Published February 22, 2011 - 3:20pm
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The 2010 Vols struggled early in the season, but were able reel off a four game winning streak and become bowl eligible behind an influx of young players into the lineup down the stretch. Nevertheless, Derek Dooley described the depleted 2010 Volunteers football team as a little small and a little slow. That’s not exactly the recipe for success in the nation’s toughest conference. With that in mind, Dooley hit the recruiting trail hard in an attempt to get bigger, faster and stronger. He succeeded. The Vols compiled a second straight stellar recruiting class earlier this month. The last two classes have replenished the Vols roster with loads of young talent, with the key word being young. Roughly 70% of the Vols roster will be freshmen and sophomores in 2011. How quickly the underclassmen develop and progress in year two of the Dooley era will determine how much improvement the big orange will see on the field this fall.
The Vols have numerous question marks heading into spring practice and the fall. Here are five of the biggest questions that Tennessee fans will be asking heading into 2011.
1) How will Tyler Bray progress?
During the second half of the 2011 season Tyler Bray provided a much needed spark for the Volunteers offense and a renewed hope for the future for the big orange faithful. The laid back freshman from California completed 125-224 passes for 1,849 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on the year. He was awarded SEC freshman of the week honors 3 times in just 4 starts. The rising sophomore has a big arm, great composure, and radiates confidence every time he steps into the huddle. Nevertheless, he has plenty of room for improvement if he wishes to be a great quarterback in this league.
In 2010, it seemed as if Bray was just going out onto the field and slinging the ball around for touchdowns based on raw god given ability. This offseason Bray must become a film junkie. Learning how to study film and read defenses is a key to a quarterback’s progression. He needs to take full advantage of the two weeks in the summer that Peyton Manning works out in Knoxville with the team. Furthermore, this is a team without a lot of senior and junior leadership. As quarterback, the team will be looking to him and he needs to take this team on his back as its leader. This is a lot of responsibility for a 19 year old kid so he must grow up fast. That’s what it takes to be a great quarterback in the SEC.
What do I expect to see from Bray in 2011? I expect him to build on his 2010 efforts, and show that he can become one of the premier quarterbacks in the SEC. His protection should be improved so he should have more time in the pocket. If he can develop chemistry with the young receivers there is no reason to believe that he won’t elevate his game.
2) Can the Vols establish a running game?
The Vols struggled mightily in the running game in 2010 finishing the year ranked 100th in the nation in rushing offense with only 1393 yards and an average of 116 ypg. The struggles running the ball really crippled the offense in short yardage and red zone situations. As a result, the offense often became one dimensional. Some of this can be placed on the fact that Tennessee had 3 true freshmen starting on the offensive line for much of the season. However, the Vols must get improved play from their running backs as well.
The offensive line should improve immensely as the Vols essentially return all five starters. However, they will still be young. True sophomores JaWuan James, James Stone, and Zach Fulton return along with redshirt sophomore JerQuari Schofield and junior Dallas Thomas. This talented young group should benefit from having an offseason in the weight room and a full spring practice to build a cohesive unit.
Vols starting running back Tauren Poole broke the 1,000 yard mark last season. Nevertheless, the coaches believe that he and the other running backs left a lot of yards out on the field. They need to improve on reading blocks, making cuts and getting up field. As a senior, Poole will probably get the majority of the carries, but he is simply an average SEC running back. The Vols need to find a playmaker at running back for 2011 and the future. Sophomore Rajion Neal has shown flashes of ability but he must become more consistent and mature if he wants to get more carries. True freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith are almost guaranteed to get an opportunity in the Vols backfield, too.
Look for the Tennessee running game to improve, but the offensive line might still be a year away from completely maturing and developing. The Vols must find the next in the long line of great UT running backs if they wish to have a dominant running game again.
3) Will Janzen Jackson be back in the fall?
