A random look at Tennessee's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. The Fulmer-era Vols were never synonymous with explosive offenses, but they certainly had their share of firepower: At least one Tennessee running back or wide receiver went in the draft an astonishing 14 years in a row between Fulmer's first season as head coach, 1992, and 2005, including first-rounders James Stewart, Marcus Nash, Jamal Lewis and Donte' Stallworth and such luminaries as Carl Pickens, Charlie Garner, Peerless Price and Travis Henry.
And since 2005, the beginning of Fulmer's extended demise? There's been one: Receiver Robert Meachem in 2007. Such a drop-off no doubt comes with its share of explanations and apologies, but serious talent getting lost in translation to the next level is not among them: Including quarterbacks and tight ends, Tennessee has put exactly one skill player -- again, Meachem -- on a year-end All-SEC lineup, first or second team, since 2004. In the same four-year span, Georgia has had nine All-SEC skill players; Florida and Arkansas have had seven; Alabama, Kentucky and LSU have produced six; and South Carolina and Vanderbilt can each boast five. Tennessee has produced one. That's Mississippi State territory.
Of course, recruiting like Mississippi State is no excuse, either. The devil is more in the execution:
Tennessee Four and Five-Star Skill Recruits Since 2005
• LaMarcus Coker: Leading rusher in 2006 kicked off the team multiple times, failed at least four drug tests (that we know about), transferred to Hampton.
• Montario Hardesty: Career backup ended final spring as the No. 1 tailback.
• Slick Shelley: No playing time in '05 or '06, transferred to Tulsa in 2007.
• Lucas Taylor: Outgoing senior had exactly 1,000 yards receiving in '07, only 332 in '08. Both numbers led the team.
• Lennon Creer: Overtook Hardesty as the No. 2 back last year, clashed with new coaching staff and quit the team during spring.
• Gerald Jones: Star of the occasional G-Gun formation, used to negligible effect in '08; will reportedly see more time at traditional wide receiver duties this year.
• Kenny O'Neal: Ex-FSU signee and JUCO transfer had two catches in '07 before flunking out.
• Ahmad Paige: No catches in '07 or '08, ran into a brick wall in the spring, transferred.
Only Hardesty and Jones will be contributing to this fall's effort, and likely not in feature roles. That in itself is a short summary of why Fulmer was bounced even while his defense rocketed into the top-10 nationally in both total and scoring D, and why -- media noise aside -- Lane Kiffin's late-breaking recruiting coups have hardly been the stuff of some runaway sideshow. Four members of Kiffin's first class fall into the above category (five if "athlete" Marsalis Teague winds up at receiver instead of defense) and all but one were penciled in at other schools when the sun came up on signing day back in February. Kiffin and Co. won the protracted derbies for running backs Bryce Brown and David Oku and lured both Teague and Nu'Keese Richardson from standing commitments to Florida; needless to say, a lot of swagger and self-respect amid a sea of skeptical ink (not to mention cold, hard cash) has been invested in those guys -- especially Brown, whose hype paints him as the next Adrian Peterson -- living up to their billing right away.
What's the Same. Other than the general perception of Kiffin's basic competence (though the two are directly related), the most pressing reason for rehabbing the running game is the ongoing existence of Jonathan Crompton in an orange uniform -- not only his existence, actually, but the depressing fact that, after a season in which he threw more interceptions (five) than touchdowns (four); finished with a substantially lower quarterback rating than struggling conference mates Jarrett Lee, Chris Smelley, Tyson Lee and Mike Hartline; and missed most of the second half of the season to a combination of injuries and incompetence, Crompton apparently remains the Vols' most attractive option at quarterback. It's either Cromp or Nick Stephens, last seen completing 13-of-33 passes with three interceptions -- two returned directly for touchdowns, the third setting up a four-yard scoring "drive" -- in his last two starts, back-to-back losses to South Carolina and Wyoming.
I think it's a staggering understatement to recognize last year's offense as the worst in school history, and it was overwhelmingly the work of a) The quarterbacks, b) The individuals teaching them, or c) Some combination thereof. The offensive line didn't allow an outrageous number of sacks; for the year, UT finished on the positive side of the turnover ledger. Yet between the Sept. 20 loss to Florida and the rock-bottom embarrassment against Wyoming on Nov. 8, a week after Fulmer's official demise, the Vols topped 14 points only once (against Mississippi State, aided by two Eric Berry interception returns for touchdowns) in eight games, and without four pick-sixes in all by the defense would not have averaged two touchdowns per game for the season. Cue death threats, and the quite plausible accusation by outgoing transfer B.J. Coleman that Crompton, now a senior, only remains atop the depth chart to entice recruits with a vacancy in 2010.
