The last 24 months have been an incredibly trying time for Tennessee Vols supporters.
During that time, Tennessee has gone 12-13 on the field, fired one of its longest tenured head coaches, watched his replacement sully the Tennessee name and bring NCAA scrutiny on the program before leaving the Vols for the head coaching job at USC.
That decision led to Tennessee selecting a coach, Derek Dooley, who went just 4-8 in 2009 at Louisiana Tech.
Through it all, however, the bond among the players has strengthened. Well, the players who are left anyway.
It was quickly apparent, once Lane Kiffin left Knoxville for the smoggier atmosphere of Los Angeles, that Tennessee would likely fall victim to numbers in 2010.
When All-SEC offensive lineman, Aaron Douglas, decided to transfer from an already depleted front-line unit, it became official that 2010 would not be a banner year on Rocky Top.
Shortly after he left, Tennessee lost depth at another critical position, quarterback. Fifth-year senior Nick Stephens left the program after it became apparent that he was likely going to finish the spring as the backup quarterback in 2010.
Bryce Brown didn’t even participate in spring practice, but the ‘09 top recruit’s story wouldn’t be finished until just one week ago when he finally made it official that he was leaving the program.
Preseason practice hasn’t been in session for a week and two more Vols have apparently bitten the dust for 2010, as well.
Defensive end Ben Martin and defensive tackle Marlon Walls both injured their Achilles since practice began on Wednesday. Both are out for the season.
The deck is definitely stacked against these Vols at the start of the 2010 season.
Hopefully you’ll learn all you need to know about the Big Orange in 2010 after these next few slides.
After the debacle that the Lane Kiffin hire turned out to be, it was imperative that Mike Hamilton hit his next football coaching hire out of the park.
Upon learning that Louisiana Tech head coach, Derek Dooley, was the AD’s choice, many Vols fans scratched their heads.
Still, most considered it a good move once they heard the former lawyer and son of SEC coaching legend, Vince Dooley, speak at length.
It was quickly apparent that Derek Dooley was the anti-Lane Kiffin. Dooley is Southern. Dooley knows the SEC. Dooley is respectful. Dooley is everything that Lane Kiffin is not. At the time, that was all Vols fans needed to hear.
Now, we find out if Derek Dooley can thrive as an SEC head coach.
He was one Nick Saban’s longest tenured assistants with LSU and even followed him to the Miami Dolphins, prior to taking the top job at Louisiana Tech
Dooley’s father, Vince, is the most successful coach in the history of Georgia Bulldogs football.
Derek Dooley certainly has the pedigree and connections to be a successful coach in the best conference in the land.
Matt Simms, the son of former NFL great Phil Simms, has been the odds-on favorite to become the starting quarterback since the midway point of spring practice.
Of Simms, Dooley recently stated, “He came out of spring as our quarterback. Matt is very mature physically.”
The coach continued, “He's got a good presence and command about him and leadership qualities. Very strong arm.”
Simms transferred from El Camino Community College in January. He began his college career at Louisville in 2008 but transferred in 2009 after not being named the Cardinals starter.
The quarterback was not very impressive in the Orange and White Spring Game, but according to NFL reporter Chris Mortensen, of ESPN, Simms was the "wow guy" at last month's Manning Passing Academy Camp.
Either way, Simms has more experience and poise than does his backup, true freshman Tyler Bray.
Bray is listed at 6-foot-6, 210-pounds—although the 210 may be a tad generous for the lanky signal caller. Senior tight end said of Bray, “I think he’s 10-feet tall.”
Dooley said, “Tyler Bray is a tall, high school, talented midyear enrollee. Because he's just a lot younger, the adjustment is going to take a little more time.”
Another freshman, Nash Nance, should provide some depth, albeit quite inexperienced, in 2010.
The recent addition of former Louisiana Tech commit, Doak Raulston, also helps the depth of this Vols team at the position.
One of those three freshmen could redshirt in 2010.
Of the 10 players listed on the two-deep depth chart, six of them are underclassmen. Five of those six are freshmen.
One of those freshmen, Ja’Wuan James, is already receiving plenty of praise as a promising, young potential star on the offensive line.
The lone senior starter, at least for now, is veteran backup, Jarrod Shaw. The 6-foot-4, 331-pound guard has made only three starts for the Vols, but he has contributed on the line in 10 games over the past two seasons.
