I normally like to wait until August to publish my college football previews, but since I am so excited for the ’09 season I decided to give in to my impatient side and publish a couple of weeks early.
I am passionate about many things—God, my family, my church, my music, my writing, and my sports. Tennessee football in particular.
Big Orange football has been a big part of my sports life for over 20 years now. As a matter of fact, ’09 will be my 21st year of watching and being a fan of UT football—or roughly 77 percent of my life.
However, ’09 will be different for many under-30 fans such as myself. For many of us it will feature the first Philip Fulmer-less staff since we first fell in love with Neyland Stadium, the Power T, and the checkerboard end zones.
That alone is reason enough to feel excited and anxious at the same time. The Lane Kiffin era has begun, for better or for worse. There are so many mixed emotions running through the Big Orange faithful that we just want to see some football!
So I will do my best in the preview that follows to (borrowing from a national radio host here) give you your UT football fix, as it were. Call it a primer, preview, or an appetizer—I don’t care. I just want to know what my team is going to look like 46 days, or 1,112 hours, or 66,720 minutes, or 4,003,200 seconds from now. (But who’s counting?)
I’ll attempt to analyze the Vols by position, giving a summary and a grade for each. Grades are based on past performance and future expectations.
It's long, but right here is your one-stop shop for '09 preseason Vols coverage.
Do I really have to reiterate that this was an awful position for Tennessee last year? Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens, and to a lesser extent B.J. Coleman were all extremely underwhelming in Dave Clawson’s cerebral offense last season.
However, '09 might feature a nice rebound for Crompton and/or Stephens. Early reports from unofficial practices have Crompton learning and excelling in the new Kiffin offense. Of course we heard similar things last season, but there was an admitted learning curve during last year’s preseason.
Jonathan Crompton should be better this season. You can never underestimate the importance of having a senior QB in the SEC. I said the same thing about ‘Bama QB, John Parker Wilson heading into last season. Wilson didn’t dazzle anyone, but he didn’t lose games for ‘Bama as he had in previous seasons.
Most of all, Lane Kiffin is placing his first season in Crompton’s hands. Kiffin knows how important this first season is, and for him to place enough confidence in Crompton to be the starter speaks volumes.
The fact that Kiffin recruited him in high school also gives me hope that he knows Crompton’s game and will be better at getting success out of him than Fulmer was.
We could see a good competition for the starting spot in fall practice, but if all goes well we won’t see much of Nick Stephens this season. But even he should be better at this point then he was last year. Stephens was clearly confused at times last year, further proving how difficult Clawson’s offense was to grasp.
JUCO transfer, Nick Lamaison, should provide some depth and maybe even a nice look into the near future should he be called on.
Former Red Sox farmhand and UT walk-on Mike Rozier will spend a lot of time holding the clipboard, but if we see a lot of injuries (God forbid) there’s a chance he might get to show his skills. (If he has any left after not playing organized football since high school four years
When Kiffin landed the No. 1 prospect in the land, RB Bryce Brown, many of the Big Orange faithful were giddy with excitement. Then we saw the youtube videos and that exuberance turned into downright madness.
I know that he’s a prospect at this point, and that no one really knows how good he will be, but considering the Rivals No. 1 prospects since 2002 ('02 Vince Young, '03 Ernie Sims, '04 Adrian Peterson, '05 Derrick Williams, '06 Percy Harvin, '07 Jimmy Clausen, '08 Terrelle Pryor, '09 Bryce Brown) our hopes are high for good reason.
Sharing time with Brown will be senior Montario Hardesty. Hardesty’s time at UT has been marred by injury, but when healthy he’s shown glimpses of greatness. A fast, yet big RB such as Hardesty will fit in well with Brown in a potentially deadly one-two punch on the ground.
David Oku, the No. 1 all-purpose RB in the country could see some action as well if he’s not redshirted this season. Having a stable of Brown, Hardesty, and Oku could strike fear in a lot of opponents and return UT’s once proud running tradition to its rightful place among the nation’s elite.
Kevin Cooper will provide key blocks and a few runs from the full back position.
Tauren Poole will also get some carries.
Which brings me to the real reason running game’s are successful—the offensive line. The O-Line has long been a staple at Tennessee. What do you expect when your former head coach of 17 years was a guard during his playing days?
