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Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Tennessee Volunteers
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It seems like it’s football time again in Tennessee.
Head coach: Butch Jones
1st year: 0-0
7th year overall: 50-27
Returning Lettermen: 46
Off. 18, Def. 24, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Tennessee Players
1. LB A.J. Johnson, Jr.
2. S Byron Moore, Sr.
3. OT Antonio Richardson, Jr.
4. RB Rajion Neal, Sr.
5. LB Curt Maggitt, Jr.
6. OT Ju’Wuan James, Sr.
7. DT Dniel McCullers, Sr.
8. DT Maurice Couch, Sr.
9. RB Marlin Lane, Jr.
10. CB Justin Coleman, Jr.
8/31 Austin Peay
9/14 at Oregon
9/21 at Florida
9/28 South Alabama
10/12 OPEN DATE
10/19 South Carolina
10/26 at Alabama
11/2 at Missouri
11/16 OPEN DATE
11/30 at Kentucky
Phil Fulmer did a phenomenal job during his run before it started to sputter to a halt. Lane Kiffin actually was a good hire in theory, but it was disastrous in practice, and Derek Dooley was way too nice and way too decent to be able to crush and kill in the cutthroat world of the SEC.
Butch Jones might just be the best combination of the previous three coaches, and he should be the right fit at the right time.
Basically, he gets it.
Tennessee should be a destination job. The facilities are fantastic, the support is peerless, the tradition is terrific, the recruiting base solid and the fan base nutty enough to make Tennessee football a really, really big deal. No, it’s not USC when USC was USC – sanctions and all, Kiffin left for a bigger gig - and the expectations are as unrealistic as they are for all SEC programs, but Tennessee has everything in place for a coach to succeed, and Jones should be the one to make it happen.
He has the youth, energy and fire of Kiffin, but so far he’s hitting all the right notes in terms of personality like Dooley did. Like Fulmer is great at doing, he’s always pandering to the history and tradition like any top coach has to do. If nothing else, the hire makes sense for a program getting a guy on the upswing after working the Brian Kelly career path of Central Michigan and Cincinnati before landing the big prize. And now the grace period ends in 3 … 2 … 1 …
There will be a year of rebuilding that needs to be done after losing so much talent from the passing game and with a defense that was so miserable last season, but making Tennessee great again should require just a little bit of tweaking more than a full-blown teardown.
Eight starters return on defense, and while last year might have been a nightmare, there’s size up front, speed in the secondary, and the potential for a killer linebacking corps if Curt Maggitt is back from his knee injury and Dontavis Sapp can shine on the other side of all-star A.J. Johnson.
The passing game is going to require a complete redo – more on that in a moment – but the running backs are solid, the young talent is there at quarterback and the line has the potential to be one of the SEC’s most consistent and productive.
There’s experience returning to go along with enough talent to get by, but Jones has some long haul work to do on the recruiting trail. His 2014 class is shaping up to be fantastic, and it’s not like the recruiting classes have been bad over the years, but he needs to beef up the talent level even more while quickly developing the nice base that’s in place.
No, it’s not going to happen overnight, but if Jones is as good as he looks so far, Tennessee appears to be ready to be relevant again very, very soon. That might not be fast enough for Vol fans ready to get back to the glory days, but the program is on the right track.
What to watch for on offense: Passing game, passing game, passing game. The example is 2012 Michigan State. Last year’s Spartans had a whale of an offensive line and a great running game, but the offense didn’t go anywhere – finishing 108th in the nation in scoring and 95th in total offense - because the entire receiving corps had to be replaced and the quarterback situation was iffy. The rushing tandem of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will be fantastic behind one of the nation’s most experienced and effective offensive fronts, but offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has the brutal task of replacing quarterback Tyler Bray, tight end Mychal Rivera and receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers. Like the Spartans last offseason, the Tennessee receivers had a rocky spring this year. If they don’t come through the O won’t go anywhere.
