OVERVIEW: The Vols played well offensively down the stretch last season, averaging 33.5 points in their final six games. But was that more because of the level of competition - four of the final six opponents finished with losing records - or because QB Tyler Bray had been inserted in the lineup? It's probably a little of both. But Bray will make to make do this season with an unproven group of receivers.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can the Vols' front seven on defense do the job? Teams win in the SEC because of their defensive lines, and that might be the weakest part of Tennessee's roster.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: First off, FS Janzen Jackson returns. Then, QB Tyler Bray proves that his strong play down the stretch last season was a sign of a maturing star, and he develops a kinship with young WRs Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter that gives the Vols a solid all-around attack. The Vols also remain injury-free along both lines and legitimately challenge for the SEC East title, winning nine games and returning to a January bowl.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Jackson doesn't return, Bray doesn't improve and the lack of depth comes to the fore. In that scenario, the Vols actually could lose to Kentucky for the first time since, what, 1923?
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Tennessee threw the ball well last season, finishing fourth in the league and 30th nationally with a 254.4-yards-per-game average. But there's a young, unproven group of receivers, and if that stat falls precipitously, Tennessee is in trouble.
BACKFIELD: Matt Simms started the first eight games, but was unimpressive. Bray started the final five contests and looked good. He's a big kid (6 feet 6/200) who needs to add about 20 or 25 pounds. He has a nice arm and a fiery personality. Bray threw for 1,849 yards and 18 TDs. But he became impatient at times (10 interceptions) and needs to increase his completion percentage into the 60s from last season's 55.8. Simms is back and will be the No. 2 guy this season. Bray's friend in the backfield will be senior TB Tauren Poole, who didn't get much playing time until last season. He made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 1,034 yards and 11 TDs. He had seven 100-yard games but appeared a bit worn down late in the season. The Vols need a backup they can count on.
RECEIVERS: Tennessee lost its top three receivers, and Poole is the leading returning receiver with 22 receptions. Coaches are high on sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. Both have good size, and Rogers also has the speed to get deep. Rogers irked coaches with a sometimes-lackadaisical attitude last season, but he has the talent to be a 60-catch guy. Hunter caught just 16 passes - but seven went for scores. But who will provide depth? There's junior Zach Rogers and sophomore Matt Milton among the holdovers, and coaches are high on true freshman Vincent Dallas, who has the speed to be a deep threat. Dallas enrolled early and went through spring practice.
LINE: The starting five should be fine, but depth is unproven. LT Dallas Thomas started every game last season and showed potential. C James Stone, G JerQuari Schofield and T JaWuan James were good as freshmen last season and must continue to develop. The other projected starter is sophomore G Zach Fulton, whose brother, Xavier, is a former All-Big Ten lineman at Illinois. Vols coaches are hoping no one gets hurt because, again, there isn't much behind the starters. Bulky true freshman G Marcus Jackson went through spring practice and is listed as a second-teamer.
OVERVIEW: Tennessee was mediocre on defense last season, Justin Wilcox's first as coordinator since moving from Boise State. Depth was a big issue last season and will be again, especially along the front four. FS Janzen Jackson is an all-league talent, but he left the team in February for personal reasons. At one point, coaches expected him back in time for the season. If he returns, the secondary becomes the team's strength.
LINE: T Malik Jackson had an excellent first season after transferring from USC. He was an end at USC but moved inside for the Vols and made more than his share of big plays; he had 11 tackles for loss and five sacks to go along with 48 total tackles. He has added weight and bulk and is entrenched inside now. If Janzen Jackson doesn't come back, Malik Jackson - no relation - is the only Vols defender with any legit all-conference hopes. Converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood was listed as a starting tackle out of spring ball, but touted JC transfer Maurice Couch will be given every opportunity to line up next to Malik Jackson. He was one of three JC transfers signed by the Vols; all three are defenders but none was able to enroll early. Couch is a run-stuffer, which is what the Vols needs. The ends are undersized but have some quickness. Whether they can hold up against the run is a legitimate question. Ben Martin was a likely starter at end in 2010, but he tore his Achilles tendon. He tore his other Achilles tendon in February, and his status bears watching. If healthy, he should start.
