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COLLEGE FOOTBALL PRESEASON TOP 25
SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bajakian | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Jancek
Can a line stocked with future NFL players — including All-America candidate Antonio Richardson — carry an offense by itself? The Vols are about to find out. The veteran line that helped mercurial quarterback Tyler Bray, elite receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter and athletic tight end Mychal Rivera lead the second-most productive offense in the SEC is still here. Everybody else is gone.
The weaknesses are most glaring at receiver, where coaches will try out a group of a dozen scholarship players who have a combined one start at the position. The receiving corps is perhaps the least experienced, least talented group on the team — and the most likely to throw a wrench in Butch Jones’ plans to run the up-tempo, pass-heavy offense he favored at Cincinnati.
The drops and sloppy routes have made it tough for Jones to fairly evaluate quarterbacks, but junior Justin Worley likely will win the job because he’s taken Gen. Robert Neyland’s first maxim of football to heart. It’s a theme that Jones harps on constantly: “The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.” Worley is less mobile than redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, but he threw fewer interceptions and made better decisions at the line of scrimmage in the spring.
Veteran running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane (if can stay out of the doghouse) will try to build on a solid if unspectacular 2012 season by running through big holes created by the Vols’ line.
The good news? After fielding one of the worst defenses in Tennessee history, the Vols have nowhere to go but up under new coordinator John Jancek. The bad news? If UT is going to improve on defense, they’re going to have to do it with essentially the same cast of players — a group that, luckily, includes linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led the SEC in tackles last season.
Jones told Jancek to start from square one in the spring, building the new 4-3 defense block by block to make sure players understood even the simplest schemes. The biggest criticism of Sal Sunseri’s failed 3-4 defense in 2012 was that players were confused and tentative. Speed and athleticism are still an issue, which is why Jancek will likely be more conservative, trying to eliminate the home run plays that the Vols allowed with alarming regularity.
The defense doesn’t lack experience, including seven or eight veteran linemen who might be better than anyone gives them credit for. Coaches love fifth-year senior Daniel Hood, and they have pushed 360-pound tackle Daniel McCullers to be an every-down player, not just a run-stuffer. The secondary offers the biggest opportunity for growth, but it’s also the biggest concern. The Vols will need improvement — and a full season of good health — from cornerback Justin Coleman and safety Brian Randolph.
Senior Michael Palardy has struggled with inconsistency throughout his career, but he has a chance to be the Vols’ top punter, field goal kicker and kickoff specialist. Jones says the return game is a huge concern. He had an open casting call for punt returners in the spring. The only requirement: Catch the ball.
Jones inherited a questionable roster and a brutal schedule, but his first year might also come with an unusual gift in the cutthroat SEC — very reasonable expectations from a win-starved fan base. If the Vols can pull off six wins and make a bowl, fans would be thrilled. (So would bowl executives, because ticket sales would be brisk.)
A large senior class that seems to have eagerly embraced the new coaching staff offers hope that this group can overachieve. And after three seasons in which every close SEC game seemed to go the other way, the Vols are due for some better luck.
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