With a little over a month until the 2012 college football season kicks off, the Rant Sports 100 in 100 college football preview series continues with our No.45 team, the Tennessee Volunteers.
The Volunteers finished the 2011 season with a 5-7 overall record and 1-7 in record SEC conference, records Coach Derek Dooley expects his team to improve on. Entering his third year, Dooley needs to see improvement in his Vols or risk facing the same fate as his predecessor, Phil Fulmer.
Before a thumb injury caused him to miss time, quarterback Tyler Bray was eighth in the country in passing yards per game with 315.8 yards per game and led the Vols to a 3-1 record through four games. Bray is an exceptional talent with an NFL-grade arm and great size (6’6). If healthy, the junior will put up extraordinary numbers and find himself in the discussion for a spot as a top-5 signal-caller in the SEC.
Bray can not right the ship by himself and will team up with wide receivers, Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, to form a potent air attack. Hunter is returning after tearing his ACL last year and if healthy, can make a big impact for the Tennessee Volunteers. He was off to a good start last season with 16 catches for 302 yards through two games and is an electric talent. For Da’Rick Rogers, it is not a question of health or performance that his season depends on. It’s a matter of staying out of trouble. The wide out has an arrest history and was rumored to have considered transferring a year ago. When on the field, Rogers is a top wide receiver in the country and he showed that last year, bringing in 67 passes for 1,040 yard and nine touchdowns. The duo of Hunter and Rogers is enough to give opposing defenses nightmares, throw in the addition of the No.1 ranked JUCO prospect in the nation, Cordarelle Patterson, and you have an offense that can strike quickly through the air.
While the Volunteers have a prolific cast of wide receivers, they do not have a true bell-cow in the backfield after losing last season’s leading rusher, Tauren Poole. The Vols brought in three backs in last year’s class but will turn to its upperclassmen in the form of a backfield committee to offset the loss of Poole. Junior Rajion Neal has done it all for Coach Dooley the past two years by lining up out wide and under center but will now be asked to commit to being a full time running back. Also, expect sophomore Devrin Young to be used as a home run threat out of the backfield
The Tennessee Volunteer offensive line should be able to open more running lanes this year for Neal and Young under new position coach, Sam Pittman. Pittman comes to Tennessee after enjoying a five year coaching stint at North Carolina. He is expected to turn the offensive line into an aggressive bunch that can hold their own in the trenches. Combine that with an experienced line and Tennessee has the look of a quality offensive line.
Tennessee made noise in the offseason by hiring former Alabama linebackers coach, Sal Sunseri, to mold the defense into one of championship caliber. The Vols finished with the nation’s 28th best defense but in a conference where three teams ranked in top-5 in total defense, that is not good enough.
While Sunseri will be without the services of 2011 leading tackler Austin Johnson (81 tackles), the Volunteers possess the depth to replace him at the linebacker position. A.J. Johnson, second in tackles last year with 80, is one of two sophomore linebackers expected to provide the punch Sunseri expects from his linebackers. Johnson is the only player in Tennessee history to record three double-digit tackle games as a freshman.
The strength of the Tennessee Volunteers defense is a secondary that held opponents to 177.8 yards a game last season and ranked 12th nationally. Prentiss Waggner (seven career interceptions) and Marsalis Teague are the veterans of the group but look for sophomores, Justin Coleman and Brian Randolph, to make an impact this season.
Last season, the Volunteers faced the daunting task of playing both the Alabama Crimson Tide, as well as the LSU Tigers. This year, they are fortunate enough to not have to play the Tigers but still have to face Georgia, South Carolina, the Crimson Tide, as well as SEC newcomer Missouri. The tilts with Georgia and South Carolina are both road games that will prove to be a challenging task for this Vols team.
If they head to Athens with a 4-0 or 3-1 record, the Vols will most likely find themselves bowl eligible this year. Behind a healthy Tyler Bray, an eight win season is not out of reach.