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Does Tennessee as a program seem a little too patient?
Head coach: Derek Dooley
3rd year: 11-14
6th year overall: 28-34
Off. 21, Def. 26, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 15
Ten Best Tennessee Players
1. QB Tyler Bray, Jr.
2. WR Da'Rick Rogers, Jr.
3. WR Justin Hunter, Jr.
4. LB A.J. Johnson, Soph.
5. CB Prentiss Waggner, Sr.
6. LB Curt Maggitt, Soph.
7. DT Maurice Couch, Jr.
8. TE Mychal Rivera, Sr.
9. OT Antonio Richardson, Soph.
10. OG Dallas Thomas, Sr.
Aug. 31 NC State (in Atlanta)
Sep. 8 Georgia State
Sep. 15 Florida
Sep. 22 Akron
Sep. 29 at Georgia
Oct. 6 OPEN DATE
Oct. 13 at Mississippi State
Oct. 20 Alabama
Oct. 27 at South Carolina
Nov. 3 Troy
Nov. 10 Missouri
Nov. 17 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 24 Kentucky
In the SEC, the rebuilding timetable is supposed to last on a random March Tuesday from 9:45 am to just before lunch time, and 2007 wasn't all that long ago when the team went to the SEC title game. There are no excuses in the cutthroat world of the SEC, but Tennessee has had to adjust while hoping that head coach Derek Dooley reloading plan works.
Not that patience isn't a positive in a rebuilding mode, and it seems like everyone around the Volunteers gets that there's plenty of work to be done after the Lane Kiffin fiasco, complete with recruiting restrictions and a self-imposed two-year probation that the NCAA bought. However, the team still lost to a miserable Kentucky team with a bowl bid on the line. Not playing for the national title is one thing, but a third losing season in four years was a disaster.
Tennessee isn't back to being the superpower among superpowers again, but at the very least it's supposed to be far more dangerous and far more competitive. Instead, the offense came up with seven points or fewer in five of the final seven games. The two games the O did a wee bit better came against Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and on the year, Tennessee went 5-0 when scoring 24 points or more and was 0-7 when going under the mark.
The defense was fine, but it got lit up by LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. While those might have been three of the best teams in the country, it wasn't all that long ago when the Vols where stocked with enough NFL talent that they were the bad boys on the block and the expectations were at an unrealistically high level. This was a place that burned things when Kiffin left to take a better gig – and even under NCAA sanctions, USC was the better job offer – and wanted to kick out Phil Fulmer because things had slipped a bit.
Dooley has done what he could, and he has done a terrific job of blowing everything up and taking the lumps needed to try to put together something special. No, he's not getting the whopper recruiting classes Fulmer used to grab, and he's not making the splash or the noise that Kiffin did during his cup of coffee in Knoxville, but he has managed to convince enough good prospects that immediate playing time is a good thing.
Only three Vols were taken in the last two drafts, but that's a positive; all the talent is being stockpiled. Last year the linebacking corps was way too young, but it was okay. Now, sophomores Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson form the foundation of a good-looking group that should be fantastic for the next few years. The same goes for a secondary that will likely start two sophomores and an offensive backfield that will have a terrific rotation.
The big key has been turning the passing game into something potentially special with Tyler Bray knocking on the door of potential NFL stardom and Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter two pro-caliber targets who'll be taken in the top 50 whenever they're ready to come out.
Dooley inherited most of the talent he's using now, but one of his biggest positives has been as a depth creator. All of a sudden, the program that had to fight through scholarship issues and penalties has lots and lots of promising young options to work with at almost all the key spots.
Tennessee is slowly but surely starting to look like Tennessee again, and soon, Tennessee's expectations will start to look like Tennessee's expectations again.