Junior center Cody Pope has made strides during the offseason, and appears to be ready to handle one of the most important positions on the line.
Redshirt freshman JerQuari Schofield is a very talented guard who should contribute right away, along with Tennessee’s most experienced returning O-lineman, Dallas Thomas.
Thomas played in all 13 games last season, most on special teams, and was awarded the Harvey Robinson Award as Tennessee’s offensive surprise player of spring practice.
Also contributing to the line this season will be redshirt freshmen Kevin Revis, Daniel Hood, and Chase Phillips, along with sophomore Carson Anderson.
Among the incoming freshman on the offensive line are Zach Fulton, Darin Gooch, Marques Pair, and James Stone.
A very young offensive line could mean tremendous growing pains in 2010, but with a solid performance this season, the future could be very bright at the position.
The obvious go-to guy in the passing game will be All-SEC senior tight end, Luke Stocker. He's the biggest, most sure-handed option going out on every play.
Stocker is one of the leaders on the team and at season's end should be a first or second round draft pick. His success at Tennessee this season is imperative for the Vols if they want to make it to a bowl game.
Tennessee was able to secure the services of three highly touted wide receivers this past February.
Da'Rick Rogers, from Calhoun, Ga, was one of the nation's top high school prospects last year. Now he's a Vol.
Rogers has already drawn rave reviews from his teammates and observers alike.
Rogers is certainly a stellar athlete and a talented wide receiver who should help Tennessee return to the moniker of Wide Receiver U.
Rogers wasn't the only big catch on that unit. Justin Hunter, from Virginia Beach, is a 6-foot-4 receiver who runs like a gazelle.
Hunter might not contribute as much in his freshman year, though, because the Vols have so many options at one of their deepest positions, in front of him.
Among those in front of Hunter and Rogers, are two seniors, Gerald Jones and Denarious Moore.
Jones has long been one of the better athletes on the team--injury-riddled for much of his time in Knoxville, but still a tremendous athlete. If healthy, Jones could become one of the SEC's best at the position.
Denarious Moore has been a solid option at receiver for a while now. Despite a game-changing drop in last year's Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Moore is a dependable go-to option and he will be utilized many times over in his final season on Rocky Top.
Others contributing at the position will be 6-foot-5 freshman, Matt Milton, who could eventually join and succeed Stocker at Tight End. Zach Rogers will also contribute at the position.
The defensive line as a tale of two positions. The Vols are as deep as ever on the ends, while tackle is down to one player with any meaningful playing experience.
At the ends, USC transfer Malik Jackson couldn't have come to Knoxville at a better time.
The former Trojan is one of the favorites to fill Ben Martin's starting role with the Vols senior out for the season with a ruptured Achilles. Also vying for that role is senior Gerald Williams.
At the other end is one of Tennessee's top leaders, Chris Walker. Walker has been one of the three big spiritual leaders on this team, along with Luke Stocker and Nick Reveiz. The senior defensive end plays from whistle to whistle on every play.
Backing up Walker, Jackson, and Williams will be two incredibly talented freshmen. Jacques Smith and Corey Miller. Both were mid-term enrollees and are well on the road toward stardom in the SEC.
At tackle, the news is much bleaker. With the injury to Marlon Walls, Montori Hughes is the only returning defensive tackle with any significant experience on this team.
It got so bad recently, that the Vols took Victor Thomas back from the depth-less Offensive Line and placed him on the D-Line where he helped out some in '09.
It only stands to reason that some of the bigger ends could move to tackle at some point in the next few days.
According to Vols beat writer Wes Rucker of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, junior Rae Sykes and sophomore Steven Fowlkes, who both played defensive end last season, have been practicing at tackle in the last few days.
When asked recently about a potential switch to a 3-4 base defense, Dooley joked, "We’re going to be the first team ever to employ a 1-6." The coach-turned-comedian went on to say, “We have zero depth anywhere except on the training staff. We have the deepest training staff in the history of college football.”
Don't knock the coach for making light of the situation, either. He has to laugh to keep from crying.
One area where the Vols do not lack is in the leadership department.
That might be hard for outsiders to believe when they see orange clad players-turned-criminals in the news every six months, but due to a strong reaction by those veteran leaders, those incidents should come few and far between in the next few months.
