Tennessee Volunteers: Team Overview
By Jess Nicholas
September 1, 2009
The wraps are about to come off the Lane Kiffin Show in Knoxville, as Tennessee leaves Phil Fulmer behind and embarks on a new adventure with a head coach who is pretty much an unknown quantity. Kiffin flamed out in a brief trial as the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, and immediately upon arrival in the SEC set out to enrage as many people as possible through his statements to the media. Kiffin is either intentionally using the media to further a goal of program promotion, or he’s truly the dumbest person to ever sit behind a coach’s desk. One thing he was smart enough to do, however, was to recruit his father, Monte Kiffin, from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to help solidify a defense that has the potential to be pretty good. Depth issues are Tennessee’s biggest concern, thanks to a few years of mediocre recruiting results. The lack of firepower on offense is also a significant minus.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (FL, LT, LG, TE, FB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDT, LDT, LLB, LCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 6-6 (UA, OM, UF, UGA, USC, UCLA)
Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UA, OM, UF, UGA, USC)
Projected SEC West Record: 2-3 (UF, UGA, USC)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Vg
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Vg
It’s a safe bet Tennessee will try to pattern its office after the pro-set attack favored by Kiffin’s mentor, Pete Carroll. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney plans to try to put the Tennessee quarterbacks is as much of a comfort zone as possible, given that the top two names on the roster have both shown significant weaknesses against top competition. The biggest issue on offense is an offensive line that is, to be kind, only one platoon deep. A couple of injuries would be all it takes to render the Volunteers neutered.
The Vols will sink or swim with Jonathan Crompton under center. Crompton was supposed to be the next great thing when Tennessee signed him four years ago, but Crompton barely completed half his passes last year and aside from having good raw arm strength, showed no signs of developing into a top-level SEC quarterback. Nick Stephens put up similar numbers to Crompton, meaning Tennessee has two mediocre quarterbacks to pick from rather than just one. B.J. Coleman, who many thought was the best of the three, transferred in the spring. After that, a pair of walk-ons, JUCO transfer Nick Lamaison and freshman Mike Fromke, round out the depth chart. Tennessee failed to sign a quarterback during the recruiting period, which could be particularly damaging in 2010 and beyond. Crompton will be considered a success in 2009 if he simply doesn’t lose games.
Tennessee convinced the NCAA to grant eligibility to Bryce Brown, and in doing so may have assured Brown would win a spot on the postseason all-freshman team. Brown is better than anything else Tennessee has on the roster at the moment, which is the aftermath of several years of mediocre recruiting combined with injuries and premature departures from a handful of highly touted backs. Senior Montario Hardesty is the only person standing between Brown and a starting job, and he’ll certainly play a lot, but he’s got to improve his hole recognition and ball security in order to keep the job. Sophomore Tauren Poole and another signee, scatback David Oku, round out the depth chart. Fullback Kevin Cooper returns as a starter, and his presence will help the tailbacks immensely. Austin Johnson is his backup. A lot depends on whether Brown is as good as advertised.
Three-fourths of the post-spring two-deep won’t play for half a season at least due to injury. Gerald Jones is out for six weeks with a high ankle sprain. When healthy, he’s the only thing approaching a proven playmaker for the Volunteers. Both Austin Rogers and Denarius Moore are gone for various leg surgeries; Rogers is likely to miss the entire year. That leaves senior Quintin Hancock sharing space with a handful of true freshmen as the season gets started. Hancock has good size, but didn’t have one very important attribute of a wide receiver in 2008 – a catch.
Until either Moore or Jones returns, Hancock will be the partner to either Marsalis Teague or Nu’Keese Richardson as starters. Both Richardson and Teague are half-pints, however, who figure to have problems getting off the line against physical SEC cornerbacks. Junior Brandon Warren, who caught 10 passes last year, and redshirt freshman Rodriquez Wilks, who converted from safety, provide depth for now. There is a spirited battle at tight end between two very good players, Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker. They give Tennessee as good a 1-2 punch at tight end as any school in the country.
