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Can the Vols get back to a bowl game after missing postseason play a year ago?
By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Tennessee Volunteers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC
Spring Practice: March 26-April 21
Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 8
Passing: Tyler Bray, 147-of-247, 1,983 yards, 17 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Marlin Lane, 75 att., 280 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Da'Rick Rogers, 67 rec., 1,040 yards, 9 TD
Tackles: A.J. Johnson, 80
Sacks: Prentiss Waggner, 2
Interceptions: Prentiss Waggner and Eric Gordon, 2
Redshirts to Watch: OL Alan Posey, OL Mack Crowder, S Geraldo Orta
Cody Blanc, ATH (6-1, 200), Knoxville (Tenn.) Central
Alden Hill, RB (5-11, 180), Alliance (Ohio) Marlington
Justin Meredith, TE (6-5, 225), Anderson (S.C.) T.L. Hanna
Nathan Peterman, QB (6-3, 210), Fruit Cove (Fla.) Bartram Trail
Darrington Sentimore, DL (6-2, 273), Norco (La.) Destrehan (Gulf Coast C.C.)
Trent Taylor, DL (6-2, 271), Lakeland (Fla.) Lake Gibson
Tino Thomas, DB (5-11, 195), Memphis (Tenn.) Melrose
Aug. 31 NC State
Sept. 8 Georgia State
Sept. 15 Florida
Sept. 22 Akron
Sept. 29 at Georgia
Oct. 6 Bye Week
Oct. 13 at Mississippi State
Oct. 20 Alabama
Oct. 27 at South Carolina
Nov. 3 Troy
Nov. 10 Missouri
Nov. 17 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 24 Kentucky
Offensive Strength: The passing game. Quarterback Tyler Bray and wideouts Da'Rick Rogers (maybe) and Justin Hunter form one of the most talented QB-WR combos in the nation. Toss in an elite recruiting class at wideout and tight end Mychal Rivera and the Vols boast one of the best passing attacks in the country.
Offensive Weakness: Everything else. The running game was seriously lacking last fall and will once again be an area of concern for the Big Orange faithful. Finding a feature back and linemen who can create holes will be the top priority for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Defensive Strength: The secondary. At least, the depth and experience in the defensive backfield. Veteran Prentiss Waggner is on the move from safety to corner. The top ten DBs from a year ago return to Knoxville.
Defensive Weakness: The linebackers, and more specifically, the pass rush are a major concern. New coordinator Sal Sunseri will be installing a new 3-4 scheme and needs to find playmakers to fill the starting linebacker positions.
Spring Storylines Facing the Volunteers:
1. Dealing with the Dooley drama. Head coach Derek Dooley is squarely on the hot seat after two losing seasons in Knoxville. He dealt admirably with a massive coaching exodus (more on this in a moment) by rebuilding his staff with quality coaches. And for the first time in years, this program returns a deep, talented and experienced roster. The expectation to win has to weigh heavy on not just Dooley but every member of the Vols program. The circus surrounding his tenure isn't going to slow anytime soon, so the quicker he can answer questions the better his team will be.
2. Stabilizing and integrating seven new coaches into the program. With 19 starters back, it will be the coaching staff that needs to get acclimated, not the players. Chaney is still in place as the OC, but new running backs coach Jay Graham and offensive line coach Sam Pittman will have their hands full trying to restablish the dormant Big Orange rushing attack. There is plenty of talent to work with on that side of the ball, however, and the quarterback position is stable. With the implementation of the new 3-4 scheme, it is the defensive coaching staff that has the most work to do this spring. New DC Sal Sunseri brings an extraodinary track record with him to Knoxville in terms of developing linebackers — something that could be the difference between a bowl game and sitting at home this winter (and an employment check for everyone). Additionally, Sunseri and defensive line coach John Palermo will need to develop a scheme that can somehow put pressure on opposing quarterbacks (Tennessee finished 11th in the SEC in sacks, 100th nationally).
3. All of the above issues would be helped with much-needed growth and maturity from team leaders like Bray. Dooley and Sunseri can lead the horse to water, but it is up to the horse to actually drink. Names like Bray need take it upon themselves to prove that they can make others around them better by leading by example. The Corey Millers (currently dealing with academic issues) and Jacques Smiths need to live up to the massive recruiting hype and develop into every down performers. The last two seasons featured so much youth and inexperience, that mental mistakes — both on and off the field — were almost expected. This will not be the case in 2012 and it should not just be the coaching staff holding the team accountable — it needs to be the players. The star quarterback even admitted as much in his first media session of the spring, "Last year I wasn't the smartest guy. Kind of dumb. This year I'm trying to get my act together and trying to get this team where it needs to be."
4. Settling on a linebacker rotation and getting pressure on the quarterback is the top priority for Sunseri and Palmero. Smith seems to possess a perfect skillset for the Jack Back position, but will be pushed by Willie Bohannon. Youngsters A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt had quality first seasons, but have to adjust to the new scheme. Maggitt might be one of the biggest hitters in the SEC and is apparently loving his shift inside to the Mike position. His recognition skills now need to catch-up with his physical ability. He will be pushed by the contact-craved Herman Lathers, who returns after sitting out an entire year from a severe ankle injury. Former strong safety Brent Brewer, who tore his ACL in November, is gaining weight in order to play backer and also feels more comfortable because of it. Former fullback Channing Fugate might be making the biggest adjustment after being shifted to weakside linebacker. This was a thin position coming into spring and the shift to a 3-4 only puts added pressure on the depth chart. There are some nice pieces to this puzzle but Sunseri must implement a new system with players at new positions without wearing out his first stringers.
5. Helping the backers will be the new three-man front line. Maurice Couch needs to play the way he appears to be capable of more consistently on the interior. He has the ability to stabilize the front and allow for names like Miller, Marlon Walls and Daniel Hood to develop. Organizing this group will go a long way in helping to stabilize the totally reworked linebacker rotation. Junior college transfer — and former Crimson Tider in his own right — Darrington Sentimore might be the most intriguing new piece to the puzzle to watch this spring.
6. Dooley wants a feature back. There is only one issue - he may not have one on the roster. Marlin Lane is the leading returning rusher and might be the most talented, but is generously listed at 6-0, 205 pounds. He will most certainly split time with more physical Raijon Neal. Look also for diminutive sophomore Devrin Young (5-8, 171) to also get plenty of chances as well. Graham and Dooley know that 90.1 yards per game — where the Vols finished 2011, good for 12th in the SEC — is completely unacceptable in Knoxville. With another year of growth, an offensive line that has collectively become an upperclass unit together must develop into a strength for this team.
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