Monday, August 17

Tennessee Volunteers '09: Rebound?

The 2008 Season in a Box
Tennessee’s 2008 season wasn’t as much in a box as much as it was in a brown paper bag, lit on fire and then dropped on the school nerd’s doorstep. The offense was fittingly enough trapped in some kind of Byzantine cage, never even approaching what anyone rational would term “on-track”. The only offensive highlights were against hapless UAB before everyone realized the Clawfense was a horrible mistake and an emotional, end-of-season victory over Kentucky. The defense, thankfully, was much better and the unequivocal star of the show; of course, the defense didn’t have a choice, since they spent about 31:30 on the field per game.

After another completely inept offensive performance against South Carolina, Tennessee mainstay Phillip Fulmer stepped down – effective at the end of the season, of course. It didn’t really fix anything, but Tennessee was able to “rebound” to go 2-1 (and yes, it should’ve been 3-0), including notching yet another victory over Kentucky. And then things got weird. Lane Kiffin, the Recruiting Chimera, and the Parade of Secondary Violations showed up in Knoxville, and it’s been at least an interesting offseason.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, other than the entirely new coaching staff and burgeoning running back stable, there’s not a whole lot of reason to think it’ll be different other than luck. At the margins, there were a few reasons to be excited; the Vols actually outgained their opponents for the season, but those of you that are smart know that came in fits and starts, helped in no small part by a quality effort against UAB and a decent showing against UCLA. Aside from those two games, the Vols’ offense didn’t top 315 yards in any game, and only topped 250 yards in three other games.

Even though most of the key personnel return, there are a few things to like. For one, while this will be a new offense yet again, it won’t take two years to institute it like Clawsen’s offense did. (Presumably the coaching staff has also realized Jonathan Crompton lacks the mental acuity to handle complex tasks and won’t roll the entire thing out at once.) Monte Kiffin coming to college to institute his defense should be a lot of fun to watch, and he’s got one heck of a NFL talent to build on. There’s also a special teams coach now, too. Really, at the end of the day there’s just too much talent at Tennessee to tank to the tune of 5-7 again; sure, 8-4 may be the peak, but the breaks can’t be as painful as they were last season.

On Offense
Well, Jonathan Crompton sure sucked last year; 51.5% with a 4/5 ratio won’t get a damn thing done and it doesn’t matter who you are. He’ll open the season as the starter again since there’s not a whole lot else there; Nick Stephens never really got integrated with the first-team offense until it was too late, then got injured during spring practice, and realistic challenger B.J. Coleman transferred. I’d be surprised if Crompton plays worse this season than he did last year, and if he can obtain separation from Stephens early with competent-to-quality play that’ll do a lot to assuage the doubts of Tennessee fans. If he struggles, the cries for Stephens will get louder. Either way, I’d expect about a 55-57% peak completion percentage from either of them; they simply haven’t given me reason to think otherwise. The TD/INT ratio should get better, and the god-awful yards per attempt (5.7 across the team last year) should improve, if not to anything around 8 YPA at least to the 7 range.

Of course, improved QB play won’t matter if there’s nobody to throw it to. This year will be Gerald Jones’ chance to shine; not only is he the leading receiver returning from last year’s corps (unutilized talent Lucas Taylor departs), but he’s the most explosive player. Of course, it won’t be that easy; expected 2nd and 3rd options Denarius Moore and Austin Rogers are both injured, Rogers for the entire season. When healthy, Moore will be expected to serve as deep threat; don’t expect him to average 25 yards per catch like he did last year, but 18+ may not be out of the question. They’ll need someone to show up as the possession WR-type, but Tennessee will have to develop a passing game that’ll stretch any kind of zone coverage. (That’s another post in itself.) Tight end won’t be a big passing concern; Luke Stocker is solid but unspectacular. The wild card with the passing game is Brandon Warren. Warren originally transferred from Florida State to be closer to his grandmother, had to sit out a season, spent last year mostly on the sideline, then moved to WR, then went through hell during spring practice. There’s no guarantee what his role will be this season, but he wasn’t a Freshman All-American for nothing; the kid is talented. So is incoming freshman Nu’Keese Richardson.

Regardless of how the passing game breaks down, the Volunteer offense will likely depend on the running game (and interception returns, but I’m getting ahead of myself). Of course, even that can’t go entirely according to plan; Arian Foster graduated and Lennon Creer – thought to be the heir apparent – transferred, leaving Montario Hardesty and a stable of true freshmen as the stars of the crop. Presumptive backup and depth man Tauren Poole is already injured, meaning both Bryce Brown and David Oku will have to step up and into the rotation. On aggregate, the running game should be improved; fumbles should be down a bit but not too much, but the total 122 ypg average the crew pulled last year should move up a notch. There are a bit too many variables to take a stab at distribution at this point in time, though.

Formation-wise, I’d expect some pro-style derivative. Most of the key offensive coaching personnel came from USC, so signs point to something like that. Their approach will probably be fairly conservative for this season, but remember that USC has made a living off of a quality QB and a stable of RBs; that’s where Kiffin and the crew are trying to pull Tennessee. It may just take them a few years.

On Defense and Special Teams
Really, the Volunteer defense ends with Eric Berry. Why’s it end with him? Because you have no shot in hell of getting past him, so don’t even try. Berry was studtastic last year, garnering a first-team All-American selection and getting screwed out of the Jim Thorpe Award. Calling him a star would be an understatement, to put it mildly.

As for the rest of the D, Rico McCoy and a fair amount of the secondary return, but there are going to be some new faces up front – Tennessee graduated half of its starters from last year, chief among them Broncos’ draftee Robert Ayers. Nick Reveiz is probably the quintessential new face; he’s the current starting MLB and gets mistaken for a kicker. Good times.

Don’t expect quite as statistically dominant a season this year as last year; that won’t happen for numerous reasons, not the least of which is simple luck regression. The defense will be quality and should do a decent job of forcing turnovers, especially in the secondary. (Not to mention Berry is probably worth 3 defensive TDs on his own.)

Monte must be so happy to get to college ball and get a guy like Berry to function in the John Lynch role in the Tampa-2. He’ll likely have to adapt it for the slightly slower college game, but it goes without saying that Monte does one heck of a job rolling out quality defensive units year after year. I also wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a learning curve in the first year or two – or if the Vols roll out a simplified Tampa-2.

Special teams …well, doesn’t look that special right now. Daniel Lincoln returns, but other than that there isn’t anything to call home over. Dennis Rogan is a talented return man who maybe just hasn’t gotten the blocking yet or something, because his return numbers haven’t matched up with his capabilities yet. Maybe a dedicated special teams coach will help.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
Really, as much as I hate to say it, these guys are a Music City Bowl-quality team right now. There are simply too many questions to think otherwise; if things break right they could sneak into the Outback, but right now Tennessee is sitting squarely in the lower half of the SEC East. They’re certainly better than Vandy (and likely Kentucky, who profile like a quasi-Tennessee), but South Carolina walloped the Vols last year and likely will again. Maybe they sneak a major upset, but I think it’s more likely an early-season win against UCLA lets them sneak to 6 wins at the lower end and they pull off one against this year’s SEC top dogs – or medium dogs, as it were

And let’s not talk about the QB situation for next season.