Published August 9, 2012 - 11:50am
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Tennessee enters 2012 with a safeguarded anticipation and optimism. After all, they are entering year three of the Derek Dooley era in Knoxville, and many still can’t decide whether he’ll be the coach to lead them out of their current descent or not.
After missing a bowl game last year and capping off a forgettable 2011 by losing to Kentucky, the fans were at their wits end with Dooley and where the program sat under his watchful eye. Many love him as a person but question if he’s a ‘football’ guy.
The Vols’ team featured high-caliber players with selfish intentions on the field and in the locker room, with no leadership in sight.
It’s hard to tell if an off-season will have any impact at all on team leadership. Only a team determines that.
Magic Number: Nine
No, I’m not going to say Dooley has to win nine to survive. If the Vols win eight, I feel strongly that he will still be the coach next year. It will take another five- or six-win season for Tennessee and Dooley to go their separate ways, and it’s certainly not out of the question. But it seems unlikely that will happen.
The fact is Tennessee just has way too much talent to win less than nine games. They have NFL talent all over the field. Younger players – AJ Johnson, Curt Maggit and Brian Randolph – will develop into fine prospects at the next level, too.
It will take nine wins for this fan base to feel a sense of improvement. The magic number is nine.
Tennessee returns a prolific passing quarterback in Tyler Bray. Yeah, he does stupid things off the field, but he can make every throw on the field and may have the strongest arm of any quarterback in the SEC. His weapons at receiver are PlayStation-like, with 1,000-yard receiver Da’Rick Rogers returning, along with Justin Hunter and JUCO transfer Cordarrelle Patterson. There’s a legit chance Tennessee rolls out with two 900-yard receivers and a 3,500-yard quarterback, and it’s not totally out of the question two receivers can achieve 1,000 yards seasons each. Likely? Nah. But not out of the question. Bray is good enough to make that happen. Southern California is the only team that rivals Tennessee at the receiver position.
But the running game will have to make a giant step forward in order to accomplish those numbers to keep a balanced offense. Most teams run to set up the pass, but UT will do the opposite and pass to set up the run. And that’s perfectly okay, but it does take a respectable running game. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal are the two guys who will make up the running game. I’m not sure there’s a great season in either Lane or Neal, but they don’t have to be great – just consistent.
One thing that will help the running game tremendously is that the entire starting offensive line returns a year stronger and more experienced. Let’s consider this a position of strength.
The quick-strike offense and the ability to put up points in a hurry will give this offense an edge over most teams.
A New Scheme; A New Focus
Tennessee will run a combination of the 4-3 defense like in previous years and the new 3-4 scheme Sal Sunseri brought from Alabama.
Dooley has praised his team lately by saying they finally have the ‘big bodies’ to compete at this level, and he mostly means the defense.
The group I am most excited about watching is the linebackers. The combination of Herman Lathers, AJ Johnson, Curt Maggit and Jacques Smith looks very promising. Sunseri said just yesterday that this might be the best young linebackers he’s ever coached [Johnson and Maggit]. Ahem…Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, anyone?
The first-team defense will be a year improved and more physical. And there is also some depth starting to show, too.
Tennessee proved last year they could play with almost anyone in the first half.
But what’s going to happen in a 17-14 or 28-24 game in the fourth quarter? UT has to find a way to finish a game. And that starts between the ears.
Two games should be circled for Tennessee: NC State and Florida. The Vols have to get started fast and beat NC State out of the gates. I think that happens, and by more than the three-point line.
The game that will have the biggest impact on the remainder of the season is Florida, and the Vols get the Gators in Neyland.