Derek Dooley inherited a Volunteer program that had reached its lowest point in decades. The mediocrity at the end of the Phillip Fulmer tenure, followed directly by the Kiffin debacle, and the Vol Nation was up in arms. Thankfully Dooley appears to have things trending upward.
It has been a tumultuous couple of years for the storied football program that exists in Knoxville. The talent pool had slowly drained during the end of Fulmer’s tenure, leading to a stench of mediocrity overtaking the program—something that is unacceptable for the Volunteer faithful.
While the Volunteers struggled to reestablish themselves as a traditional power, they were forced to watch other programs throughout the Southeastern Conference rise to the occasion and surpass them as a quality football program. Who would have thought there would be a time where Tennessee was competing for fifth place in the SEC East instead of first?
Most football fans around the globe would have never fathomed such a calamity in Knoxville, but that was the scenario that had staked claim on the program since 2008.
A program that possesses a seemingly unlimited financial budget, a monstrous fan base and facilities of Tennessee’s stature should be consistently fighting for BCS bids, not battling to stay afloat. Then there is the messy ongoing investigation with the NCAA that has placed a black cloud over their athletic department; however, that is a different topic for a different day.
The Vols have attempted to rid themselves of the cancerous material that has been left behind by the awful hire of Lane Kiffin, and Coach Dooley, at least on the surface, seems poised to do things the right way. Although UT struggled, the first year in the rebuilding phase was a success. The Vols were a couple of close losses away from being an eight-win team and were able to gain valuable experience for their youthful team.
Dooley and company are returning 13 solid starters, and they really like the direction that their program is heading. Coming out of spring, Coach was pleased with where the team stood and felt like they would continue to improve throughout summer and into the fall. An improvement that will be needed to navigate the always complicated and difficult SEC schedule.
The quarterback position had suffered through an era of struggle over the last several years; specifically, the Jonathan Crompton tenure—a moment that has been placed out of the mind of Volunteer fans.
Entering the 2010 season, Matt Simms was labeled as the savior. The son of former NFL star Phil Simms was far from terrible, but the offense had a tendency to grow stagnant with Matt leading the charge. Thankfully, he gained enough experience in his time starting in 2010, he will be a solid backup to Tyler Bray.
Bray, an emerging star, burst onto the scene midway through his freshman campaign and never looked back. The 6'6", 210-pound gunslinger possesses a cannon for an arm and showed a swagger that has been lacking in the UT program. He ended his impressive freshman season with 18 touchdown passes and nearly 2,000 yards in limited starting action, including back-to-back 300-yard games against Kentucky and UNC to close out the season. With Bray at the helm, the Vols possess one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and one of the top young players in the entire country.
Behind Bray and Simms, two freshmen will be waiting in the wings. Justin Worley and Nash Nance both fit the mold of the traditional Tennessee quarterback and provide a nice future for the position under Coach Dooley. Worley was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and has tremendous potential in the program.
While the passing game struggled at times throughout last season, once Bray was inserted, it improved tremendously and will be a much more positive aspect of their offense throughout the 2011 season.
Taurean Poole continued a long lineage of dominant Tennessee running backs that produce at a high level in the orange and white. Poole compiled 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns running behind a struggling offensive line. He was often overlooked throughout the SEC due to other dominant running backs, but he is poised to receive much more recognition for his talents in 2011. Poole averaged over five yards per carry last season, and should be ready to attack the 1,200-yard mark with significant touches.
Rajon Neal will continue his role as the primary backup to Poole. Neal provides a nice pop between the tackles and is a big-play threat with his tremendous speed. Neal will continue to mature in a productive tailback for the Volunteers and slide nicely into the featured role in 2012.
With one-time star prospect David Oku leaving, there’s an open spot for a No. 3 option. Redshirt freshman Dorian Cozart is a smallish, quick 5'7", 196-pound option who can cut on a dime, and 5'9", 199-pound redshirt freshman Deanthoine Summerhill has the upside to be a dangerous option if he can get into a lather. Both are capable of making plays in space and will be receiving garbage time carries this season.