LINEBACKERS: Returning starter Herman Lathers fractured his ankle in early June, and his status for the season is unclear. For sure, he is going to miss the start of the season. If healthy, he would start on the weakside. More than likely, though, there will be some mixing-and-matching because of his injury. Austin Johnson moved to linebacker from fullback last season and did OK; he should start regardless, as should Daryl Vereen, a small guy (5-11) who can hit. John Propst likely would move into the starting lineup with Lathers out. Johnson would be the middle 'backer if Lathers can go; Propst would be in the middle if Lathers is out. Greg King will see time if he's healthy, and coaches thought sophomore Raiques Crump had a solid spring. Junior Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and true freshmen Christian Harris and A.J. Johnson also should be in the mix. Harris and Johnson are big, physical guys whose size alone could get them on the field.
SECONDARY: Janzen Jackson's status is huge. Prentiss Waggner, who started at cornerback last season, moved to free safety in Jackson's stead during the spring. Waggner would team with Brent Brewer, a former minor-league baseball player who came on strong down the stretch last season. JC transfer Byron Moore should work his way into the mix at safety, too. Marsalis Teague, who started five games at wide receiver as a true freshman in 2009, showed signs of becoming a top-notch corner last season. Senior Anthony Anderson moved into Waggner's vacated spot and should be Teague's running mate. Sophomore Eric Gordon and touted true freshman Justin Coleman, who went through spring ball, look to be the top reserves. If Jackson returns and Waggner can move back to corner, this could be one of the better secondaries in the SEC. The Vols allowed an unsightly 229.6 passing yards per game last season - 81st in the nation - but they allowed only 14 TD passes and had 18 picks.
Michael Palardy was the backup kicker last season and will be the main guy this season; he went 5-of-7 last season, but he missed his only two attempts from beyond 39 yards. The new punter will be redshirt freshman Matt Darr. The Vols used five punt returners last season, but no one did much: Tennessee totaled just 73 punt-return yards. There were three main kickoff returners, and Rogers - who likely will handle those duties this season - was the most impressive. The coverage units did a solid job last season, not surprising considering that coach Derek Dooley's dad, Vince, placed a huge emphasis on special teams when he was coach at Georgia.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 14th
The buzz: With his second class as Vols coach, Derek Dooley once again landed a solid albeit somewhat unheralded group. The Vols signed 27 players in February while addressing some major needs. WR DeAnthony Arnett, TE Cameron Clear, DT Maurice Couch and LBs A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt were major victories, as each chose Tennessee over several major programs. Maggitt, a big-time recruit out of Florida, might need some seasoning - and bulk - before he becomes a contributor. - KEITH NIEBUHR
It's Couch, so get prepared for a lot of "he's as big as one" lines this season. He's a squatty guy (6-2/305) whose size should provide a big boost for the Vols. He was considered one of the best junior college linemen in the nation, and he must make an immediate impact. Couch was a high school star in Orlando who went to junior college to improve his grades.
Tennessee is one of four schools nationally with eight home games, but that includes contests against Georgia, LSU and South Carolina. Three of the four road trips are toughies - Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. The non-conference schedule is a breeze and the Vols should go 4-0 in those games; that means Tennessee will need just two SEC wins to go bowling. As many questions as this team has, it should be able to win two league games.
Tennessee has just eight seniors on its roster, which means Dooley is paying for the sins of the final few years of the Phil Fulmer regime. There is some solid young talent, but all that young talent is being thrown into the fire and teams of that nature rarely have much success in the SEC. The SEC East again appears down, which helps Tennessee's cause. Still, this looks like a team with a seven-win ceiling. Remember that each of last season's six wins came against teams that finished with a losing record.
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