Can the Vols have at least a serviceable running game?
Tennessee finished last in the SEC in rushing in each of Derek Dooley's first two seasons. Last year, the Vols averaged just 90.1 rushing yards per game. By comparison, the next worst team in the SEC, Kentucky, averaged 124.2 yards on the ground each game. Dooley said at SEC Media Days UT had no chance to win the SEC if it ran the ball like it last season. Former Vol Jay Graham was hired in January to coach the tailbacks. UT didn't have a full-time running backs coach the last two years.
The Vols will begin fall camp on Friday without a starting tailback. Two-year starter Tauren Poole is battling for a roster spot with the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Sophomore Marlin Lane was the team's second leading rusher last year with 280 yards. Junior Rajion Neal split time between running back and receiver last year but went through spring practice exclusively at tailback. Both Lane and Neal catch the ball well out of the backfield. Neal the faster of the two, while Lane is more of a between-the-tackles runner. The two enter fall camp at the top of the ever-changing depth chart.
Sophomore Devin Young played mainly as a returner on special teams last season, but impressed coaches in the spring as a ball-carrier. The Knoxville native is only 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds so he'll never be an every-down SEC back, but he has good instincts and plenty of elusiveness to have a few plays directed his way in the fall.
Because of the recent running struggles, sophomore Tom Smith, who played in just three games last year, and freshmen Davante Bourque and Alden Hill, who enrolled in January but missed most of spring practice due to mononucleosis, will all have plenty of chances to earn carries this fall.
Will the production of the passing game come close to its preseason hype and potential?
Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter were the pre-season buzz last season. Given their talents, it was warranted. But the trio only played two games together last season. Only Rogers played in all 12 games.
This year, the trio returns, but also adds Cordarrelle Patterson, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound receiver who was considered the top junior college wide-out in the country.
Bray has one of the best arms in college football, and if healthy, has the ability to be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. In the 12 games he's started over the last two years, Bray's thrown for 3,529 yards and 33 touchdowns with just 13 interceptions.
After Hunter went down with a season-ending ACL injury in the third game at Florida, Rogers became the focus of many opposing secondaries. Still, he earned All-SEC honors hauling in 67 receptions for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. Hunter was leading the SEC in receptions and receiving yards before his injury. Patterson gives Bray a new weapon. At SEC Media Days, Bray said Patterson was a mix of Hunter and Rogers. A scary thought for the rest of the SEC.
Throw in tight end Mychal Rivera, a dependable senior, and UT's running backs who all have displayed good pass-catching abilities, the Vols have a chance to be one of the best passing teams not only in the SEC, but in the entire country.
How much better will the now-veteran offensive line be?
A contributing factor to the Vols' lack of success running the ball the past two years was an inexperienced offensive line. Entering the 2010 season, UT's offensive line had a combined three career starts. This year, the unit has 106 career starts and returns fully intact from last year.
Coaches moved Dallas Thomas from left tackle inside to left guard in the spring and plugged in 6-foot-6, 332-pound Antonio "Tiny" Richardson at left tackle. Richardson already looks like an NFL lineman and played a reserve role in all 12 games last season. He would've had an increased role, but missed most of fall camp last year with a shoulder injury. Dooley raves about the leadership abilities and potential Richardson has. The fact coaches moved Thomas, a two-year starter at left tackle, for Richardson shows just how highly they think of "Tiny."
With Richardson and Thomas on the left side, and Zac Fulton (right guard) and Ja'Wuan James (right tackle) on the right side, four positions have a clear-cut starter entering fall camp. The exception is at center. Junior James Stone was a freshman All-American in 2010 and started the first six games at center last year, but snapping issues forced coaches to move Alex Bullard to center, where he started the last six games.
For all the struggles with the running game (only 2.7 yards per carry last season), the offense line was very good in pass protection. The Vols tied for second in the league in sacks allowed with 18. If the passing game is as good, or even near, as advertised, that will only help the offensive line open up holes for the running backs.