The running back unit is a year older, stronger and more capable and is ready to improve upon the mediocre numbers from 2010.
The Volunteers will be looking to replace their top three receivers from a year ago, including the ultra-talented Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore and starting tight end Luke Stocker. However, the cupboard is far from bare, and the Volunteers should be fine in their receiving corps with a much more mature Bray at the helm.
Da’Rick Rogers is poised to become the go-to target for the Volunteer quarterbacks. Rogers, a high school sensation out of the state of Georgia, showed flashes last season in limited action and is ready to become a nightmare for opposing defensed. He possesses the athleticism and size needed to be a top wide receiver in this league, and is much too talented to not produce at a high level.
Joining Rogers will be fellow sophomore Justin Hunter, an absolute burner and a constant big play threat for the Vols. Although, he only caught 16 passes a year ago, he averaged over 25 yards per catch—an amazing statistic. Hunter is an all-around phenomenal athlete and has displayed his sprinting and leaping ability on the track, as well as the football field.
Vincent Dallas, Zach Rogers and incoming freshman DeAnthony Arnett all will be looking to contribute immediately. Arnett was one of the most talented wide receivers at the high school level, and he has the ability to make an immediate impact.
Replacing Luck Stocker, one of the most reliable tight ends in the country, will not come quite as easily, but Mychal Rivera and Brendan Downs are both capable of producing. Rivera is a JUCO transfer who originally committed to Oregon. He provides a nice combination of catching and blocking from the tight end position. Downs is a star in the making and will be the most dominant at this position since Jason Witten.
Even though the Vols lost a ton of talent in the receiving corps, they have enough quality players entering the 2011 season that they should not see any drop off in production from the receiving corps.
The offensive line in 2010 could easily be labeled as atrocious; however, there is much more to that than meets the eye. The unit was loaded with young talent that was thrown to the wolves in the beginning of the season and forced to learn on the job. That is the reason you see a number like 41 sacks allowed and struggles in the running game early in the season.
Although they struggled mightily at times, as the season progressed, the group began to gel and put together some quality performances. They were able to push the Alabama defensive line off the ball and gain 159 yards on the ground and were productive running the ball against Oregon early in the season.
Dallas Thomas, the man who handles the duties of protecting Bray’s backside, is the lone junior on this front line and is considered a senior citizen by the rest of his linemen. Thomas, 6'5", 301 pounds, needs to improve his consistency in pass protection, but he was able to start all 13 games a year ago and is talented enough to hold down this position. The player manning the opposite tackle position may be the most physically gifted on the entire unit.
Ja’Wuan James, a 6'6", 324-pound monster of a man has all the natural gifts to develop into a star at all levels of football. Once James places his huge mitts on an opposing defender, he finishes his blocks well and is nearly impossible to blow off the ball. He must develop consistency, but that will come with more game experience. After earning all kinds of freshmen honors a season ago, he has a bright future ahead of him.
There’s good potential and upside at tackle, but the best battle and the top all-star skill talent could be at left guard, where sophomore JerQuari Schofield and freshman Marcus Jackson both look really good.
The 6'6", 333-pound Schofield started five games, but he missed half the year with a foot injury. With the athleticism to go along with his size, he has all the skills and all the tools to be an all-star blaster of a blocker. However, the 6'2", 326-pound Jackson might be better. The Florida native was one of the team’s top recruits, and he showed why this offseason looking the part of a future All-American. He has the ability to start in the SEC right away and may win the starting job.
James Stone will be manning the center position and he developed a nice chemistry with Bray after transitioning to the center position midway through the season. Stone is an explosive run blocker and has the smarts needed to handle the center position.
Zach Fulton returns to start at the other guard position, after taking over the helm the second half of 2010. Fulton, the brother of NFLer Xavier Fulton, is another member of this line who has star potential. A dominant pass blocker that is competent in the run game, Fulton has the ability to be a complete player at the guard position.