Considering that he almost singlehandedly ended Fulmer's career, and nearly killed him, if Crompton manages to establish himself as anything more consistently useful than Brown's handoff caddy over an entire season, it will be a miraculous performance by Kiffin and new coordinator Jim Chaney. Legitimately miraculous.
Best job you've ever done! You're fired. Since the horror show offense overshadowed everything, the best statistical defense at Tennessee in more than a decade went completely by the boards, a final irony in the exit of Fulmer and longtime coordinator Jon Chavis, whose '07 charges were nearly the worst defense in the conference -- eleventh out of 12 teams in total defense, tenth in scoring -- en route to a surprising division title and a nice contract extension. The '08 unit led the SEC in yards allowed, and Chavis, out along with his patron, was suddenly updating his resumé for the first time in 20 years.
Monte Kiffin, decorated NFL journeyman and proud father, won't replicate those numbers, more because they were such outliers last year (and because the SEC won't be filled as many wretched offenses again) than because half the starting lineup graduated. But he does have a couple All-America-caliber veterans, linebacker Rico McCoy and safety Eric Berry, and there's no doubt that the best hope for recovery lies in another clampdown effort opposite a burly, time-consuming running game; exhibits A and B are the season-ending wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky, in which the Vols ground out their first 200-yard rushing games since early September (against mighty UAB), attempted 17 total passes and held the ball for more than 35 and 34 minutes, respectively.
That may not be the route back to the East championship, but against the other somewhat offensively challenged on the schedule -- i.e. everyone except Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and probably Georgia -- the D should still be far enough ahead of the curve with McCoy and Berry to keep the running game viable and some close win in reach.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. "Walk-on starter at middle linebacker" is a red flag; "walk-on starter at middle linebacker who's regularly mistaken for a kicker" is a screaming siren:
Kiffin's first encounter with [Nick Reveiz] came a day after being hired as UT's head coach. In his usually aggressive style, Reveiz went to Kiffin to introduce himself.
The meeting began with the junior mentioning his father, former Vol Fuad Reveiz, played for the Minnesota Vikings when Kiffin's father, Monte Kiffin, coached there.
Naturally, Kiffin asked Nick if he also was a kicker.
"He said, 'No, I'm a linebacker.'" Kiffin recalled. "I kind of felt embarrassed. He just put his head down. I apologized to him. He said, 'You're not the first person to say it.'"
A couple hyped linebacker recruits are coming in from Virginia, Jerod Askew and Marlon Walls, but unlike the 5'10", 220-pound Reveiz, neither can take on hulking linemen or chase down and tackle SEC running backs using only one muscle: His heart.
Best-Case. Again, a lo-fi, grind-it-out attack has some potential: If Brown and/or Oku is as advertised, or some combination of Hardesty and the two freshmen manages to sustain the back-to-basics philosophy that finally produced dividends at the tail-end of the season behind an underachieving but very battle-tested line, almost every game will be within reach barring a defensive collapse. The schedule is not exactly the Big 12 South: Among the either/or games that will decide the season, UCLA, Auburn and South Carolina are hardly offensive juggernauts their own selves. If the Vols can take those three games -- all bitter losses last year -- hold court against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and the non-conference rabble and pull one upset over a Georgia, Ole Miss or, god forbid, Alabama, a 9-3 regular season ending in a New Year's day game would be a smashing debut for the South's new favorite son.
Worst-Case. The prospects for sparks with the current quarterback situation are so bad that any projection beyond a middling bowl game is overtly dependent on at least one and maybe more of the incoming freshmen to hit the ground running, and instant stars of real load-bearing capacity are impossibly rare. If Brown isn't that guy, the offense will sink into another hole -- maybe not as deep as last year's fatal plunge, but enough to go into another tailspin against a similarly frontloaded gauntlet, with UCLA, Auburn, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina in the first seven games. Start dropping tough conference games in October en route to a 3-4 or even 2-5 start, and it will start getting very deja vu in no time.
Non-Binding Forecast. Tennessee's talent alone should guarantee it seven wins, minimum, in the absolute worst of seasons; two losing seasons in a row is absolutely unheard of. Compared to last year, affairs can't get worse, but the way the schedule shapes up -- with five presumptive wins among Kentucky, Vandy and the non-conference patsies and three or four toss-ups -- I think 7-5 is a reasonable step forward. Eight wins would almost certainly mean either a sweep of UCLA, Auburn and South Carolina or an upset of someone opening the season in the top-20, either of which pushes the borders of reasonable optimism.