Senior linebacker Nick Reveiz was recently asked about his role in the aftermath of the Bar Knoxville incident in early July. Reveiz said,
“When we talked to Coach Dooley in our team meeting, we realized it’s not just those guys, it’s all of us. We have to be team leaders and really let them know what the discipline of the team is, and what we’re given. To whom much is given, much is expected.
"We have to do the right things all of the time. We realize in that situation, not just those guys, but all of us, we embarrassed the city, the state of Tennessee, and the Vol nation. So we’re just trying to use this negative and turn it into a positive.”
Even coach Dooley went as far to say, "I blamed Nick Reveiz as much as the guys who made bad decisions out there." Dooley continued, "Just because you represent this place well, it's your responsibility to make sure everybody does."
There is a concerted effort to achieve that on this team.
Senior tight end, Luke Stocker, another member of the big three leaders on this team said, "I'm a Christian. I try to use that to set an example for guys in the way I live my life. Try to show guys this is the right way to do things. Nick and Chris are both the same way.”
Achieving that off the field is one thing. But achieving that on the field can sometimes mean the difference in wins and losses. A strong leadership component on any team, especially a young team that could struggle, cannot be understated.
Between Nick Reveiz, Luke Stocker, and Chris Walker, these Vols will not lack in the area of leadership. Considering the events surrounding the program over the past year, that is a welcomed change.
The short answer to that is, yes. The long answer actually names Berry's clone, Janzen Jackson, as the guy who will make fans say, "Eric who?" in 2010.
Fans got just a small taste of what the safety is capable of in 2009. This season, fans will see much more of the hard-hitting, ball-hawking athlete. During the spring, Jackson returned punts in addition to stalking offenses from his safety position.
In his freshman season, Jackson had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an amazing interception against Virginia Tech in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, along with a 29-yard return that set up a touchdown.
The sophomore from Lake Charles, La., won SEC Freshman of the Week honors for his efforts against South Carolina on October.
Unfortunately, for Jackson, that stellar effort came one week before he was suspended from the Memphis game for a violation of team rules, and two weeks before Jackson was identified as one of the knuckleheads who held up two victims in the parking lot of a Pilot Gas Station in Knoxville.
It was later determined that Jackson was, in fact, not one of the trigger men, but had stepped into the store to use the restroom as teammates Nu'Keese Richardson and Mike Edwards did the dirty deed.
Both of the pellet gun-crime perpetrators were kicked off the team. Jackson was not.
Jackson appears to be better for all of his off-field struggles as a freshman.
If he delivers on the enormous potential that he showed glimpses of in 2010, Eric Berry will be a delightful, yet distant memory for Vols fans.
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The loss of former No. 1 recruit, Bryce Brown will hurt the team's depth at running back. Luckily for the Vols, there are two unbelievably talented, experienced backs that are ready to take over the running game.
Tauren Poole has definitely awaited his turn to become the go-to back for the Tennessee Vols. The junior was the third option behind Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty in '08 and then Hardesty and Bryce Brown in '09.
Poole has shown glimpses of massive potential in limited action over his first two seasons in Knoxville. Getting the bulk of his opportunities on special teams, Poole has only 32 attempts rushing, but has gained 171 yards on those limited carries.
Poole's explosiveness should be apparent from the start in 2010. Unfortunately, for Poole, he may have to do a lot on his own with a very young offensive line out front.
Poole is an emotional leader on the football and off of it.
Behind the junior on the depth chart is sophomore David Oku. The speedster spent most of his freshman year returning kicks for the Vols, but he should see a more involved role in the offense in 2010.
Oku is incredibly quick and could very well become a game-breaking threat for Tennessee.
Oku certainly has the opportunity to become a dual threat for the Vols, as the primary backup to Poole, in addition, to his kick returning duties.
Redshirt freshman Toney Williams missed all of last year after tearing his ACL last June, in offseason workouts.
Before the injury, Williams was a highly touted running back prospect from Alpharetta, Ga. He will figure into the discussion at running back.
True freshman Rajion Neal will be important to the depth of this unit.
The return game began to improve last season. With speedster David Oku returning kicks, it seems that the Vols are just one broken tackle or juke move from the end zone.
If Dooley continues to utilize Janzen Jackson in the role of punt returner, that will be two of the Vols top athletes touching the ball before the offense has to take the field.
Considering the lack of depth on the offensive line and the question marks at quarterback, a short field for the offense to work with on a consistent basis would be a godsend.
Beyond the returners, the Vols signed the No. 1 kicker and the No. 1 punter in the nation.