The line has struggled somewhat in recent years. They have held up well in the passing game, but the UT rushing attack has fallen off the pace.
In '09, however the Vols will be switching schemes. A new zone-blocking scheme will provide a vast difference from what the experienced guys are used to, but it's yet another part of this simple, yet complex offensive philosophy. The new scheme places more importance on quickness and physicality—things that this line has lacked in recent years.
That should change drastically this year. Anchored by senior Center, Josh McNeil this veteran line has something to prove. Vladimir Richard, Jacques McClendon, and Chris Scott are all seniors and will contribute greatly to the success of this line.
Depth on the line should not be an issue with talented underclassmen, Aaron Douglas, Jarrod Shaw, William Brimfield, and Cody Pope ready to step in at any time.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Tennessee was once known as Wide Receiver U. This season could be the year that the Vols return to that lofty distinction. That is, if the injury bug would quit biting.
Gerald Jones has really never matched his enormous potential, but with plenty of help in that receiving corps this year that could change. Jones will most likely be the go-to guy all season long, but he’s coming off of wrist surgery and may miss all of preseason practice.
Denarius Moore just had surgery on his ankle and will be out until the Florida game at the least. Austin Rogers was lost for the season with an ACL tear just last week.
Senior Quinton Hancock was named the most improved player in the spring, but he didn’t catch a pass last season despite playing in every game.
Brandon Warren is sort of a hybrid TE/WR, but his athleticism makes him a top target. He’s going to try to improve on his 10 catches for 85 yards from last season.
Freshmen Nu’keese Richardson and James Green should both step in and make a big difference right away as well. Their athleticism and speed make them both a mandatory piece of the puzzle.
If Tennessee is serious about the official “Berry for Heisman” campaign, which I unofficially started two months ago, they will try to utilize the star safety on the offensive side of the ball at some point. He could potentially be great in the slot. Even though Lane Kiffin said today it will not happen.
At Tight End, big man Luke Stocker returns for his junior season. Senior Jeff Cottam is also a big target and in Kiffin’s offense; both could become go-to guys.
If the defense is going to continue to be the strength of this team it has to start up front. D-Line coach Ed Orgeron is going to make sure that happens.
The line was one of the best positions during spring practice and Monte Kiffin and Co. plan to keep that momentum going with a strong preseason.
Big man Dan Williams is back at tackle. Williams has been a big play maker on defense for three-plus seasons now, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue.
Potential NFL star, Wes Brown was moved from DE to DT in the spring because the depth at DE was so strong.
Chris Walker, who was described as "unblockable" at one point during the spring, and Ben Martin will probably start at the ends; mainly because both are incredibly quick off the ball. With that pressure coming off the end and the two hogmollies up the middle you have a tremendous recipe for defensive success.
True freshman Montori Hughes could step right in and compete for a starting job, but is definitely already in the two-deep plans.
Tennessee has had it's fair share of star linebackers over the years. Raynoch Thompson, Al Wilson, Jerrod Mayo, Eric Westmoreland, and Eddie Moore just to name a few.
This year, Rico McCoy figures to add his name to that exclusive group of elite LB's at Tennessee. McCoy will man the weak side in '09. He'll need help, however. McCoy is the lone returning starter from last year's LB corps.
Nick Reveiz played well in spots last season and seems to be the odds on favorite for one of the other two starting spots. LaMarcus Thompson seems like a sure bet at this point for the strong side.
Monte Kiffin calls the Middle Linebacker the QB of his defense. So expect the competition in the fall to be heated.
Incoming freshmen, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton, Greg King, Jerod Askew, and Robert Nelson will all get an opportunity to compete in the fall.
Do I really have to say it? The secondary, by virtue of having the best defensive player in the nation, is the strongest unit of the Vols defense.
Eric Berry is all-world. Berry looks to be 100 percent after guarding his shoulder for most of the spring. As I have already stated in this novella, the official Berry for Heisman campaign has already begun and the hype surrounding this season for Berry is at a fever pitch.
Elsewhere in the secondary, Dennis Rogan expects to pick up where he left off last season, if he can win the starting job. He started all 12 games in '08, but Kiffin has said only Berry is assured of a starting spot heading into the spring.
Marsalous Johnson and Brent Vinson both missed spring practice due to injuries which could affect their spot on the depth chart in the fall. Art Evans and C.J. Fleming currently look to be the top two CB's going into fall practice.
