Monday, August 2, 2010

Volunteers facing a ton of questions as 2010 season approaches

The 2010 season is right around the corner for the Tennessee Volunteers. While that news usually produces rejoicing, this season may cause more pain than pleasure for Tennessee.

The team has many questions to answer. It starts at the top with new head coach Derek Dooley. While he has impressed many with his recruiting and decision making since taking over for Lane Kiffin, the true test comes now. For better or worse, we know Southeastern Conference coaches are defined by wins and losses. So, if Dooley cleans up all the off-the-field issues that have plagued the program, it will not matter if he does not win. I do not like that either, but this is the environment of college football.

Additionally, the Volunteers face a major rebuilding effort on offense. The offensive line lost all five starters from last year, which is bad news in the SEC. Right now, it appears that two freshmen and a sophomore will be among the new starters. In other words, this unit will be young and inexperienced. By examining Coach Dooley's work while head coach of Louisiana Tech, it shows us that he did a good job of developing the running game. His success doing this at Tennessee will define how far the team goes this year. To achieve this, the offensive line must quickly develop.

There are also big question marks at quarterback. Right now, junior college transfer Matt Simms is the starter. However, he was less than stellar during spring practice, throwing three interceptions in the spring game and completing less than a third of his passes in another scrimmage. Freshman Tyler Bray is likely the long-term solution at this position so it will be fascinating to see how much ground he gains during preseason practice.

There is some good news on offense. The Vols appear to be deep in talent at both the running back and wide receiver positions. Running back Tauren Poole does good things every time he touches the ball, but he had problems getting on the field under Kiffin. However, he will get his shot this year and so should backup David Oku. Oku provided some thrills returning kicks as a freshman last year.

At wide receiver, both Gerald Jones (46 catches last year) and Denarius Moore (40 catches last year) provide plenty of experience. Also, tight end Luke Stocker returns. Scouts say Stocker has pro talent and if that is so, he may become an important security blanket for whichever quarterback is throwing passes.

Six starters return on defense, but the bad news is safety Eric Berry and defensive tackle Dan Williams are both gone. Both were first round picks in the NFL draft. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox comes from Boise State where his defenses led the Western Athletic Conference in defense three years in a row. I can already read your mind: The SEC is not the WAC. I agree, but the important thing is that Wilcox has been successful wherever he has been.

On the defensive line, the strength is the ends. Defensive end Chris Walker is an All-SEC caliber player. At the other end, Ben Martin had 11 starts last year. However, the Volunteers are thin at defensive tackle and that could cause problems in a physical league like the SEC.

Middle linebacker Nick Reveiz returns from an ACL injury suffered in the Ohio game last year. Anybody who doubts how important he was to the team should watch a tape of the Auburn game. The Auburn game was the first game after his injury, and the Tigers' misdirection plays killed the Volunteers time after time after time.

The secondary could be good and is led by safety Janzen Jackson. If he has put his off-the-field problems behind him, he could become the next star on the Tennessee defense.

The kicking game is up in the air. Place kicker Daniel Lincoln lost his job late last season, and punter Chad Cunningham has been inconsistent at best. The Volunteers must get better in this phase of the game. Expect there to be a lot of competition for both these jobs during preseason practice.

(Note: My next posting will break down the upcoming schedule and analyze what the Volunteers have to do to earn a bowl berth. It won't be easy.)

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