Kicker, Michael Palardy, was one of Lane Kiffin's first major commitments early in the '09 season.
The strong-legged kicker will most definitely handle all kickoffs for the Vols in 2010. Some believe his leg-strength will lead Dooley to make Palardy his long-distance field goal option, as well.
Senior Daniel Lincoln is likely to start the season as the placekicker, but he has battled inconsistency and injury for much of the past two seasons. The leash on Lincoln is short, to say the least.
Senior punter Chad Cunningham has been quite serviceable as the team's punter for the last two seasons. He's no Colquitt, but he gets the job done. Cunningham has also handled kick-off duties for much of the last two seasons.
Matt Darr, the No. 1 overall punter in the land coming out of high school, is set to learn as much as he can from Cunningham in 2010.
The incoming freshman also has a leg that most punters/kickers only dream of. He routinely put kickoffs into the back of the end zone throughout his high school days.
Once again, the little things could make all the difference on a team like this. If the Vols handle the fundamentals of special teams, it could affect the outcome of games, much like their lack of execution on special teams cost them some big games in 2009.
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No one knows what the 2010 season holds for the Vols. However, the numbers, or lack thereof, alone are enough to scare even the most optimistic Vols fan.
Honestly, this team could pull together with adversity as its motivation, and pull off a couple of shockers in 2010. On the other hand, it's incredibly hard to see this team, with what coach Dooley calls a "terrifying" lack of depth, beating anyone of significance in the upcoming season.
Game one, against UT-Martin game should be over by halftime. The Skyhawks simply cannot hang with an SEC team.
On September 11, top ten ranked Oregon will fly across the country to take on the Vols. The Ducks are the exact opposite of the Vols. They have plenty of depth, especially on defense. There's no reason, other than the potential shock of flying 2500 miles to play in front of 100,000-plus orange-clad Vol maniacs, that Oregon should lose that game.
A week later, the Florida Gators invade Neyland Stadium. Florida will have a real offense in 2010. It will have a real quarterback, with a real offensive line, and real playmakers that could put up a ton of points on many teams.
The Vols should handle UAB the following week, with relative ease.
In October, the Vols hit the road for the first time on the season. Opening the month at LSU will be quite the challenge. When you have a young, inexperienced team, you'd much rather have your first game at someplace less rowdy than Baton Rouge.
The next week, Tennessee travels to Athens, Ga to take on yet another quality SEC opponent with a rabid fanbase, the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Vols then come home to play defending national champion Alabama. That's 0-for-3 if you're keeping count.
A road game at South Carolina could end up in the winnable category, but if the Gamecocks are anything close to what they're hyped to be, it will be another one in the loss column for the Vols.
There is a distinct possibility that Tennessee could be 2-6 heading into November.
The Memphis and Vanderbilt games are as close to gimmes as possible in an SEC team's schedule. The season could very well hinge on home games against Ole Miss, which looks much better than it did a couple of weeks ago at this time, and an upstart Kentucky program under a brand new head coach, Joker Phillips.
Derek Dooley's first Tennessee team has an uphill climb, to say the least. With the numbers not being being anywhere close to those of the best programs/teams in the SEC, competing in the conference is going to be difficult, no matter how you spin it.
The lack of experienced depth on the offensive line and the constant question marks at quarterback does not instill confidence in the average Vols fan. But then again, the average Vols fan is going to stick with his, or her, team no matter what. That's what being a Vols fan is all about.
One thing is certain, fans are downright giddy that the season is less than 30 days away. Win or lose, Neyland Stadium will still be a challenging place for opposing teams to play. It will still be full, or nearly full, of 100,000-plus orange clad Vol maniacs, screaming to the top of their lungs.
Seeing the team run through the "T" for the first time in 2010 will pretty much end all the preseason speculation.
This team could finish anywhere from 8-4 to 4-8. An upset or two in September and/or October could be absolutely huge for this team. However, a .500 September, followed by a big fat zero in October, could spell doom for this team in November.
The season could very well come down to two games in November. Both are at home, against Ole Miss and Kentucky. Win those two, and the Vols are likely going bowling. Lost them both and Rocky Top officially hits a rocky bottom.
The last time Tennessee won only four games in a season was in 1977, Johnny Majors first season as Vols head coach.
Could history repeat itself in Dooley's first season? It's not that hard to envision.