What to watch for on offense: The offensive line. Tyler Bray has the potential to be a first round NFL draft pick with a little more seasoning. The combination of Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson is as impressive a trio of receivers as any in college football. The running backs all have enough speed and talent to potentially put up big numbers with a little bit of help, and that assistance has to come from a line that didn't generate enough of a push for the ground game. There will be plenty of playing around with the lineup to find the right fit, and while pass protection isn't a problem, getting physical is an issue. The Vols failed to run for 200 yards in any game and was stuffed for -21 yards by Georgia and inexplicably came up with just 61 yards against Kentucky.
What to watch for on defense: The pass rush. Opponents attempted a mere 307 passes, but the 16 sacks were still way too few. The Vols are athletic across the board and have speed in the back seven, but there aren't any sure-thing superstar pass rushers along the line. The secondary didn't suffer – few teams on the slate knew how to throw a forward pass – but there weren't enough big plays or picks made. The defense has to be more disruptive and even more active, especially against the better teams, and that starts by getting something going behind the line
The team will be far better if … everyone can stay healthy. This might be as deep as Tennessee has been in a long time, but the stars have to be on the field. Losing Justin Hunter to a knee injury early on was a major body blow, while Tyler Bray's injured thumb couldn't have come at a worse time. Linebacker Herman Lathers had an ankle injury and promising new defender Christian Harris to a knee problem hurt. Everyone suffers injuries and every team has to deal with major adversity on the fly, but it would be a big plus if the key parts could somehow hang around.
The schedule: It's going to take a major upset or three to turn things around. The Vols should be better, but getting off to a hot start would be nice with a showcase game on August 31st against a terrific NC State team in Atlanta. It might seem crazy, but a winning season might be tough without a win in over the Wolfpack. Georgia State, Akron and Troy eases up the non-conference slate, but the conference schedule is a bear.
Getting Florida and Missouri at home is nice, but playing Alabama in Neyland might not matter. There's a rough stretch of three road games in four, going to Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina with Alabama the lone break, but things get better late with three home games in the final four with the only road game at Vanderbilt.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Tyler Bray. It wouldn't be a shocker if Da'Rick Rogers turns out to be the team's star offensive playmaker even more so than Bray, but the 6-6, 213-pound slinger is the one who makes everything go. The offense desperately needs him to stay upright and able, and it needs him to become a more mature decision maker and accurate short-to-midrange passer. But when he's on and he's in a groove, few quarterbacks in America can match him. With the receivers in place, the sky is the limit yardage-wise.
Best defensive player: Sophomore LB A.J. Johnson. He handled himself well for a true freshman. The 6-3, 244-pounder on the outside made 80 tackles with 12 stops against South Carolina and 13 against Alabama. He's built to play any of the three positions and has the strength and skill to be a rock against the run. On the weakside he gets to use his range and big-hitting ability to make big play. The huge numbers should come now that he knows what he's doing.
Key player to a successful season: Sophomore OT Antonio Richardson. The Vols already have veteran tackle options to keep Bray upright and clean, but the 6-6, 329-pound Richardson appears ready to be special and prepared to hold down the key left tackle spot for the next three years. He's the biggest player on the line but he can also move a little bit. Can he beat people up in the ground game? That's what the O desperately needs.
The season will be a success if … the Vols win eight games. It's hardly going to be easy and it might take a win over NC State to start the year, but it's not an unreasonable goal for a veteran team with good options and depth. Missing Arkansas and LSU after having to deal with the two last season will help, and there will be wins early and late, but it's still going to take a little time and work to push for the East title.
Key game: Aug. 31 vs. NC State. A win in the opener in the Georgia Dome would do wonders to set the tone for the first half of the year. After the way 2010 ended, and with everyone back and healthy, the Vols would make a big statement with a victory over a terrific Wolfpack team looking for a big breakthrough campaign. With Georgia State and Akron wrapped around a home date against Florida, 3-1 is a lock and 4-0 is possible with a win in Atlanta.
2011 Fun Stats:
- 2nd Half Scoring: Opponents 160 – Tennessee 77
- Average Rushing Yards Per Game – Opponents 162.7 – Tennessee 90.1
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