Coach:Lane Kiffin (first season). | Staff In 2008: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in SEC (fifth in SEC East).
Returning starters: Offense: 5. Defense: 5. Special teams: 1. | Depth Chart Final 2008 Rivals.com ranking: 70th. | Complete Final 2008 Rankings Past four Rivals.com national recruiting rankings: 10th in 2009, 35th in '08, 3rd in '07, 23rd in '06.
THE SCHEME: Tennessee operates in a pro-style attack. The Vols will use some sets with three wide receivers as well as the more traditional two-wide set with a tight end and a fullback.
STAR POWER: One reason the Vols struggled last season is because they lacked stars on offense. The returning player with the most potential star power on offense is receiver Gerald Jones. He is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and he has eight touchdowns in two seasons. In the past Tennessee even snapped the ball to him at quarterback. The new coaching staff likely won't do that this season, but bet on Jones improving his total of 714 all-purpose yards from 2008.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Running back Bryce Brown was the No. 1 recruit in the country, and Vols fans hope he can add a spark to the offense. First-year starter Montario Hardesty has had some injury issues and hasn't carried the load for a full season, so Brown should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact as a true freshman.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: It's now or never for senior wide receiver Quintin Hancock. Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe are gone, and Jones is the team's leading returning receiver with 30 catches for 323 yards. Hancock, a native of St. Augustine, Fla., has SEC size (6 feet 3, 207 pounds), and he caught two touchdown passes in a 52-50 victory over Kentucky in 2007. It's time for him to start producing on a regular basis or he could lose time to some of the talented incoming freshmen.
STRONGEST AREA: The strength of the offense is the depth at running back. Hardesty is a proven SEC performer. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards and has 13 career TDs despite not being the featured back. Brown was the No. 1 recruit in the country, and fellow freshman David Oku was the No. 1 all-purpose back. Sophomore tailback Tauren Poole ran for more than 5,500 yards and scored 79 TDs in high school, and fullback Kevin Cooper is a good blocker who will catch an occasional ball out of the backfield.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tennessee faithful will tell you that the biggest problem on offense is at quarterback. We're going to tell you that the lack of depth on the offensive line might be more of a worry. Sure, QBs Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens struggled last season in former offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's offense. However, Crompton a senior has shown he can play well in spurts. The line is solid in the middle with center Josh McNeil and guards Jacques McClendon and Vladimir Richard. However, the tackles spots are a concern. The offensive line unit is one injury away from becoming bad in a hurry.
THE SCHEME: The Vols and new coordinator Monte Kiffin will run a 4-3 scheme in Kiffin's famed "Tampa 2" defense.
STAR POWER: The best player on the team and maybe in the country is SS Eric Berry. A consensus All-American, Berry tied for the national lead with seven interceptions last season. His career interception return total of 487 yards is just 14 yards shy of the record held by Florida State's Terrell Buckley. Berry has good ball skills, but he is known more for being a big hitter from his safety spot.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With starting tackle Demonte Bolden having completed his eligibility, one player who could fill that void is freshman Montori Hughes. A January enrollee, Hughes flew under the recruiting radar until registering an impressive performance in the Tennessee East-West all-star game. Hughes was impressive in spring drills, and he will compete with former defensive end Wes Brown for starting time at tackle.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Junior E Chris Walker had an outstanding spring, and he should be ready to take a big step up in production. Last season, Walker had just 12 tackles. However, three of those were sacks. Coach Lane Kiffin often referred to Walker as the best defender in spring drills (Berry didn't participate because he was recovering from surgery). Walker, a 6-3, 232-pounder from Memphis, should have plenty of chances to shine now that Robert Ayers has moved on to the NFL.
STRONGEST AREA: It's the secondary. Anytime you have a player like Berry on the field, he makes everyone around him better. Junior Dennis Rogan returns at one corner, and Brent Vinson who started in 2007 but was hurt for much of 2008 should man the other corner spot. Another option could be moving Rogan to safety with Berry if five-star recruit Janzen Jackson is ready to contribute immediately. Returning players like Marsalous Johnson, Art Evans and Stephaun Raines give the Vols good depth in the defensive backfield.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Without a doubt, it's linebacker. While the Vols have a great one in Rico McCoy, the other two starting spots are up for grabs. Leading tackler Ellix Wilson is gone, as is Nevin McKenzie. Special teams standout Nick Reveiz is in line to start, as is junior LaMarcus Thompson. Junior Savion Frazier and a few incoming freshmen will vie for playing time, but the bottom line is that this unit is inexperienced and unproven.
The coverage and return teams should be fine. It's the kicking of the ball that should worry Vols fans. K Daniel Lincoln earned freshman All-America honors two years ago, but struggled like most of the Vols in 2008. He converted just 10 of 18 field-goal attempts, with a long of 47 yards. Junior Chad Cunningham, who filled in for five games a year ago when Britton Colquitt was suspended, will handle the punting duties. Rogan is a very good kick returner (26.4-yard career average) and Jones is a threat on punt returns. However, don't be surprised to see a freshman like Oku or Nu'Keese Richardson make in impact in the return game this season.
When the Tennessee administration hired Lane Kiffin, it also gave him the opportunity to put together one of the best staffs in college football. Résumé-wise, a group with proven coaches and recruiters like Monte Kiffin, Ed Orgeron, Jim Chaney, Eddie Gran, Lance Thompson and a graduate assistant the caliber of Mitch Browning is top-notch. However, how they all mesh once the games begin will be intriguing. The defense should be fine under Monte Kiffin. Offensively, this team will be searching for an identity and quarterback play will be key. Lane Kiffin is a pro-style offensive coach, and his offensive coordinator has a spread background. The quarterbacks will also be getting instruction from David Reaves, so it will be important that Kiffin, Chaney and Reaves are on the same page when dealing with Crompton and Stephens.
The non-conference slate consists of Western Kentucky, UCLA, Ohio and Memphis not exactly murderer's row. The UCLA game in Week 2 could be a pivotal one for this team. A win could be a springboard to good things; a loss could be a sign of a long year to come. The conference schedule is obviously a bear. The Vols have road games against Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss which likely equates to three losses. Home games against Auburn and South Carolina will determine if the Vols will play in a bowl game following the season.
After a dismal 5-7 season in 2008, the new coaching staff knows getting to a bowl game would be an accomplishment. The fact that the Vols play eight home games including five of the first six will help tremendously. The Vols aren't as talented as they have been in years past, so several incoming freshmen will get the opportunity to show what they can do. Depth or lack of it is a concern everywhere but running back and defensive back, so this team must avoid serious injuries if it hopes to reach the postseason. It wouldn't be a surprise to see this team go 8-4 or 5-7.