Tennessee is coming off its worst three-year stretch since 1976-78, and third-year coach Derek Dooley may pay the price.
The Vols have 18 wins in the past three seasons, going from seven in 2009 (Lane Kiffin's only season as coach) to six in 2010 and five last season. Tennessee won 15 games from '76-78, a stretch that saw Bill Battle fired in 1976 and Johnny Majors struggle mightily in '77 and '78.
The lackluster performances of late can't all be placed on Dooley. Phil Fulmer's recruiting tailed off in his final few seasons, and Kiffin's one-year tenure was a disaster on numerous fronts.
But none of that really matters. Dooley needs to win this fall. He'll have to do so with a radically revamped coaching staff – seven new assistants, including an all-new group on defense.
Last season: 5-7 overall, 1-7 in SEC (6th in SEC East)
Coach: Derek Dooley (11-14, 3rd season at Tennessee; 28-34, 6th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (9) – FB Ben Bartholomew, QB Tyler Bray, C/G Alex Bullard, G Zach Fulton, T Ja'Wuan James, TE Mychal Rivera, WR Da'Rick Rogers, G/C James Stone, T Dallas Thomas. Defense (8) – SS Brent Brewer, T Daniel Hood, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Curt Maggitt, FS Brian Randolph, E Jacques Smith, CB Marsalis Teague, FS Prentiss Waggner. Special teams (2) – P Matt Darr, K Michael Palardy.
Fast fact: Tennessee won one conference game last season, its worst mark in SEC play since 1977, when it went 1-5.
The Vols should have one of the most productive passing offenses in the nation. They definitely have the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Junior Justin Hunter played in only three games last season (torn ACL) and has just 33 career receptions, but those catches have gone for 729 yards (22.1 yards per catch) and nine TDs; he already is showing up as a first-round pick in mock drafts for 2013. Junior Da'Rick Rogers, a big, physical target, had 67 receptions for 1,040 yards and nine TDs last season despite seeing constant double-teams after Hunter was hurt. The biggest issue with Rogers is his self-control; he has spent a lot of time in Dooley's doghouse, and his behavior bears watching.
There is no proven No. 3 receiver with the transfer of DeAnthony Arnett. That's where JC transfer Cordarrelle Patterson comes in; he was the No. 4-ranked junior college prospect nationally, and though he didn't enroll in time for spring ball, he will be counted on as a consistent threat. TE Mychal Rivera is a nice safety-valve receiver, but he also can get deep, especially when opposing safeties are worried about Hunter and Rogers.
The beneficiary of the talent at wide receiver is junior QB Tyler Bray. He can rub some people the wrong way with his brash attitude, but there's no denying he has a strong arm and the will to use it. Bray has yet to play a full season; he didn't become the starter until the eighth game of his freshman season in 2010 and missed five games with an injury last season. But he has thrown for 3,832 yards and 35 TDs and likely will average around 35 attempts per game this fall.
The line could be a team strength for the first time in a while. All five starters are back, but one is going to lose his job. Sophomore T Antonio Richardson had a big spring and has pushed Dallas Thomas inside to guard. It's likely that James Stone, who started seven games last season at guard but also can play center, will come off the bench. Junior T J'Wuan James is entering his third season as a starter.
The biggest question on offense is the rushing attack. The Vols were 116th nationally and last in the SEC in rushing last season, averaging 90.1 yards per game. The Vols will miss starting TB Tauren Poole. The new tailback will be either sophomore Marlin Lane or junior Raijon Neal; neither is going to scare opponents. This shouldn't be a surprise: Both are good receivers.
This is the dicey part of the 2012 Vols. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri was hired away from SEC rival Alabama, where he had been linebacker coach, and he has installed a 3-4 defense. That makes sense this season for one overriding reason: The Vols have good linebackers but questionable linemen. The Vols won't be a strict 3-4 team; there will be some 4-3 and even some 5-2 looks.
