KNOXVILLE – Game week is finally here for Tennessee. Fall camp officially ended last week when the Vols shifted their focus to preparing for their opener against NC State on Friday.
It’s been a long off-season after a crushing 10-7 loss at Kentucky ended 2011 with a 5-7 record and also snapped a 26-year win streak against the Wildcats. The team is in better shape physically and mentally since that point, and the overall depth and talent level is up.
Fall camp went exceptionally well. Coaches were pleased with the team’s effort. A five-day stint at Milligan College went off without a hitch. There were a few health issues, but overall, they avoided the catastrophic injury.
Then came the Da’Rick Rogers news. His indefinite suspension technically came directly after fall camp had concluded, but the news cast a shadow over all the work that had been done.
It remains to be seen how the team will respond to yet another setback with the loss of Rogers, but here’s what we have learned over the last month, and what questions still remain:
Three pleasant surprises:
1. The run game: It has to be better after having arguably the worst rushing performance in school history in 2011. Still, there is real evidence to believe the Vols will be able to move the ball on the ground in 2012. Junior Rajion Neal might be on the lower end of a list of SEC running backs, but he is much improved since 2011, a year he split between receiver and running back. The offensive line looks the part and says all the right things. This group won’t be mistaken for the UT power running teams of the past, but it should be improved.
2. The kicking game: Kicker Michael Palardy – one of the worst kickers in the SEC, statistically speaking, in 2011 – was a perfect 6-for-6 on field goals in two scrimmages. He claims to be healthy after lingering injuries have plagued him in two years on campus. He’ll kick field goals, kick off and is listed as a co-starter at punter with Matt Darr. Dooley said both have been “lights out” in their punting.
3. Junior college transfers: Where would this team be without them right now? They might have as many as six start against NC State – wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, tight end Mychal Rivera, defensive end Maurice Couch, nose tackle Daniel McCullers, defensive end Darrington Sentimore and safety Byron Moore, who is listed as a co-starter with Brent Brewer. All were brought in by Dooley, and all will make a big contribution in 2012.
1. Da’Rick Rogers: Having three of the best receivers in the conference on the field almost seemed too good to be true for Tennessee after all the adversity it has been through recently. It was. His indefinite suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules broke up the much-anticipated trio, and put a damper on the excitement that surrounded the Vols’ offense in 2012. It can still be good, but it won’t be special without Rogers.
2. Tight end: It’s been a brutal summer for this position. Promising sophomore Cameron Clear was dismissed in May after being charged with theft. Mychal Rivera was limited all of camp with a sprained knee. Sophomore Brendan Downs is out indefinitely with a dislocated patella. Freshman Justin Meredith might need a redshirt season to shake a lingering hamstring issue. The coaches brought some players over from defense to add depth, but Rivera and senior tight end/fullback Ben Bartholomew might be all they trust to put in against NC State.
3. Tyler Bray’s legal issues: Yes, everybody makes mistakes, and Bray’s weren’t horrible, but it’s still not what the Vols wanted to see from their starting quarterback. He has the size and the arm to be a top SEC quarterback, but he must become a team leader as well. Coaches and players say he is, but incidents like these, even though minor, raise doubts about his ability to be an all-around leader this year.
Three questions that remain:
1. How quickly will the defense shape up?: It’s new and aggressive, but it’s a big change for a lot of the players. With the exception of safety Brian Randolph, no starter on the defense will have a role very similar to what they did for all of 2011. The front seven has been re-shuffled into a 3-4 base with two newcomers, Daniel McCullers and Darrington Sentimore, earning starting roles on the front line. The players like it, and some are a better fit, but will they be able to execute it to the level they will need to in order to win in the SEC?
2. How tough are they?: It’s a general question, but overall toughness is an area the Vols need to improve in 2012. They were rattled when star receiver Justin Hunter went down with a torn ACL in week three. They didn’t fight back when they got down in the second half of tough SEC games. Blockers rarely knocked an opponent off the ball – they seemed content to just stalemate at times. It has to improve this season. Overcoming the loss of Rogers will be a good test for how tough this team can be.
3. Who are the leaders?: Do they have a leader, or leaders, who can step up in the midst of adversity? Senior linebacker Herman Lathers is one player to watch in that role. But with only nine seniors on the two-deep depth chart, some of that might have to come from younger players. Upcoming stars such as linebacker Curt Maggitt, offensive tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson and sophomore Brian Randolph will need to grow into those roles.