Highly touted incoming freshmen, Darren Myles, Jr. and Janzen Jackson will certainly battle for starting spots in the fall as well.
After years of multiple coaches sharing the special teams coach role, the Vols finally have a singular voice to listen to when it comes to what often boils down to the most important positions on the field—special teams.
Eddie Gran has quickly added his staple of aggressiveness to this unit.
Chad Cunningham, who averaged 41 yards per punt in '08, will handle punting duties this season.
Daniel Lincoln returns as the kicker this season. Hopefully he will return to his '07 form and regain the accuracy that seemed to leave him in '08.
There's a very good chance we will see Eric Berry returning punts or kickoffs this season. More likely that, then seeing him at WR according to Lane Kiffin.
Nu'Keese Richardson could be utilized as a returner as well. With his burning speed and Eric Berry's playmaking ability, the Vols could be really special on special teams in '09.
Not to continue beating a dead horse. It was a time for a change. There is more hype and hope surrounding this program than there has been since the 1998 National Championship season.
Lane Kiffin has made his mark so far with his mouth. Come the fall, however, it will be time to put up or shut up. Kiffin's recruiting prowess is not in question. His playcalling abilities are well documented as well. But can he coach? We shall see in a few weeks.
Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney worked with Drew Brees and Kyle Orton at Purdue and knows a thing or two about offensive scheming. Even though Kiffin will call the plays, Chaney will be counted on in the booth all season.
Father, Monte Kiffin will transform this defense to fit his scheme and it will once again be one of the nation's best by midseason.
Ed Orgeron is a fiery competitor and that will only help this squad.
We know it's an all-star assembly, but we'll have to wait until September to see how it will gel.
Tennessee is fortunate that they have eight home games coming off of a 5-7 season. While this team is clearly talented, it may take a couple of games to get that confidence back to the customary UT Vol-levels.
Opening with Western Kentucky and UCLA just might go a long way to establishing that well-needed confidence.
A road contest at Florida will be fun to watch. I dont think it will be a runaway, but anyone who picks against the Gators is either stupid or has never watched Tim Tebow play football.
The Vols then come home to face an Ohio team that gave Ohio State fits in Columbus last season. The Vols should win it easily, however.
Auburn and Georgia then come to Knoxville. I think with these two games being at home, Tennessee has to be the early favorite. Especially since Auburn is rebuilding and Georgia lost it's top two players to the first round of the NFL draft. Still the Georgia game is a rivalry and it could go either way.
Tennessee then travels to Alabama. The annual grudge match against the Crimson Tide will be close, as this rivalry is almost never a runaway. But the logical observer cannot pick the Vols to win at 'Bama after the Tide's sudden success in '08.
South Carolina and Memphis come to Knoxville next. I personally think that Carolina will take a serious step back in '09 and that Steve Spurrier will ultimately resign at seasons end. The perfect storm has descended upon Columbia in my humble opinion. Memphis will not compete with their big brothers from Knoxville.
Next the Vols play at Ole Miss. I dont think Ole Miss will be all that most prognosticators are expecting in '09. This could very well be a winnable game for the Vols. Either way it is a pivotal game, as the Vols could be as good as 6-2 coming into Oxford. A win here and Kiffin's first season is easily a success.
The final two games feature Vandy and Kentucky. The improving Commodores come to Knoxville in late November. The Vols were bad in '08 and handled the bowl-bound Commodores with relative ease. I do not believe that will change in '09.
The Kentucky game in '08 was the Vols best showing all season long. Kentucky was also bowl bound. While I respect Rich Brooks a ton, I dont believe the Wildcats will put up much of a fight in this one.
I believe the Vols will improve drastically in '09. Whether that means 10-2 or 8-4 remains to be seen. Since I cant decide on which one of those records I agree with, I'll just say the Vols go 9-3 and end up in a New Year's Day Bowl game.
Expect big changes Vol-fans. We wont recognize this team as the Phillip Fulmer coached team we grew up with—obviously. If the playmakers show up like they can, Kiffin's first year on the Hill could be the beginning of a long and happy relationship. If not, and Kiffin is forced to eat his many words, it could be a long walk off a short bridge.
The Lane Train has pulled up to the station and it's time to board Vol-fans, for better or for worse.