There is little doubt that it will be yet another challenging season for the Volunteers. Although, there are a few players that could ease the burden shared by the rest of the team.
These players came out of last season battle-proven and ready for more confrontation. Even the critics had to stand up and take notice, but who are they and what makes them so print worthy?
James Stone, Sophomore; 6'3", 315lbs
Although he started as guard, he found his way to the snapping the ball midway through the season—even though he had zero experience at the position.
Many scoffed at his unorthodox snapping style, but he managed to protect the QB effectively well and found time to make a few holes for Tauren Poole. Harry Hiestand raves about his progress and can't find enough to say about his work ethic.
There are reports that he shed 12 pounds during the spring, and Ron McKeefrey has replaced almost all of it with lean beef.
JaWaun James, Sophomore; 6'6", 320lbs
Considered by many as one of the top recruits in Derek Dooley's 2010 signing class, the Suwanee, Georgia native has lived up to the hype so far.
Last season, he was thrust into the lime...errr orange light as a true freshman starter, but it was out of necessity. Regardless, the young man spent the first half of the season getting his cleats dirty before he started coming into his own.
From South Carolina onward, he established himself as a stingy lineman allowing a left-side sack once for every 33 snaps. That may not sound too impressive, but if you're secure to throw with your blindside protected, you can throw for 300 yards with a good QB.
The best part is the Vols get him for at least two to three more seasons.
Justin Hunter, Sophomore; 6'4", 195lbs
Another offensive true freshman that was hyped to be good, and he also did not disappoint.
He became a favorite target last season for QB Tyler Bray. Averaging almost 26 yards per catch, the secondary panicked regularly whenever he dropped deep. His numbers were modest with 16 Rec., 415 yards Rec. with seven TDs.
However, there were four games last season when he was never even passed to, as the offense spent countless downs trying to establish the running game.
The fact is Hunter has tremendous leaping abilities (we've only seen a small hop or two) and superior speed to complement his position. This season should offer plenty of opportunities to triple last season's stats. Expect big numbers.
Channing Fugate, Sophomore; 6'1", 245lbs
If I were you, I would also scratch my head on this one, but trust me, you are about to see something special this season courtesy of this young man.
Last year was minimally productive for the Kentucky native, but all he needed last year to be successful was for Poole to be productive. You never really saw any ticker tape parades for Fugate because he did his job and kept his mouth shut.
But, believe it or not, he is a decent runner himself. If you don't believe me, watch this high school clip http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHppC3zv2Z8 and then tell me if you don't think he can run.
This is one prediction I will stand by.
Dooley has already said they are manufacturing plays around Fugate. The line is improved and so is he. During the Orange and White game, he pushed a lot of defensive players around, and he did it with the effectiveness of someone much, much bigger.
Tauren Poole, Senior; 5'10", 215lbs
He is the only senior in this list, but he deserves to be listed.
Looking at his numbers you don't really see anything phenomenal. He averaged 5.1 yards a carry and just fell short of averaging 80 yards per game. He did finish with 1,034 yards on the season, but many fans still expected more.
The truth of the matter was Poole performed above his expectations when you factor in the adversity he faced running through and around a still evolving offensive line.
This is his make-or-break season, but before the fat lady sings, the senior will average 100 yards a game and improve his carry rate to 7.2-8.4 yards per carry.
Mychal Rivera, Junior; 6'3", 253lbs
Also another head scratcher, so my apologies in advance.
Last season, Rivera was repeatedly rotated in and out for Luke Stocker. It didn't really do anything for Rivera's stats, but it did familiarize him greatly with OC Jim Chaney's spread/pro hybrid.
Again, you see nothing superb here, 11 Rec., 112 yards Rec., Avg. 10.2 yards, 0 TD. Here again, my favorite word. But, he shows signs of breakout speed, and he at least appears more mobile than his predecessor.
Stocker passed on a year's worth of mentoring, and it's showing. Again, I'm sticking my neck out here, but he will belong on this list before the end of the season.
Expect him to be used routinely in short coverage; before the close, he should have about 43 Rec.
Tyler Bray, Sophomore; 6'6", 210lbs
I'm perplexed, I really am.
On one hand, you have this talented young man that runs out on the field with his hair on fire. Then, you have another that exhibits classic confidence symptoms.
I think any real fan would just want him to be successful and leave all the touchy-feely stuff on the back porch. But, for the real-real fans, they want to embrace the young man as the man that beat Florida...or Alabama etc. etc.
His numbers aren't really the issue, but confidence is....not his, ours. There were times at the end of last season where hosts of fans wondered silently and out loud why he wasn't started to begin with. The answer again is confidence.
Dooley, at the beginning, was more sure of Matt Simms' ability than his, and that's why he waited until the last minute. Much to Bray's credit, he did in fact seize the day. But at last, there were also flashbacks of a junior Jonathan Crompton when errant passes fell right into the hands of opposing defenders when perfect receptions waved double in desperation.
Can he do it? There is a very real possibility that he can pull off a better season than last and win more than he loses. And as fairness owes honesty, I am predicting he succeeds as critical as I might be.