2011 Record: 5-7
Returning Starters: 19
Key Losses: Tauren Poole, Malik Jackson, Austin Johnson, Ben Martin, Matt Simms
Another losing season in Knoxville has head coach Derek Dooley firmly on the hot seat entering the 2012 season, but for the first time since Dooley arrived in Tennessee, the Volunteers have depth and experience throughout the roster. The Tennessee Volunteers have played more freshmen than just about any team in the country over the past two seasons, and now they are hoping that an inexperienced roster is prepared to turn the corner and help the Vols take the next step in the SEC.
The Vols return 19 starters in 2012, and with several other key players returning to health, the Vols expect to make some noise. However, despite returning nearly their entire roster, the Tennessee Volunteers do have to deal with having seven new faces on the coaching staff. Plus, the two coaches who remained on staff are coaching different positions than they did in 2011.
That means that every single position will have a new position coach to adapt to this spring, which puts the Tennessee Volunteers in the unique position of needing the spring to acclimate the coaching staff more-so than the players.
Quarterback Tyler Bray is back and he’s healthy, although wide receiver Justin Hunter still has to rehab through the spring, and the Vols hope to have a healthy offense capable of matching the production they had during the non-conference portion of their schedule prior to the injuries to Bray and Hunter. With Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers healthy on the outside, and JUCO star Cordarrelle Patterson scheduled to arrive in the fall, the Vols passing attack should be potent in 2012.
What to watch for:
With 10 starters back offensively, there wouldn’t appear to be much in the way of position battles, but there are a few intriguing competitions to watch. On the offensive line, the Tennessee Volunteers have seven guys (six of whom have starting experience) fighting it out for the five positions up front. Most seem to believe that mammoth sophomore OT Antonio Richardson will move into the lineup at left tackle, moving incumbent starter Dallas Thomas inside to guard. That would presumably leave two guys with starting experience on the interior of the line on the outside looking in.
The other position battle that everyone will have an eye on is at running back. Marlin Lane showed flashes of explosiveness as a freshman, and that was with lingering effects from a knee injury he suffered as a freshman. However, running back turned wide receiver turned back to running back Rajion Neal expects to factor in at the position and several other tailbacks figure to get a look this spring in a competition that will definitely last into the fall when Davante Bourque arrives.
Defensively, the biggest adjustment will be to new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 scheme, assuming they do indeed make regular use of an odd-man front. Several guys will be moved around throughout the spring to see where they fit in this new scheme, with defensive ends Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon moving to the jack linebacker spots, and several linebacker bouncing between inside and outside backer.
On the defensive front, the Tennessee Volunteers will have to replace Malik Jackson, an All-SEC defensive tackle with the versatility to move inside or out. Jackson’s ability to play any position on the defensive front would have made him a perfect addition to Sunseri’s 3-4, but the Vols will have to look elsewhere for the producation.
Look for junior Maurice Couch to pick up the mantle as “Top Dog” on the defensive line. He played great in spurts last year, and he came on strong in the latter portion of the season. He’ll have to have a big-time year in order for Tennessee to smoothly transition into this new defense.
The Vols had their first spring practice earlier today.
Spring Game: 4-21