Final Record: 5-7 overall, 1-7 SEC
Count me as one of the few optimists for Tennessee entering 2012. I bit hook, line and sinker. Derek Dooley was in his third season as a head coach, and he had put together an impressive team on paper – especially on offense – that looked like it could finally be the one team to turn the corner in the Dooley era and make some serious noise in the SEC East. But the theme remained the same – the Vols handled every team not in the SEC, and with the blowout loss to Vandy, Dooley was canned before the season even ended. Guilty as charged for believing this team could turn the corner. Did I think Tennessee could win the division? Nah, but I did expect them to make some headway and win eight games. I’m not an eternal optimist, either.
The good news for Tennessee’s offense is that they could score nearly 40 points every time on the field, but the bad news is they had to. Statistically speaking, the Vols’ defense was the worst in program history. They gave up a league worst 35.7 points per game and allowed over 188 yards on the ground per game. You’re not going to beat any teams with that kind of defense, and it was pretty evident starting against Florida and Georgia the Vols defense would struggle mightily.
However, the offense put up some serious numbers, thanks in part to quarterback Tyler Bray. Bray threw for 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns – both tops in the SEC. But no matter how good the stats may have been, Bray was knocked for quitting in football games, most notably Florida. He has a Sunday night arm with a Friday night head. He just looks bored and not into the football game sometimes. That doesn’t bode well for younger players who look up to the quarterback, nor does it bode well for the fans looking at their leader.
We knew a strong suit of the Vols would be the quarterback-wide receiver connection with Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. Hunter ended up catching 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns. However, while Hunter made some great catches, he was soft at times and certainly didn’t max out his physical gifts. Of the nine touchdowns, he only caught two of them against two SEC teams in Missouri and Kentucky. Opposite Hunter was offensive freak show Cordarrelle Patterson. We knew the JUCO transfer would make some noise just from his highlight film. And boy, was he good. Not only did Patterson catch 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns, he also was the third leading rusher on the team with 308 yards and three touchdowns. And if that’s still not convincing enough, Patterson led the SEC in all-purpose yardage with 1,858 yards, thanks to 671 kick return yards and 101 punt return yards. Tight end Mychal Rivera and receiver Zach Rogers also caught more than 30 passes, too, for a combined 12 touchdowns.
The biggest question I had for the offense all revolved around the running game. New running backs coach and former Tennessee running back Jay Graham led a resurging Tennessee running game. After finishing dead last in the SEC in 2011, the Vols finished eighth, rushing for over 160 yards per game. Tennessee averaged just over 90 yards per game last season. Backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane complemented one another, with Neal being the homerun hitter and Lane more of a between-the-tackles runner. Neal nabbed 708 yards while Lane rushed for 658 yards.
The strongest aspect of the offense wasn’t Tyler Bray’s arm or Patterson’s nasty play-making ability. It revolved around the guys up front. Tennessee’s offensive line was one of the best in the entire country, giving up an SEC-low eight (eight!) sacks on the season, good for fourth in the entire country. Bray had all day to sit in the pocket sometimes.
However, the defense was just putrid. In fact, it was the worst defense in the SEC. Furthermore, it was the worst defense in Tennessee history, and the Vols allowed over 35 points per game and were ranked 108th in the country doing it. Before the season started, Dooley brought over Sal Sunseri from Alabama to be his new defensive coordinator, and with the hire came the new 3-4 scheme. We knew there would be a transition phase between the 4-3 and the new 3-4, but we never anticipated it being as rough as it was. And it was disgusting. Giving up an average of 40 points per game in conference will get you one win against Kentucky, and that’s because it is Kentucky.
Tennessee has a long tradition of great defensive players, but the roster is saturated with averaged defensive players. The defensive line had no impact even with mammoth nose tackle 380-pound Daniel McCullers controlling the middle. Hell, he didn’t even play but a few series per game usually. Maurice Couch and Darrington Sentimore are big bodies but only combined for nine tackles for loss and five sacks. Again, no difference-makers. AJ Johnson is the only linebacker on the roster who is a future NFL star. Outside of Johnson, though, Curt Maggitt was injured all season, Herman Lathers played okay and Jacques Smith has yet to live up to his blue chip recruit hype. And the secondary took a major blow when Brian Randolph went down with an ACL tear against Florida. Safety Byron Moore was the target of many plays at the third level, as he looked lost sometimes. The Vols were 13th in the conference defending the pass, giving up an average of 282.5 yards per game. The players were bad, but the scheme did them no favors.
This is a battered and bruised program players-wise and fan base-wise, and the blowout loss against Vanderbilt was the low point of the season. The morale of the program and the players took a major blow. It was a nasty ending to such a promising season in Knoxville. Butch Jones takes over a fragile program at best.
Offensive Stud: Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter will likely have a bigger future in the NFL, but Tyler Bray tore it up this season. Bray led the SEC in passing with 3,612 yards and 34 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. He completed nearly 60 percent of his passes, too. Yeah, I hear the knocks about him against SEC competition and see his head-case tendencies, but Bray has a big-time arm. It could be the strongest arm in all of college football. If he can grow into a leader for Tennessee – assuming he returns for his senior season – it would bode well for Coach Jones’ first year. Bray has first-round potential in physical ability with a free agent head. If he takes the next step as a leader and a player, Bray could have a big future in the league.
Defensive Stud: If there’s one guy on defense who has a NFL future it’s linebacker AJ Johnson. Johnson led the SEC in tackles with 138 total, including 8.5 tackles for loss and one sack. And if averaging 11.5 tackles per game isn’t enough, how about his 12 carries for six touchdowns on offense? Johnson was the short yardage extraordinaire in the Wildcat package. He’s a great player with an even bigger future.
Where To Next: Butch Jones has his work cut out for him. Tennessee is a great place to win championships with such a rich history and tradition, but it’s going to be a major rebuilding phase for the Vols. And the fan base is going to have to be patient and give Jones every opportunity before coming to a conclusion about him. He’s a good coach and a winning coach, but the reality of the roster shows us a lack of difference makers on defense. And if the big three go to the NFL, it will be a bigger uphill battle on offense, too. Jones has retained running backs coach Jay Graham, and he should go get Tee Martin at USC, too.
Photo Credit: Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports