Tuesday, June 26

A stupidly long preview of the Vols

Get a snack. Heck, go make dinner. This is gonna be long.

Erik Ainge returns as the primary QB for the 2007 season. It's tough to overstate his improvement between 2005 and 2006; there's a few reasons for that improvement (not being on the Clausen / Ainge QB carousel, Cutcliffe's tutelage), but there's no reason to think his performance will regress. He showed plenty of resiliency and an incredibly accurate arm (67.0%). Jonathan Crompton will serve as the primary backup. Crompton offers more speed at the cost of a great decrease in accuracy. He'll be the rough equivalent of Brent Schaeffer - and considering he basically played himself out of the starting QB spot at Ole Miss, that's not necessarily a good thing.

Cutcliffe's 2006 system relied on the gamebreaking abilities of Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith - make short passes and let them take over with plenty of YAC. This year's talent will be well-suited to that system, but there aren't as many potential gamebreakers. I wouldn't expect Ainge to approach his nearly 3,000 yards passing (2,989, to be precise), but I do expect his accuracy to stay about the same. He may not throw for as many TDs (19 last year), but that will be because of an improved running game.

Running Backs
LaMarcus Coker enters the season as the primary starter in the deepest RB corps the Vols have seen in the past few years - probably since the Gerald Riggs / Cedric Houston 2004 season. However, this season will be a three-headed monster. Coker is the best pure runner and can quickly obtain separation; last year he averaged nearly 6.5 ypc.

Montario Hardesty is the strongest runner on the team - when he wants to be. Part of the reason he only averaged 3.6 ypc last year is due to his desire to cut back about 4 or 5 times behind his offensive line. If the coaching staff (read: Trooper Taylor) can get Hardesty to make a single cut and then hit the hole, look for a massive improvement in his numbers. He has the brute force to carry guys for 15-20 yards a pop; he's done it before. The talent is there, if he can harness it.

Arian Foster is actually the biggest RB in the three-deep (6'1", 225). However, while he definitely possesses talent at an equal level with the other two guys, he has to prove he can stay healthy. Last year he was derailed by an ankle injury in the 2nd game of the season (against Air Force), which then set him back for the next three weeks. He never got on track; if he can get on a roll, there won't be many teams that have a better three-deep than the Vols will haev.

Wide Receivers
Want a potential problem area on offense? Don't look further than this group. It's not that they're bad, necessarily. It's just that they're unproven. The team lost its top three WRs after the season (Meachem left for the draft, Swain and Bret Smith graduated), leaving Lucas Taylor as the primary returning WR. He's served as a KR the last two years, so at least he has experience playing; however, his average of 1 reception per game has to improve. It's a safe bet that it will, provided he stays healthy.

However, that's not to say there's not talent here. Quinton Hancock played fantastically in August of last year but was lost for the season in the Memphis game. Gerald Jones is the best pure incoming talent, but he was recruited as a DB. Ahmad Paige and Kenny O'Neal were at least WRs, and they're both talented in their own right, but like Jones, they have to learn the system. Austin Rogers has some starting experience.

One of those guys will have to emerge as a credible #1 threat. Taylor will probably set up as the deep threat on the team, but for this season it's looking a lot like the Vols will have a plethora of #2 / #3 type receivers. Again, it's not a bad thing that it's the case, but it presents some difficulties for the offense unless the Vols are consistently putting 4 WRs out there and forcing a mismatch. If a #1 doesn't emerge, then expect Cutcliffe to deploy a ball-control offense. Think a more effective version of 2002's passing offense.

Tight Ends
Here's some food for thought: both of the Vols' primary returning passcatchers are their TEs. Chris Brown and Brad Cottam are both very talented - Brown moreso than Cottam - and they'll likely have a big role in the offense this season. There's no reason for them not to be; they're both seniors, and they're both good enough to start.

Even with that, don't think that the TE rotation is top-heavy; Brad's younger brother Jeff is a solid talent in his own right. 4th-string TE Jeff Stocker is a redshirt freshman and probably still a year away at this point.

Heck, the team even has a couple of transfers that'll help next year in Brandon Warren (from FSU) and Brett Thomason (from Georgia). There's not a lot to worry about from this position, which is good - even moreso when you factor in the inexperience at WR.

Offensive Line
All-SEC LT Aaron Sears is gone. So is LG David Ligon. Still, that's about the only bad news on the front lines - everyone else from the 2-deep is back. Josh McNeil (C) and Eric Young (RT) anchor the line. The new starters are both on the left side; Jacques McClendon at LG and Chris Scott at LT. It'll be interesting to see how the line play unfolds; the experience is on the right side of the line (RG Anthony Parker started 12 games there last year), but McClendon and Scott are both incredibly talented.

There may be some reshuffling of the line (basically changing Young and Scott's starting spots), but it's a tested line. Their challenge will be simple: open up enough running lanes to support the ground game (and open up avenues for Hardesty if he's still juking 12 times behind the line) and protect Ainge long enough to get the quick-pass offense off the ground.

Offensive Outlook
Last year the team relied on the gamebreaking abilities of its WRs. This year, it's back to "normal" with the RBs expected to share an equal load. Until one (or two!) of the WRs show consistent ability to create separation after the catch, I expect the offense to be primarily ball-control. By this, I don't mean the run-run-screen-punt offense that Randy Sanders made famous until he resigned, but I do mean an offense set up around three feature backs and prominently involved TEs. Think a hybrid West Coast-style offense with the TEs functioning as heavy-duty pass catchers across the middle. Look for most of the runs to be to the right early in the season as well (again, the experience is there).

I do expect the Vols to deploy a fair amount of 4 WR sets to take advantage of their depth of talent at that position. As I've said, there's enough talent there to be able to create mismatches - provided that most of the guys shake out. The team does need one of the guys to emerge as a deep threat, though; otherwise there won't be any reason for teams not to put 8 in the box at all times and force the WRs to make plays.

Defensive Line
Last year the D-line was plagued with two problems: 1) inexperience and 2) a relative inability to stop the run. Once Justin Harrell was lost for the year, the only returning starter was J.T. Mapu - and I'm using the loose sense of the word "returning" here; Mapu last started in '03. Still, the loss that hurts going into this year was DT Turk McBride. He'll be replaced by Demonte Bolden. The good news is that both of the DEs return; Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds aren't the best guys out there, but thye're not bad. Mitchell's the better talent of the two (45 tackles, 4 sacks last year).

This unit should be better than they were last year; there's enough experience and the Vols will normally field a good rush D. I wouldn't expect this unit to have 3 games with over 200 yards rushing allowed like what happened last year (Air Force, LSU, Arkansas). However, I do expect their problem areas last year to continue. Mobile QBs and multiple backfield threats caused the line all sorts of trouble, and until I see the line consistently apply pressure against the run, I won't say they'll be able to stop that type of running game. The good news: simple feature-back sets should be eaten alive, even if the back is talented (see California and Alabama last year).

The Vols lose leading tackler Marvin Mitchell from the unit; however, that's their only loss in the two-deep. The returning players are all solid; Jerod Mayo was the team's leading sack artist (5 sacks). Mayo takes Mitchell's old spot in the middle and should only up his tackle total from there. Ryan Karl returns on the strong side (66 tackles, 8 tackles for loss), and Rico McCoy steps in as the weakside LB. He recorded 38 tackles last year as a backup.

The LBs will be the strength of the Vols' front 7, and it's not really even in question. Mayo has a shot at being the best LB in the SEC, and Karl was a plus performer last year - even though he had the least amount of tackles among LBs, he was still 5th on the team. The last few years the Vols have relied on the LB corps to keep things under control in the front, and this year looks to be much the same.

Defensive Backs
As good as the LB corps will be for the Vols, this group could be way more fun to watch. Jonathan Hefney returns at FS, and all he did last year was finish 2nd on the team in tackles (96, 3 for loss) and lead the team in INTs (5). In addition, Eric Berry will probably open his college career at CB. He was ranked anywhere from 1st to 6th as an incoming freshman, depending on which prep ranking you were using. The other two spots are unsettled as of yet; it could be Antonio Gaines, Marsalous Johnson, or JUCO DeAngelo Willingham at the other CB spot and Jarod Parrish, Nevin McKenzie, or Sinclair Cannon at SS. My votes are for Johnson at CB (most improved player on D in spring practices) and Cannon at SS (best name).

This unit will probably struggle a bit early; there's only one definite returning starter in Hefney, and while Johnson is a sophomore and has experience in DC John Chavis' system, he doesn't have any starting experience. It's going to depend on what the team wants out of that CB spot. If they want starting experience, it's Willingham; if they want system experience, it's Johnson. Either way, it could make for an interesting first few weeks. Expect the loser of that battle (or even Berry) to slot in as the nickel CB, and the unit will improve by the second half of the season. Jarod Parrish is the only SS with starting experience in the system; by comparison, McKenzie is the transfer. Expect that position to break down almost like the CB battle.

Again, I don't expect much out of these guys (save Hefney) for the first few weeks. Berry should make a few outstanding plays, but I don't expect the secondary to really gel until somewhere around the Mississippi St. game (Oct. 13, halfway through the season). The good news is that they'll probably be successful against the Alabama, South Carolina, and Kentucky pass games; the bad news is that they face what's probably their two best opponents' passing offenses in Cal and Florida in the first three weeks of the season. Uh-oh.

Defensive Outlook
Separately, two of the three units should be better than they were last year; both the DTs and the LBs will be at worst on par with their '06 performance. The secondary, as stated, will be interesting. Either they'll be shutdown by the end of the season or a disaster on par with '04, and there's not much in-between. If it's the latter, expect the youngsters to get plenty of PT in hopes of coming back strong for next year after they lose most of the front 7 to graduation.

I've learned over the years not to count out a John Chavis-coached D. He'll get the most out of them, and the D has a habit of stepping up when the offense is in trouble (their best numbers over the past 5 years have been in '02 when UT was playing without a quarterback, basically, and '05, when Randy Sanders' run-run-screen-punt offense was in full swing)), and as documented, that could be the case this year. The key components are in place: good DEs, a solid LB with a proven playmaker, and a plus secondary guy.

Like last year, expect the LBs to make the majority of the sacks / exciting plays. The tackles do need to show more speed, otherwise interior speed will be dangerous (read: Florida and Arkansas will eat them alive). Historically, the defense has been a little better than the sum of its parts and very smart to boot. That I don't see changing this year.

Special Teams
The K/P this year is ...well, the same guy. Not only that, he's the last of the Colquitt family to make his way through Neyland Stadium. Last year, Colquitt only averaged 44.9 yards per kick with 18 punts inside the 20 (out of 46 - 39%) and another 8 fair catches. Those numbers are clearly inferior; I expect him to be over 50 yards per kick with no touchbacks and no returns. In all seriousness, he'll be the best P in the SEC this year and may compete for the Ray Guy award as a juinor. He'll also be doing the placekicking; he has a ways to go to match the accuracy of departed K James Wilhoit (18-22 last year), but he should have comparible leg (51 yards was Wilhoit's long). He'll also be handling kickoffs, which will probably end up working in UT's favor with the tee moving back to the 30. Bottom line: the more Colquitt on the field, the better. Unless he's punting 120 times over the course of the season.

Oddly enough, the return games have been lackluster the last two years. LaMarcus Coker and Lucas Taylor will be the kickoff return men, but neither has been impressive; Coker "led" with 20.0 yards per return last year. He has the speed to be successful - as does Taylor. Jonathan Hefney isn't a bad punt returner at 12.1 yards per return last year.

