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July 2, 2010
It has been a tumultuous past few seasons at Tennessee.
The Vols won the SEC East in 2004, losing to unbeaten Auburn in the SEC championship game. Things haven't gone all that well since.
There was a 5-6 finish in 2005 before the Vols bounced back to win nine games in '06 and 10 games and the East title in '07. But that '07 season saw the Vols lose by a combined 63 points to Alabama and Florida, which caused fans to start grumbling loudly about coach Phil Fulmer.
The grumbling reached a crescendo in '08, when the Vols finished 5-7 and lost to their three biggest rivals - Alabama, Florida and Georgia - by a combined 56 points. Fulmer was dumped following the season, and athletic director Mike Hamilton brought in Lane Kiffin. Kiffin guided the Vols to a 7-6 finish in '09, antagonizing numerous folks - including SEC commissioner Mike Slive - along the way.
Kiffin had talked about the importance of ramping up the recruiting to return Tennessee to its rightful place in the football world, but he shocked Vols followers by leaving for the USC coaching job in January.
Four days later, Hamilton announced the hiring of Louisiana Tech's Derek Dooley as the new coach; Utah's Kyle Whittingham, Air Force's Troy Calhoun and Duke's David Cutcliffe also reportedly were in the mix.
Had Kiffin stayed, 2010 would have been a difficult season anyway. But at least there would have been some continuity. Now, Dooley takes over a program that is tottering and could be in for a fall.
Here's a closer look at the Vols.
THE SCHEME: The Vols will use a traditional pro set, complete with a fullback, but also use some three-wide schemes. The new coordinator is Jim Chaney, one of the few holdovers from Kiffin's staff. Chaney earned his spurs at Purdue under Joe Tiller, so he isn't afraid to throw it around. The problem for Chaney: He has good receivers and OK backs - but huge question marks at quarterback and along the line.
STAR POWER: None, really. Senior WR Gerald Jones might be the most talented player on this offense, but he's not one of the five best wide receivers in the SEC. He's more like No. 8 or 9.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: True freshman T Ja'Wuan James, a four-star prospect from the Atlanta area, enrolled early and won a starting spot. He has all sorts of potential, but forget the future - he needs to produce in the here and now. By all appearances, he is ready to do the job. Still, there are going to be some growing pains, especially in run blocking.
STRONGEST AREA: There is a nice group of receivers, headed by Jones. He had a career-high 46 catches last season; he had six games with at least five catches, including a season-high seven against Alabama. Senior Denarius Moore emerged as a steady contributor with 40 receptions last season. TE Luke Stocker (6-6/253) is a big target but needs to become more consistent. Sophomore Marsalis Teague has good speed, and true freshman Da'Rick Rogers might have been the nation's best high school receiver last fall; he will see immediate playing time. The big question, of course, is whether the quarterbacks can get these guys the ball consistently.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There will be a new starting quarterback, with JC transfer Matt "Son of Phil" Simms and true freshman Tyler Bray competing for the job. Both enrolled in time for spring ball, but neither did enough to stamp himself as the for-sure starter. As unsettled as that position is, though, it's not the biggest offensive concern. That would be the line, which is a huge issue. All five starters are gone, and only one projected starter - senior G Jarrod Shaw - saw any real playing time last season. Coaches are counting on James, who arrived on campus in January, to be a key cog. Again, they're not hoping for a big season from James; they sorely need it. Redshirt freshman G JerQuari Schofield also is projected to start. A key reserve, senior Victor Thomas, was a defensive tackle until spring practice started. Two other true freshmen, James Stone and Zach Fulton, will be given every opportunity to earn playing time.
THE SCHEME: The new coordinator is Justin Wilcox, who was hired away from Boise State. Wilcox had stifling defenses with the Broncos; he didn't always have elite talent, but he coaxed elite performances from his defenders. While the Vols' base defense is a 4-3, Wilcox likes using extra defensive backs, so opponents will see a lot of nickel packages, usually from a 4-2-5 set. One thing to consider this season: The lack of talent and depth at tackle likely means Wilcox and his staff will have to do some mixing and matching along the line.
STAR POWER: The top four tacklers from last season - including star SS Eric Berry - are gone. But FS Janzen Jackson and E Chris Walker have a chance to contend for all-league honors. Walker is undersized but tenacious, and he has a quick first step off the edge. Jackson is a rangy guy with good ball skills who can deliver a blow.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: There are three new linemen who will get every opportunity to provide production - freshmen Es Corey Miller and Jacques Smith and junior college T John Brown, who began his career at Florida before he flunked out. Miller and Smith need to get stronger, and Brown needs to show consistency - and maturity. Our pick in this category, then, is redshirt freshman CB Eric Gordon. He has good quickness and doubled as a playmaking wide receiver in high school in Nashville. He heads into fall drills as a starter, and coaches will be counting on him to be a defensive playmaker.
STRONGEST AREA: While the secondary will have two new starters, it also is an area with some talent. Jackson has all-league potential. Gordon could be an all-freshman selection. Junior CB Art Evans is a returning starter who was an integral part of a secondary that allowed a national-low five TD passes last season. SS Darren Myles Jr. showed flashes as a true freshman backup last season. There is good depth at corner, and as long as JC transfer Dave Clark works out, there will be OK depth at safety, too.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The tackle spot basically is a wasteland. Coaches are high on sophomore Montori Hughes but no one else on the roster at the position played appreciable minutes last season. Backup Chase Nelson is a fifth-year senior who hasn't lettered; another backup, Rae Sykes, was moved from end during spring drills. Tennessee really needs Brown to come through. The lack of size at linebacker is a concern as well, though Wilcox did just fine with undersized linebackers at Boise.
Senior K Daniel Lincoln was a freshman All-America who scored 115 points in 2007. But he has just 113 points combined in the past two seasons and is susceptible to blocks. Lincoln could be pushed by incoming freshman Michael Palardy. Senior P Chad Cunningham averaged 42.1 yards per kick in 2009. Cunningham also handled kickoffs last season, but needs to improve in that area. Incoming freshman Matt Darr could challenge Cunningham; he signed with Fresno State but was released from his letter-of-intent over the summer. Oku likely will handle kickoff returns, but the Vols will be looking for a new punt returner. Freshmen will have opportunities to contribute in the return game. The coverage units were mediocre last season and must be shored up.
The first four games - and five of the first seven - are at home. But three of those home games are against teams that will be in the preseason top 10 in Oregon, Florida and Alabama; the Oregon and Florida games are back-to-back. There also are road games against LSU, Georgia and South Carolina ; the LSU and Georgia contests are back-to-back, and the South Carolina game is a week after the Vols play host to Alabama. In short, this is a monster schedule, especially for a team with as many holes as the Vols.
Dooley took over a team in flux, and more roster turnover after he was hired hasn't helped. Two projected offensive starters, tailback Bryce Brown and tackle Aaron Douglas, left the program in the spring, and the Vols will head into the season with about 75 scholarship players, 10 fewer than the NCAA maximum. The defense has some questions in the front seven, but those questions pale in comparison to those on offense. There is talent in Knoxville, but not at some key spots. To get to a bowl, Tennessee must win every game it's supposed to; it obviously would help if the Vols could pull an upset or two, as well. Considering the schedule, getting to a bowl might be too difficult.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.