The days in Knoxville are not quite the same like they once were when Phillip Fulmer held reigns for 17 years (’92-‘08). He was let go in 2008 because he had two losing seasons at the end of his Vols career and things were starting to slowly fall apart. Lane Kiffin took over and went 7-6 before he bolted to USC.
Enter the Derek Dooley era who went bowling in year one and despite having a losing record (6-7) the state of Tennessee and the landscape of college football is in a much better place with a bright future ahead.
Seven starters return for an offense that only finished 75th in the nation averaging 363 yards per game. The line returns four starters including Freshmen All-American Center James Stone and All-SEC Freshmen right tackle Ja’Wuan James.
The line was very young and inexperienced a season ago and it led to 41 sacks given up which was 115th in America per game (3.15). The Vols only rushed for 100 yards or more six times all season and were completely bottled up against the Tar Heels in the bowl game (27 yards).
Tyler Bray returns for his sophomore campaign after completing 56% of his passes with a TD/INT ratio of 18/10. He has a rocket arm which often led to ill-advised passes in double coverage’s.
The SEC is loaded with defensive playmakers and Bray needs more help offensively. Thank the football gods he returns his shifty runner Tauren Poole (1,034, 5.1 YPC, 11 TD).
The weapons spreading the wealth will be sophomore sensations Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Hunter only had 16 receptions but was second on the team with 7 TDs.
Rogers hauled in 11 passes which were brought to paydirt twice. The losses of Denarius Moore, Luke Stocker, and Gerald Jones (missed 3 games due to injury) will be challenging.
Overall, the development and growth of quarterback Tyler Bray and wideout Justin Hunter (6’4, 4.4 speed, track star) will determine how much the offense improves and whether or not they can move the chains on third downs (88th in nation at 36.51%).
Defensively, Justin Wilcox (Boise defensive coordinator ’06-09) returns six starters which is headlined by tackle Malik Jackson 6’5”, 270-pounds. The former Trojan is expected to improve upon his five sack season that he had in his first season in Knoxville. Neyland Stadium will be rocking in their eight home games!
The rest of the front four is brand new and will have to help out Jackson so he can avoid double teams and get after the passer more. It is imperative that the LB unit plays better despite not having any premier player at the second level of the gridiron.
Herman Lathers is the lone starter as he totaled 52 tackles and 2.5 tackle for losses in five starts. Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen are the other expected starters though it is safe to assume they will have plenty of rotation from their two deep as they still recruit well.
True freshmen Curt Maggitt has the makings of a starter and at the very least should receive extensive playing time.
The secondary is clearly the most talented position on the defensive side and it just might be the best spot on the entire team. They are extremely deep at safety with four solid playmakers, two being Second Team All-SEC caliber this year.
Prentiss Waggner and Janzen Jackson are hard hitting, hit sinking missiles that will blow up receivers when they go over the middle. They are not intimidating by the look of things since they are 6’2, 181 and 6’0, 187 respectively, however they have speed and a ton of athleticism. (Note: Jackson has since been dismissed (McNeese State) and the loss will not be easy to overcome)
Junior college studs Byron Moore and Izuea Lanier are expected to make an impact as well. The cornersare untested as they were weak a season ago ranking 81st against the pass (229).
Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague both return and were once highly touted players. If they start to live up to the billing that they were pegged this Vols secondary has the making of one of the better SEC’s back four as well as one of the premier in all of the land.
This Vols team has the making of becoming a threat to win the East in 2012. They have exceptional talent at receiver and their offensive line is still developing.
Throw in some more studs on defense and I could see Dooley having a nine win season sooner than later. However, this season will still have a few growing pains before they become a legit top 25 team.
The schedule will make this Vols topsy-turvy with all of the tough home games. There are no easy wins in the SEC since they have to travel to Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky.
They get an all-time break hosting six teams, though Georgia, South Carolina and LSU are far from being victories. If they can find a way to win one of those games and go 4-0 in non-conference games, they will be bowling under Dooley once again.
Predicted Finish: 9-4, 4-4
Predicted Bowl: Liberty Bowl
Predicted order of finish in SEC: Fourth in East, Eighth Overall