The Tennessee Volunteers kick the 2011 season off at 6:07 PM eastern this Saturday. Here's a few final updates before the big opener.
Derek Dooley has said that he's "more comfortable" with quarterback Tyler Bray this year, but that doesn't mean he's actually comfortable. Something tells me that Dooley is happier with Bray's progress than he let's on but wants to keep a fire under the true sophomore's belly.
The defense took a couple hits in the secondary this week but looks to be adding some depth in other areas for the first time in years.
What's that mean for the season? We'll you've already seen my prediction. What's yours?
The deep secondary of the Tennessee Volunteers took a hit with the exits of safeties Janzen Jackson and Pat Martin on August 24th and 29th respectively.
While Martin was an unproven freshman, Jackson was arguably the best returner player on defensive, although a troubled one. His two years in Knoxville were marred with unexplained conduct issues, dormant potential and the occasional huge hit.
The best of luck to Jackson at McNeese State.
Don't get me wrong, he'll be missed, but as I've said before, once a Lane Kiffin recruit, always a Lane Kiffin recruit...except Tyler Bray.
Martin was described by many as Superman in a football helmet. He was a physical specimen, and his 6'0", 200 pound frame (or more) was awarded four stars by Rivals. Not much has been given on his reason for leaving, but he wasn't getting much hype in camp.
The former 5-star defensive end from Cincinnati, Ohio is ready for to complete a full, healthy season. Ben Martin is a fifth year senior with as much sweat equity as any player in the country with his team.
The Tennessee Volunteers are thin at defensive line, so when Martin was named the starting end opposite sophomore Jacques Smith for the opener, the Big Orange got just a little bit deeper.
Derek Dooley half-joked, half-seriously commented that the fact that Martin was able to practice consistently was the best story of the offseason.
Alex Bullard was a big loss for the Tennessee Volunteers when he signed with Notre Dame back in 2009. A painful death in the family has brought him home to Rocky Top, and he has been welcomed with open arms.
The offensive line was almost a strength in 2010. With every single starter returning (for the next two years, actually), it is assured to be the best unit on the team if not the entire SEC.
Bullard has taken the starting left guard job from JerQuari Schofield, but you can bet that Schofield will see solid playing time every game in order to keep the interior line fresh.
James Stone and JaWuan James man the center and right tackle positions respectively. Each were impressive as freshman and will only get better with time and experience with one another.
As a junior, Dallas Thomas is the elder of the group and will guard Tyler Bray's blindside.
This unit is going to be able to give Bray a lot of time to find Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers in the passing game, which will open the door for gashes from running back Tauren Poole.
Be excited about a real offensive line returning to Neyland Stadium.
Linebacker is going to be an interesting experiment, but I for one am excited.
Senior Austin Johnson is going to have two highly motivated, highly talented and highly youthful freshmen on either side of him. A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt will start at linebacker, locking down that position for the next four years.
Defensive line coach Lance Thompson has said that Maggitt is the best pass rushing freshman he has seen in 25 years. Thompson coached a lot of them at LSU and Alabama with Nick Saban, so that carries a ton of weight.
Still, there are going to be some mental slip ups and misreads that go hand-in-hand with being a freshman starter at a the college level.
It's time for Austin Johnson to step up and lead like Nick Reveiz.
A few years ago, I remember looking at the recruiting list and thinking to myself that all of our hopes for the near future rested in this dude from California named Tyler Bray.
I couldn't possibly be happier with that fact now.
The Tennessee Volunteers' offense saw an uptick that was reminscient of Eric Ainge's one or two great games as a Vol or Peyton Manning's numerous. Yeah, I just made that comparison. Check out the picture.
Bray has also grown physically and filled out his beanpole frame over the offseason, which was an absolute must. He came into Knoxville at 6'6", 190 pounds and has put on 20 more to get to a more respectable weight.
Bray must be hitting the Cook Out, which I hear is the Strip's hottest new place.
The last time the Tennessee Volunteers had a five game winning streak was at the end of the 2007 regular season. The Vols went to the SEC Championship that year.
With four consecutive regular season wins to close out 2010, Tennessee has a chance to tie the mark that the 2007 squad set. Sure, there's been about nine months in between, but stats are stats.
More important than the specific "record" the Vols can and will set this Saturday, the fact that the program is apparently back on its feet and walking again is a great sign.
Derek Dooley, the third, fourth or fifth choice of then AD Mike Hamilton, has taken the role as the head coach of the Big Orange with authority. I'm proud to see a real man, coach and yes, Southerner on the Vols' sideline.