I do expect the Vols to win the hidden yardage game most weeks, but that's primarily due to Colquitt's leg. With the return game continually underperforming, I'm left to wonder if it's either a problem with the talent or with the coverage teams / schemes. This isn't my specialty, honestly; I'm going to speculate more of the latter than the former. Taylor hasn't been too impressive either year he's been a return man, but I honestly don't see the average kickoff return topping 25 yards this season, either. Until there's a definite sign of improvement with the coverage and return games, I'm not signing on to people saying the unit's better.

Final Verdict
The return of David Cutcliffe to Rocky Top rejuvenated both the team and the fan base (which had been calling for Sanders' departure for the last few years - it got to the point where EVERYONE could predict the "run up the middle on 3rd and 8", which isn't a good sign), and Ainge's vast improvement from 2005 to 2006 can probably be mostly laid at Cutcliffe's feet. I only say mostly because of the move of Trooper Taylor from RB coach to WR coach last year - he's another underrated guy who has the tendency to get the most out of his players. Gerald Riggs finally turning it around in '04? Blame Taylor.

Still, this may be an even bigger challenge; the team's WR playmakers are gone, they lost their best CB in Jonathan Wade (13(!) pass breakups last year), their best lineman is gone, and their leading tackler left. Now they'll be breaking in a new WR corps and a likely true freshman CB at two nasty places to play in the first three weeks - @ Cal and @ Florida. Most of their big games are on the road this year; only Georgia, Arkansas, and South Carolina come to Rocky Top. (They also travel to a possibly rejuvenated Alabama.) The good news is the team avoids Auburn and LSU this year.

Last year the Vols went 2-3 in their games against ranked teams. They may potentially play 6 ranked teams this year, and they'll need to go at least 3-3 to keep the wolves at bay and maintain respectability. If the games were backloaded, that wouldn't be a problem - but Cal and Florida are in the first two games, which means the Vols could be staring at 2-2 going into the bye week before Georgia and dealing with a restless fan base to boot. If the Vols are 4-2 entering the game with Bama on the 20th, then they can probably challenge for 3rd (at worst) in the SEC East; if they're 5-1, they can go for the title. If they're 6-0, they're in the national title hunt. Realistically, I see 4-2 with losses to Cal and Florida and a 9-3 finish to the regular season.

Barometer Game: @ Florida, 9/15. Tebow gave the Vols fits last year; if a young D can shut down the Gators in the Swamp, then you may want to put this team on your BCS radar. If they can't, then it may be another 9-4 / 10-3 season, which isn't bad - unless you're in Knoxville.

Statement Game: @ Alabama, 10/20. Part of the reason Nick Saban was hired was because the Tide had gone 2-10 against the Vols over their last 12 games. This won't be an easy game; Alabama's D (and Simeon Castille) gave the Vols fits last year at Neyland Stadium, and now they get to go on the road to face a team that gets its best WR back (Tyrone Prothro) as well as basically its entire offense, a rejuvenated fan base, and a coach looking to make a statement that his program is back. This won't be an easy game, but a win for the Vols does wonders for the contentment of the fans and of the program.

Danger Zone Game: vs. Arkansas, 11/10. I almost put South Carolina here; Spurrier still causes concern among Vol faithful, even though he hasn't put the team up among the SEC East elite yet, you know it'll happen. Even with that, Arkansas just demolished the Vols last year; the final score was only 31-14, but it could've easily been more than that. Last year, the Vols knew what was coming and still couldn't stop it. This year will be the same - can they stop it at Neyland?

Final Verdict: All signs point to a 9-3 / 10-2 type season. If the big games were backloaded, I could maybe sign onto a 10-2 / 11-1 regular season, but the team - especially the passing game on both ends - has a lot of growing up to do. The team's success will be directly dependant on that. Of course, last year I expected 8-4, so what do I know?