Pundits have been roaring about the plight Tennessee finds itself in here. Things were already bad enough; then, starting center and preseason all-SEC player Josh McNeil was lost for the year. As a result, Tennessee barely has enough players to even field an offensive line. Left tackle Chris Scott is the best player remaining, and is a solid tackle although probably better suited to the right side. The guards, Jacques McClendon and Vladmir Richard, are underrated. With McNeil out, however, the center’s job falls to a walk-on, Cody Sullins, who is far below average size for a SEC center. The problem at center has drawn attention away from the right tackle situation, where Jarrod Shaw won the job in spring but isn’t considered a real strength.
Converted tight end Aaron Douglas is the backup at both tackle slots and could displace Shaw if Shaw gets off to a slow start. Cody Sullins’ brother Cory Sullins is the backup at center, while the guard slots are backed up by inexperienced juniors Cody Pope (who claims to be a vegetarian in his official school bio)and William Brimfield. Dallas Thomas adds depth at tackle but is a bit light for the position right now. This group is just barely holding on as is; one more injury to a key player and the Tennessee offense could be sunk.
Monte Kiffin’s celebrated Tampa 2 defense comes to Knoxville, and the Volunteers have the personnel needed to run the scheme. Kiffin’s defense bears more than just a passing resemblance to the defense Nick Saban runs at Alabama, and there’s enough talent left over to probably have the Vols in most of the games they’ll play. The defense is strong up the middle, but the edges of the defense are a concern. Plus, the coverage scheme changes under the Tampa 2 will cause some confusion at the start of the season, so Tennessee figures to be vulnerable early.
Tackle Dan Williams is solid, if unspectacular. The question is whether Wes Brown can move from end to tackle and be good enough to get Williams out of a double-team every now and then. Williams tips the scales at 320; Brown is barely 260. Junior Andre Mathis offers experience off the bench, but it’s a pair of freshmen – Montori Hughes and Marlon Walls – that people are waiting to see. Victor Thomas and Chase Nelson add depth. As strong as the inside is, the outside is another matter. Ben Martin and Chris Walker had the end positions locked down after spring, but Martin has since been passed by Gerald Williams. Tennessee likes Willie Bohannon, who is scrappy and plays with fury but is a little on the small side. Rae Sykes offers depth. The ends are a bit pedestrian by Tennessee standards, calling into question what kind of pass rush the Volunteers will be able to generate.
Rico McCoy by himself is enough to get most offensive coordinators nervous. McCoy has safety speed from a linebacker position and loves to hit. There is plenty of experience to surround McCoy, but analysts are split on just how good this group can be. Tennessee coaches love Nick Reveiz, who figures to get the middle linebacker position despite being one of the smallest linebackers in the conference. LaMarcus Thompson won the strongside position in the spring, but he needs to get more consistent. Shane Reveiz and Savion Frazier will back up McCoy, while a pair of true freshmen, Greg King and Herman Lathers, will back up the strongside and middle, respectively. Plenty of other young players are available for depth purposes. This one probably comes down to how Reveiz can hold up in the middle despite getting pounded by larger players.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, Eric Berry can’t play all four positions. Berry is undoubtedly the best safety in the SEC and is probably on his pre-NFL swan song at the moment. The rest of this group, however, could use some help. Brent Vinson is missing in action due to a shoulder injury, so Anthony Anderson and Art Evans will begin the season as the starting cornerbacks. Neither player has earned a varsity letter yet. Dennis Rogan will start at the other safety position along with Berry; unlike the new corners, Rogan has plenty of starting experience. It will be interesting to see how the strong middle/weak outside scenario works for Tennessee until Anderson and Evans can get comfortable. C.J. Fleming and Marsalous Johnson offer depth outside, while a pair of true freshmen, Janzen Jackson and Darren Myles, will bolster the safety ranks.
Chad Cunningham should prove to be an able punter, as the parade of Colquitts has abated for the time being. But placekicker Daniel Lincoln had a horrid 2008 and needs to revert to his 2007 form. There wasn’t a big kick Lincoln couldn’t miss in 2008. Kickoff returns, manned mostly by Dennis Rogan, were among the best in the country last year, but punt returns lagged greatly. Nu’Keese Richardson will get a shot to improve the punt return situation.