With all the struggles that the Tennessee line suffered through in 2010, the gains will now far outweigh the pains. This is one of the most talented, young offensive lines in the country and they are poised for great things throughout their career.
In the early part of last season, the Volunteer defense was shredded by several talented teams and appeared to be lacking the talent needed to produce a quality unit. However, as the season progressed, they showed signs of developing into a much better group. Even though they are losing several quality players, they return enough that improvement should be plausible, specifically on the defensive line.
Malik Jackson, a 6'5", 270-pound transfer from USC, was able to step in immediately and make an impact. A bit of a tweener, Jackson eventually moved to the interior of the line and produced at a level high enough to earn All-SEC honors. Jackson’s versatility to move inside and out, make him a tough matchup for opposing offensive linemen.
Jackson will be joined by a group of linemen that gained valuable experience last season and have the opportunity to develop into a potential terrific unit. Jacques Smith, Steven Fowlkes, Willie Bohannon, Marlon Walls and a host of others will be vying for playing time and all possess the talent needed to play at this level.
The most intriguing player on this unit is incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. Couch was a star at the high school level and has the potential to start immediately.
Overall, this unit has all the potential in the world, and should improve leaps and bounds upon the numbers of 2010.
While there is expected improvement on the defensive line, the linebacker corps appears on the verge of taking a step back. Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thornton were two of the more talented players on the defense last season, and they will be difficult to replace.
Herman Lathers is the lone returning starter and he must fill the void left by Reveiz and help lead a somewhat inexperienced group. Lathers will be joined by Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen will jump into the starting lineup and attempt to fill the void of the aforementioned talent.
There is plenty of youth on this unit including two talented sophomores—John Propst and Raiques Crump—and two incoming freshmen that could produce right away—A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris. Johnson is a pure middle linebacker who compiled 173 tackles in his senior campaign and has all the tools needed to be a star.
The Volunteer secondary was one of the bright spots on the team last season, finishing in the top 30 in the country against the pass. There was much concern about the loss of Janzen Jackson, but he has recently rejoined the team and, if he can get his head together, he has the ability to be a playmaker on the defensive side of the ball.
With Jackson’s issues the free safety position may be long to Prentiss Waggner. Waggner will play a huge role after starting the first half of last year at strong safety and finishing up at right corner. The versatile 6'2", 181-pounder burst onto the scene and produced much better than expected on the way to Second Team All-SEC honors. The 6-foot, 214-pound junior, Rob Wilks, is another big option for the spot after seeing time in just four games. The athleticism is there to go along with the size, but he has to prove he can make things happen when he gets his chance.
With Waggner moving, it’ll be a combination of 5'11", 185-pound senior Anthony Anderson and 5'10", 185-pound freshman Justin Coleman combining forces at right corner. Anderson has been a reliable reserve over the last few years with the size and speed to play almost anywhere, making 26 tackles with a pick; while Coleman was a good recruit who’s expected to see time right away to get his speed on the field. Coleman is a burner on the field and has the ability to defend SEC receivers right out of the gate.
Working on the other side will be Marsalis Teague, a 5'10", 177-pound junior who started out his career as a wide receiver but moved over to the defensive side of the ball in 2010. He started the first half of the year on the right side before moving over to the left side late, and now appears ready to handle the job of defending the opposing teams most talented receiver.
If Jackson returns to form, this unit should once again be a quality group and provide problems for opposing defenses.
Many were unsure of what exactly to expect with Dooley at the helm. He was not the primary candidate for the job, following Kiffin’s departure, but he have been the right hire. He is attempting to do things the right way, and that is important following the erroneous behavior of the previous staff, and while it may take time to rebuild to UT into a dominant program, they will eventually get there.
They are still extremely youthful heading into the 2011 season, but there are plenty of talented players scattered throughout the roster. The majority of that talent is young and will mature together and will return the Vols to a level where they will compete for the SEC crown, most likely in 2012.
However, the 2011 season will show signs of continued growing pains and the faithful must be patient.
Last Year’s Record: 6-7
Projected 2011 Record: 6-6