Let's start with the 'backers. A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt garnered freshman All-America notice last season; Johnson made 80 tackles and Maggitt 56. They will be joined by Herman Lathers, a starter in 2010 who missed last season with an ankle injury, and Jacques Smith, a former undersized end who mainly will be asked to rush the passer.
Up front, the Vols need JC transfers Darrington Sentimore (who began his career at Alabama) and Daniel McCullers to make an immediate impact, if not as starters then at least as key reserves. McCullers is listed at 380 pounds; it seems doubtful he could make a big impact at that weight in the SEC, but we shall see.
Juniors Maurice Couch, Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls are holdovers who need to play better than they did last season. Senior Steven Fowlkes is returning from injury. Redshirt freshman Trevarris Saulsberry and sophomore Jordan Williams also will get a shot.
The secondary could be good. The safety duo of Brent Brewer and Brian Randolph is a physical last line of defense, and Byron Moore provides solid depth. There should be an OK rotation at corner, too, with likely starters Prentiss Waggner and Justin Coleman and backups Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon. It could have been even better at corner, but returning starter Izauea Lanier is ineligible for academic reasons.
This area needs improvement.
K Michael Palardy needs to develop consistency. He was 9-of-14 last season, including a 52-yarder. But he was just 2-of-5 between 40 and 49 yards and 1-of-2 between 30 and 39 yards.
P Matt Darr averaged just 38.1 yards per attempt and Tennessee was 106th nationally in net punting.
Backup TB Devrin Young has some skills as a return man, and one big positive is that kickoff coverage was excellent.
We should have an idea of how the season is going to go by the end of September. The Vols open with what should be a solid North Carolina State team in Atlanta. After a breather against FCS member Georgia State, the Vols welcome Florida to Knoxville. Then after a gimme against Akron (coached by former Auburn head man Terry Bowden), Tennessee plays at Georgia on the last Saturday in September.
In October, there are back-to-back-to-back games against Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina, and November features a visit from Missouri as well as a trip to Vanderbilt. The Vandy game should receive extra emphasis from both sides after video of a raucous Tennessee locker-room celebration following last season's victory over the Commodores hit YouTube.
Again, we should know by the end of September how this season is going to go, which means Dooley's fate could be sealed at Georgia.
The Vols should have a potent offense; at the least, they should have a potent passing attack. But Bray won't be as good as he can be unless Tennessee also has some semblance of a rushing attack. Most SEC secondaries will be able to somewhat neutralize Hunter and Rogers if there is no running game to worry about.
Defensively, there are more issues, most notably whether the Vols can stop opposing rushing attacks. It sounds simplistic because it is: Tennessee is not going to challenge for the SEC East title unless its run defense is markedly better than it was last season, when the Vols were 69th nationally and eighth in the league (162.7 yards per game).
If everything breaks right, the Vols could win nine games. But a repeat of last season's under-.500 mark is possible, too, especially if the Vols get off to a 2-3 start.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 17th nationally
The buzz: Tennessee finished with the No. 6 recruiting class in the SEC and the No. 17 class overall for 2012. Two junior college prospects lead the way. The top player in the class was four-star junior college WR Cordarrelle Patterson, who has the talent to be a key contributor right away. Another possible early contributor is junior college DT Daniel McCullers. The Vols' class includes six prospects ranked in the Rivals250. – Chris Nee, Rivals.com
OT Antonio Richardson. Keep an eye on one of the biggest guys on the team. Richardson, a 6-6, 329-pounder nicknamed "Tiny," played sparingly as a true freshman a year ago. Richardson was limited in preseason workouts by an injury and never found his way into the lineup. But with a full year under his belt, Richardson appears to be set as the Vols' left tackle. In the spring, Tennessee moved Dallas Thomas, a two-year starter at left tackle, to left guard to make room for Richardson. – Brent Hubbs, Volquest.com
For more on Tennessee throughout the season, check out volquest.com
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