By: chalifour.eric | 5/19/12, 10:26 AM EDT
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SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Derek Dooley, 11-14 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Sal Sunseri
Derek Dooley looks to the Tennessee football future and sees a Big Orange sunrise. The Vols enter the season featuring an offensive line with 99 starts — as opposed to three, the case in Dooley’s debut season (2010).
Quarterback Tyler Bray is one of 18 returning starters. The 6'6" Bray has the stature to find receivers amid defensive chaos and the arm to deliver the ball on target. Bray is most comfortable in the pocket, but the lanky Californian has shown an ability to make plays and accurate throws on the run.
The Vols plan to take a committee approach at tailback, looking to improve on last season’s showing (90.1 yards per game, 116th in the nation). Junior Rajion Neal is more versatile after playing receiver last season. Sophomore Marlin Lane slithers for tough yards, while Devrin Young has break-neck cutting ability and track speed. Senior Ben Bartholomew fits the mold at fullback.
Marquee wideouts are aplenty. Long, speedy Justin Hunter returns from an ACL injury, and All-SEC pick Da’Rick Rogers is still in the fold. The Vols await the arrival of No. 1-ranked junior college prospect Cordarrelle Patterson. Reliable tight end Mychal Rivera (29 catches, 344 yards) returns, and sophomore Cameron Clear, who is 283 pounds, is expected to contribute.
Sophomore Antonio “Tiny” Richardson takes over at left tackle with senior Dallas Thomas sliding to left guard. Ja’Wuan James is back at right tackle. Four veterans are competing at center and right guard.
A 4-3, a 3-4 or a 5-2? It depends. Multiplicity is the name of the game under new defensive coordinator and former Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri.
Explosive junior Jacques Smith returns at defensive end with steady junior Marlon Walls starting opposite him. Sophomore Jordan Williams figures into the rotation. The Vols are sorting out the tackle rotation between Steven Fowlkes, Gregory Clark, Maurice Couch and Daniel Hood. The Vols added two junior college transfers to the position, as well — Darrington Sentimore, who spent his first two seasons at Alabama, and Daniel McCullers, who is 6'6" and 380 pounds.
Dooley’s biggest concern is run defense, but a salty linebacking corps will help. Senior Herman Lathers is back from an ankle injury and second-year starters Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson, a 2011 Freshman All-American, return.
Free safety Brian Randolph likes Sunseri’s attacking scheme, saying “We’re blitzing our DBs more and bringing our safeties down.’’ The Vols are deep at corner with seniors Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague battling sophomore Justin Coleman for playing time. Junior Eric Gordon figures into the nickel, with Brent Brewer and Byron Moore vying at strong safety.
The Vols hope junior Michael Palardy, who has made 14-of-21 field goals in his career, finally measures up to his prep accolades. Likewise for sophomore punter Matt Darr, considered by some the No. 1 punter in his class. Young is expected to lead the return game, though newcomers Patterson, Quenshaun Watson, Deion Bonner and LaDarrell McNeil could contribute.
Tennessee has a strong passing game, but establishing the run is paramount to keeping defenses honest and protecting Bray. The defense aims for more impact plays, but that often comes at the risk of surrendering big plays. A more forgiving schedule — Alabama and LSU are replaced by Missouri and Mississippi State — makes eight wins a realistic goal.