Safety Janzen Jackson is unquestionably the best player on Tennessee’s defense. That was until the rising junior withdrew from school to deal with “personal issues” on February 7th. Jackson, who began dealing with these issues prior to the Music City Bowl, seems to be working towards rejoining the Vols. He is apparently maintaining frequent contact with his coaches and teammates. The coaches have expressed support and are willing to do everything possible to help him overcome these issues. It seems that there is a sense of guarded optimism that he will return to the team this summer.
Jackson, an All SEC performer, has started nearly every game for the last two seasons. With Jackson the secondary is probably the strength of the defense. Without him the Vols will have a giant question mark at safety left to be filled by incoming recruits.
4) Can the young receivers step up?
Tennessee loses their three leading receivers from 2010: Denarius Moore, Gerald Jones, and tight end Luke Stocker. It will be difficult to replace this group as players and leaders. All three are likely to have a shot to play somewhere in the NFL next year. However, if the Vols have a drop off in the receiving corps in 2011 it will be from a lack of experience, not a lack of talent. Bray will have a bevy of young talent to throw the ball to in 2011. These young guys need to develop quickly if the Vols offense is to build upon its success late in the 2010 season.
The Vols receiver corps will be headed by sophomores Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. Hunter burst onto the scene last season as a freshman with his incredible speed and jumping ability. He proved to be a big play guy for the Vols, hauling in 7 touchdowns and 415 yards receiving on just 16 receptions. The Vols will continue to use him on deep routes and jump balls, but look for him to become more involved in the short and intermediate passing game this season. Go ahead and pencil Hunter into the starting lineup.
Da’Rick Rogers, a former five star recruit, looks like he will be a starter alongside Hunter in 2011. Rogers has great size, speed and strength for a young player. As a freshman, Rogers contributed in both the running and passing game. He hauled in 11 receptions for 167 yards and 2 TD’s. He also had 117 rushing yards on 16 carries for a 7.3 average. Look for significant progression from the talented athlete as he becomes much more involved in the offense after a full year in the program. Rogers and Hunter have the potential to become a dangerous duo for the Vols next fall.
Other receivers who are expected to contribute include Zach Rogers, Matt Milton, DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas. Junior Zach Rogers, the lone upperclassman of the group, will most likely be the third receiver. He had 14 receptions for 207 yards and a touchdown last season. Milton is a promising sophomore who has the size and speed to play in the SEC, but he needs to work on his hands in the offseason. Freshmen DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas will also be counted on to contribute. Arnett was a highly touted recruit who will need to learn on the fly when he gets to Knoxville in the summer. Dallas will benefit from being an early enrollee and participating in spring practice.
There are a lot of unknowns in the Vols receiving corps. The unit has the potential to be special down the road, but no one knows how quickly or if that will come. It will be crucial that the receivers learn the playbook quickly and develop chemistry with Bray during offseason 7 on 7 workouts and spring practice. Look for them to struggle a bit in the first few games due to lack of experience before coming on strong towards midseason.
5) Who will start at linebacker?
When Dooley described the 2010 Vols as small and slow it is not hard to determine that one group in particular he was thinking about was the linebackers. Only one starter returns from 2010 and that might be a good thing. Herman Lathers, a 6’0, 217lb junior, was second on the team in tackles last season, and looks locked into a starting spot at will linebacker. Lathers is small but has displayed speed and playmaking ability. The other two spots are up for grabs. Senior Austin Johnson had 44 tackles in his first year on defense last season. He looks like the favorite to start at middle linebacker and could provide much needed leadership for the defense. Daryl Vereen has logged significant playing time and will compete for the other starting spot. Junior Greg King’s sophomore campaign was mired with injuries. He looks to be back at full strength and could give the linebacking corps a significant boost if healthy.
Don’t be surprised if young guys like sophomores John Propst and Racques Crump or freshman A.J. Johnson get into the mix as well. Propst, a middle linebacker, was named to the All-Freshman SEC team last season. The coaches have spoken positively about Crump’s progression. Johnson, a highly touted recruit, might work his way onto the field this fall if he lives up to expectations.