Published January 6, 2011 - 4:35am
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About the time that most Big Orange fans complete their 12th week of psychotherapy from North Carolina’s Music City Miracle, spring practice will begin.
Prentiss Waggner’s busted coverage with just seconds left in the first half, Janzen Jackson’s blown tackle on Carolina’s first possession, Tauren Poole’s less-than stellar rushing performance, and Tyler Bray’s final interception leaves Tennessee fans with much to grovel.
Indeed, each one chose an inopportune time for their folly, but on the bright side, each one is wildly talented and will be back in the spring. A Big Orange lining can be seen.
The following is the first in a two-part article about what needs to happen between January 1st and September 3rd if the Vols can expect to build on the lessons learned in Nashville. This part will focus on the offense side of the ball. Part two will tackle the defense. Let’s get started.
Much has been written about the similarities between Tyler Bray, Eric Ainge, and Peyton Manning.
Mind you there are no bronze busts being cast in Bray’s likeness for Tennessee’s Hall of Fame just yet, but one thing is certain, he has given the Big Orange a reason to be optimistic. Clearly the number one option at QB, the reality is that Bray is in a tremendous position to carve his own niche in Tennessee Lore.
Freshman season aside the concentration now must be on avoiding a sophomore slump the likes that cost Ainge his starting gig his sophomore year. Four points could make or break him in year two.
1) Fall in love with the film room. Anyone that followed Manning’s 4 years in orange knew of his love affair with film study. Being able to check down, realign, and identify blitzes can make a star out of a gun slinger. If nothing else, a film room obsession will afford less time to fall in love with himself.
2) Darin Hinshaw and Jim Chaney. Most great QBs have great QB coaches and that relationship should be a tight as possible. In the calm of the off season a bond can be built that will be needed in the September heat when the game is too furious for relationship building. Besides what’s not to like? Hinshaw still owns multiple school records at his alma mater and Chaney has a guy named Brees on his resume. Remember Peyton Manning still calls David Cutcliff just to talk.
3) Find the freshman fifteen. Somehow I don’t think I was the only one completely shocked that Bray’s gaunt 6’ 6’’ 190 lbs frame held up during the home stretch of the SEC season. At times Bray toed a line between new-born deer and starved shooting guard. Make no mistake Bray will never be the build of Freddie Kitchens, but the extra poundage should add confidence while standing in the middle of a collapsing pocket.
4) Competition. When the only person on the team that is pushing your quarterback is the coach, the maturing process can be slow and painful. The fix? Add one Justin Worley to the mix and let the young gun turn the heat on for you. Worley has his critics, but even they agree this is one sharp kid and his intellect alone should push Bray to a higher level.
It has been years since the VOLS have had so much down field threat as they did in 2010, and Tennessee will be hard pressed to replace a senior-laden group. However, Justin Hunter, Da’ Rick Rogers and Michael Rivera flashed potential and at times they dazzled. Here is an off season to-do list that could restore Tennessee back to its Wide Receiver U status.
1) Play stronger. True that Hunter could stand to gain 5-10 lbs of muscle and Rogers and Rivera may be the idea size, but all can stand to play the game stronger downfield. Whenever you are handing the ball off to receivers as an integral part of your rushing attack, toughness is at a premium. Rivera may have the toughest row to hoe. It seems that Chaney’s offensive scheme is reliant on a tight end to open major passing options for his QBs, this will call all of Tennessee tight ends to shed their first block fast and get open faster.
2) Route running. One of the most frustrating pet peeves of any coach is a perfect pass thrown to no one in particular. Sloppy route running stalls drives and keeps a defense on the field, not good for a defense as thin as Tennessee’s. Tennessee struggled mightily in the early going of 2010 with offensive rhythm, some of this was an effect of injury, but all of it was due to the learning curve of each person knowing exactly where he was supposed to be on every play.
3) Depth. Aside from lining up in the right place, Tennessee needs to develop at least two additional receivers that can be effective threats. I think any UT fan would love to see a Peyton Manning- Austin Collie type connection from Tyler Bray and Zach Rodgers, and for Matt Milton to be able to line up with Justin Hunter to go 6’ 6’’ and 6’ 4’’ in a wide receiver set. The rest comes down to good ole fashioned recruiting, Dooley must sign quality young men not unproven “stars”, young men capable of receptions not convictions.
I can’t remember the last time a running back rushed for over 1,000 yards and it was so painful to watch. To be honest, this collection of backs is a complete anomaly; Tauren Poole looked at times like he would take over games, and at other times (particularly in the late season) was completely ineffective. Raijon Neal showed some speed and an ability to play receiver, but was no serious second option for Chaney. And David Oku is about ten seconds from being another Lane Kiffin recruiting dud. Two things that could save the day for Tennessee’s once renowned ground attack:
1) Offensive line help. Much has been said about the youth of the offensive line. All I will say is the future is looking up and you may interpret that in any fashion you wish, I will elaborate later.
2) Someone has to step up. Tauren Poole is the obvious number one back, but there is such a disparagement between the number one and two backs that it held the entire team hostage for the entire 2010 season. If Tennessee is to compete in the division next year a clear number two must appear. The cause for concern here is that UT does not have a history of running backs mysteriously “appearing” in year two or three, Poole being an exception. My guess is landing a solid back in this year’s recruiting class is the focus right now.
This is the unit that should concern the Big Orange Nation the most. True, the O-line was youthful and if any coaching award should be given this year it should go to Harry Hiestand’s coaching of a rag-tag group of kids not ready for major conference ball. Let’s face it, this year started with a vegetarian snapping the ball and ended with a backward- snapping south-paw; and in between was a guy that weighed a hefty 230 only 10 months ago, enough said. The reality is this unit is razor thin and if 2010’s 6-7 is to be surpassed next year they must stay healthy. Youth was a valid excuse in 2010, but the same will not fly in 2011.
1) Become bullies. Every good Tennessee team has had a good running attack and you cannot run with any effectiveness without being a little mean. Being able to simply line up and run it directly at a defense helps everyone; especially your defense and coaches… like when you need to burn a minute at the end of a bowl game. Remember those blowout wins in the 1990’s? They started with demoralizing victories by the o-line on first and second down in the trenches.
2) Technique. I hate it when writers try and speak offensive and defensive line technique, what is worse is when a writer notices a tackle’s bad footwork from row 30 section DD. Having the luxury of growing up slowly and being mentored was just not in the stars for this group, but what ails in the winter; spring cures… if they do their homework.
Pre Spring Grades at each position? Quarterbacks: Solid B. With two signal callers that have big game experience and with one that has big game success the Vols have more depth at QB than seen in years. Adding Worley can only make everyone better. Running Backs: C. I would go for a C minus here, but there is still a 1,000 yard rusher in Knoxville and he did it with an ill-equipped offensive line. Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: B plus. Everything in my being was saying “A minus”, but no position on a 6-7 team gets an “A”. They could be the premier unit in the SEC in ’11. Offensive Line: D. Still too thin and too young. Check back for a progress report in Spring 2011.
It looks as if Tennessee will dodge the first casualty of the “Silly Season” with keeping defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Coming soon, a defensive breakdown of what Wilcox and the Big Orange will need to pull off defensively before September to bring smiles back to Rocky Top.