroll. These events culminated in the “we have to hurry up and salvage the recruiting class” hire of Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley a few weeks before national signing day.
To his credit, Coach Dooley salvaged a Top 10 recruiting class crowned by the signing day switch of Georgia prep star WR Da’Rick Rogers, but things have been somewhat rocky on Rocky Top since. In the last month, the program has taken on more water with starting tackle Aaron Douglas, heralded tailback Bryce Brown, and quarterback Nick Stephens all leaving the program during spring practice. Programs on top of their recruiting game would have a hard time weathering that amount of attrition, much less a program who has had, by Tennessee standards, subpar recruiting in the late Fulmer years. Depth was already an issue, and at this point it has reached pandemic status, particularly in the trenches.
Today, let’s evaluate the offensive side of the ball of the 2010 Tennessee Volunteers as the first spring practice under Derek Dooley wraps up:
At the quarterback position, it is currently a two man race between junior college transfer Matt Simms (son of Phil, brother of Chris….who ironically jilted Tennessee just before signing day in 1999) and heralded early enrollee Tyler Bray. Conventional wisdom would tell you that Simms is just holding the fort until Bray is ready, and this may very well work out that way. However, Simms is a pretty feisty guy like his father and seems to have a swagger about him that has earned some trust in the Neyland-Thompson complex. Bray has all the tools, but he needs to gain knowledge and weight before he is ready for the grind of SEC football.
At running back, the graduation of Montario Hardesty and the pending transfer of Bryce Brown has left a bit of a void. Enter Tauren Poole. Poole, who has reached fan favorite status with his ability to be productive despite getting limited reps under the last two coaching staffs, is an assertive runner who has a great feel for the game. He is a young man who may surprise people this season. Alongside Poole is sophomore David Oku and bruising redshirt freshman Toney Williams. Oku is a smaller back with a lot of wiggle and good perimeter running skills. Williams, before his ACL injury last summer, was vying for playing time alongside Hardesty and Brown. What this group lacks is experience, not necessarily ability. Freshman Raijon Neal will also get some work in the fall to determine his readiness.
Wide Receiver is where the yeoman’s share of experience on this offense resides. Seniors Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore bring a bit of stability to offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s unit. Jones, who is shifty and quicker than fast, has shown a propensity to make plays. His issues have been with nagging injuries. Moore came on like gangbusters in the second half of last season after battling injuries of his own, making several huge plays. He has, however, battled issues of inconsistency with his hands. Behind those two are sophomore Marsalis Teague, who showed flashes of brilliance and fellow sophomore Zach Rogers. There is an infusion of talent rolling into this position with an impressive flock of freshmen. Early enrollees Matt Milton and Ted Meline, along with Da’Rick Rogers, and Justin Hunter are four elite athletes who all appear to have promising futures in the Pantone 151 jersey.
Tight End is another position of strength for the Vols. Luke Stocker kicked his sophomore slump to the curb in 2009 and was just money last season. So much so that many thought he was going to apply for early entry to the NFL Draft. Stocker is a big, physical tight end who has superior route running and pass catching skills. Look for Stocker to be Simms’ best friend in the early part of the season. Behind Stocker, however, the depth chart is bare. Junior college transfer, Mychal Rivera and Miami transfer Danier Adderley figure to get a chance to show their wares.
The biggest question mark on the whole team is along the offensive line, where it appears there will be five new starters, now that Douglas has departed the team. Only senior Jarrod Shaw, who looks to be penciled in as a starter at G, has ever started a game at Tennessee. Jer’Quari Schofield also seems to be progressing nicely and leading for another offensive guard slot. Aside from that, it appears that Redshirt Sophomore Dallas Thomas will anchor things on Simms’ blind side and early enrollee Ja’wuan James has really grasped the Right Tackle position. The center position looks to be a two man battle between Cody Pope and former DT Victor Thomas. This is a position with little experience and no depth. Luckily, heralded recruits James Stone, Zach Fulton, and Marquis Pair will be there in the fall to develop and hopefully progress to vie for playing time.
The kicking position may be the last to be settled before the season starts. The embattled Daniel Lincoln returns for his senior season after two years of maddening inconsistency and injury. However, nationally heralded freshman Michael Palardy will be on campus in the fall and I would look for him to make a serious push for some kicking duties.
The 2010 Tennessee Volunteers, on paper, look to be paper thin in most areas on the offensive side of the ball. This could be a team, particularly early, who will struggle mightily to move the ball consistently with all of the issues along the offensive line. However, the future looks bright with a lot of underclassmen poised to garner a lot of experience. Patience is said to be a virtue, and this depth chart will test all the virtues of Dooley, Chaney, and the orange clad fan base this season.