What to watch for on defense: The 4-3. The Vols tried out a modified 3-4 throughout last season using a hybrid position for the outside, but the production didn’t come. There wasn’t enough of a pass rush, which put the sitting duck corners in an awful position and led to big pass plays and way too many big yards. Right away, coordinator John Jancek’s D has to find something it can do right after finishing last in the SEC in yards and scoring and second-to-last in pass rush, run defense and pass defense. The pieces should be there, but the coaches have to make them all fit. The four man front should help against the run with more beef on the outside to help out the massive Daniel McCullers in the interior, while the linebackers – one of the team’s biggest strengths – should be able to roam free. The safeties are solid and Justin Coleman settles one corner spot, and while there’s some hole-plugging to do, the secondary has the potential to come up with a big turnaround.
The team will be far better if … the defense starts to pull its weight. The Vols lost shootout after shootout, but this year the offense won’t be able to crank up over 300 passing yards a game and will struggle to put up big points on a regular basis. However, time and again last year the team was in the game only to break down when the D needed to come up with one big stop. With a halfway decent defense, Tennessee would’ve beaten Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri on the way to a possible ten-win season. The defense will be a little better and the offense potentially a lot worse, but as long the big stops are coming in the second half, there’s a big chance to come up with a turnaround campaign.
The schedule: The Vols need to enjoy the first few weeks of the season, because it gets really bad, really fast. They need Austin Peay and Western Kentucky to kick things off and South Alabama to close out September, otherwise the first half of the Butch Jones era would likely take off with a crashing thud.
Try this out for a run of brutality. After hosting WKU, Tennessee goes on the road to play Oregon one week and then travels the 2,928 miles to kick off the SEC season at Florida. After the layup against South Alabama, Georgia comes to town before getting week off to rest up for South Carolina and road trips to Alabama and Missouri. November isn’t too bad with home games against Auburn and Vanderbilt wrapped around a week off. The regular season finale is a must win at Kentucky.
Best offensive player: Junior OT Antonio Richardson. With 6-6, 332-pound size, great feet and a good résumé as a pass protector, he’s going to be high on the 2014 NFL Draft radar as a right tackle or a guard if he chooses to come out early, but for now, he’ll be a key part of a veteran line that should be the strength of the offense by far. A potential first round draft pick, he’s a true anchor with all the tools. He’ll be a godsend for the new starting quarterback.
Best defensive player: Junior LB A.J. Johnson. Possibly the first linebacker off the board in the 2014 NFL Draft if he chooses to take off early, Johnson is a tackling machine who has held up really, really well despite having to do just about everything for the defense over the last few seasons. With great range and an uncanny nose for the ball, he’s always in the right position and always cleaning up someone’s mess whether he’s working inside or out.
Key player to a successful season: Junior WR Vincent Dallas. The quarterback situation will be fine with a little bit of time, a second corner will be found and the coaching staff will come up with a pass rusher who’ll spend the better part of 2013 sitting on the quarterback, but the season might not go anywhere unless a No. 1 receiver emerges immediately. There isn’t anyone currently on the roster who appears ready to crank things up like a Justin Hunter or Cordarrelle Patterson, but Dallas has the upside and experience to be decent. Pig Howard and Jacob Carter will have the spotlight on, too.
The season will be a success if … Tennessee wins eight games. It might not be the SEC East championship season that Vol fans are waiting for, but with this schedule, taking care of a few of the bigger home games while sneaking out a road win or two over a Missouri or Florida to get to around eight wins would be a nice step after the 5-7 clunker of last season. Right now, if Tennessee was offered wins over Austin Peay, WKU, South Alabama, Auburn, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and two wins against Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri, it should take it and run.
Key game: Oct. 5 vs. Georgia. If all goes according to plan, the Vols will beat Austin Peay, WKU and South Alabama and lose on the road to Oregon and Florida, and as long as the defeats aren’t ugly, a 3-2 start wouldn’t be that bad. However, getting Georgia at home needs to be statement-time. With the South Alabama game coming the week before, the Vols get a week to rest and tune-up for the showdown, and if they can come up with the rivalry victory going into an off week, the South Carolina game will become a thing.
2012 Fun Stats:
- Penalties: Tennessee 81 for 620 yards – Opponents 63 for 512 yards
- Sacks: Tennessee 17 for 145 yards – Opponents 8 for 58 yards
- 4th Down Conversions: Opponents 15-of-26 (58%) – Tennessee 9-of-19 (47%)
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