By Haywood Harris, UT Historian
The changing of the guard is a rare occurrence at Tennessee. The Vols' most recent occupant of the head coaching throne, Phillip Fulmer, departed after 16 years following a Johnny Majors regime that endured equally long.
So Lane Kiffin could point to history as an indication he had signed on for the long haul when he agreed on Dec. 1 to become the 21st man to preside over a UT football program that ranks in the NCAA's top 10 all-time for number of victories. Tennessee is among a group that includes Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Southern California.
Sensing the probable long-term commitment, he took his time in assembling a coaching staff that would meet his exacting standards. At 33 the youngest head coach in major college football, Kiffin searched country-wide selling UT to coaches whose background showed a strong penchant for recruiting. He vowed to do it right, not swiftly.
Time constraints limited the scope of the staff's recruiting haul for the 2009 class, but on signing date, Feb. 4, Kiffin laid the foundation for the success he and his staff hope to achieve in restoring the Vols to the upper echelons of college football. They signed a total of 16 high school prospects that recruiting gurus rated as high as 16th nationally.
The newly-inked Vols joined four other newcomers who had enrolled at UT in January for the spring semester.
"I thought it was very important for us to set the foundation from which we were going to compete in recruiting," Kiffin told reporters at the time the signees list was announced.
"I think in years to come we will set a standard for the way we're going to recruit and create relationships. After only having three weeks with a complete staff, you could see toward the end of recruiting that some of the top players were being attracted to Tennessee and that they really loved their visits. We just didn't have enough time to solidify all of them."
Before future recruiting successes can affect the competence of the Vols down the line, Kiffin and staff must deal with the present situation: Tennessee reeling from last year's 5-7 worksheet, the second time in four years the school has posted a sub-.500 record.
Befitting UT's place among the top 10 traditional powers of college football, Tennessee fans yearn for more victories. In order to make that happen, Kiffin begins his collegiate head coaching career with work to do in every facet of the game.
Since quarterback is normally the starting-out place for an offensive analysis, we might as well begin at the signal-calling position for a breakdown of the Vols' chances to mount a winning attack. The good news is that all three field generals return from 2008; the bad news is that even by the end of the year none had been able to take command at the most critical post in the offense. Jonathan Crompton was the designated starter when the Vols opened against UCLA on the West Coast. Despite four interceptions recorded by the UT defense, the Bruins rallied for an overtime victory.
By the time the schedule had moved ahead four games, coaches were ready to entrust the reins to Nick Stephens, whose luck ran parallel to Crompton's as he directed losses at the hands of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Crompton was back at the controls as the Vols bowed to Wyoming, opening the door for redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman to take his turn against Vanderbilt, ending in a 20-10 Tennessee victory. But, lo and behold, there was Crompton, one week later, masterminding the 28-10 win over Kentucky. So, there you have it -- 12 games, three starting quarterbacks. On the basis his team was victorious in his last outing, Crompton could be off to a head start in competition with Stephens and Coleman. But in Tennessee's mercurial quarterback situation, who knows? It's a certainty that Stephens and Coleman plan to bring their A-game into the equasion in the months before the opener with Western Kentucky.
Arian Foster's departure, after he racked up impressive career statistics, left a big hole to fill at tailback, where Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer stand in the wings, prepared for immediate action. Hardesty netted 271 yards with his powerful running style, appropriate for banging straight ahead. Creer poses more of a long-distance threat, his 388 yards on 73 carries yielding a 5.3-yard average. When the Vols open against Western Kentucky on Sept. 5, coaches may choose between Hardesty's power and Creer's open-field elusiveness. Another returnee at running back is Tauren Poole, who played sparingly last season. The diminutive but multi-talented Gerald Jones is listed at wide receiver, but generally winds up carrying the ball when it is snapped to him at the quarterback position.
Fullback has been just another word for blocking back at Tennessee in recent years. Kevin Cooper spent more time there last year than any other Vol. But things can change very rapidly in college football, especially when a brand-new staff is adapting their personnel for a fresh start.The eventual starter will be decided on the basis of performance on the practice field. Cooper is a junior; Ben Bartholomew and Austin Johnson are sophomores as they begin the battle for action at fullback. In support of the proposition that a fullback's primary duty is blocking, consider that last year 10-game starter Cooper toted the ball a grand total of five times and caught seven passes.
No question about it: The Vols are abundantly stocked at tight end, which in recent years has drifted toward becoming a pass-catching position with emphasis on providing first downs. The "possession receiver" tag doesn't trouble the tight end corps, all of whom are keenly aware the job a few years ago entailed blocking skills and little else. But when that big bruiser, Luke Stocker (6-6, 240), lunges for the extra inches that produce a first down, the horizons open for an expanded role for tight ends. Stocker, a rising junior, started every game last year but he expects spirited competition for playing time from Jeff Cottam (6-8, 260). Both tight ends listed on the roster have the size, brawn and pass-catching ability to make a formidable weapon at a job that formerly was tailored to knocking people out of the way. The assignment is now less drudgery and more glamour and excitement. Stocker ranked sixth in 2008 for pass-receiving production with 13 catches for 139 yards.
The Tennessee roster, when studied for wide receiver achievement, is a mighty thin read. Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe, who combined for 40 catches last year in starting assignments, have completed their eligibility after two seasons as starters. Gerald Jones is back, the top returning receiver with 30 catches for 323 yards, along with Austin Rogers, who had 14 for 180. Here is an area where freshman help is urgently needed. Among the other wideouts, only Denarius Moore and Brandon Warren -- who moves from tight end -- notched so much as a single reception a season ago. Once such a strong position that UT was assigned the nickname Wide Receiver U, depth has become an issue in recent seasons. Senior Quintin Hancock and sophomore Tyler Maples have been tagged with the task of restoring respectability to the wide receiver slots.
Perusal of the ranks of the offensive line reveals the return of three of the quintet that protected quarterbacks and tried to clear a path for Foster, Hardesty and Creer. A problem, however, is that none of the three is Anthony Parker. The loss of the steady Parker will be costly, but the line will benefit from the experience and savvy of a fourth-year starting center. Josh McNeil took over snapping duties in 2006 and has been a stalwart ever since. Chris Scott at left tackle is another senior who started last season and shared first-team duties with Eric Young in 2007. The third returning regular is left guard Vladimir Richard, who lines up between Scott and McNeil.
In the hunt for significant action at tackle will be William Brimfield, Cody Pope, Jarrod Shaw, Dallas Thomas and Aaron Douglas. Prospects at guard include Jacques McClendon, Darris Sawtelle and Cory Sullins. Cody Sullins and Carson Anderson are slated for responsibilities at center, both hoping to share playing time with McNeil. How well the Vols can put together a protective line will have a strong bearing on the likelihood the team will be able to move the ball with the proficiency required in the Southeastern Conference.
Robert Ayers, who has graduated, garnered most of the attention in the defensive line with his big-play capabilities, which resulted in 15 tackles for loss among other accomplishments. But Wes Brown, who returns for his senior year, outdid his more publicized teammate in quarterback hurries. Brown had 12 to Ayers' eight. He needs to take a lead role in making up for Ayers' tackles for lost yardage. Brown had five in 2008, two of them recorded as sacks. Aside from Brown, the only defensive ends with appreciable experience to their credit are Ben Martin, a junior who is a two-year letterman, and another junior, Chris Walker. Playing in all but one game, Martin tallied eight tackles and six quarterback hurries. Walker counted three sacks among his 13 tackles in picking up his second letter last season. Others who are listed at defensive end are junior college transfer Rae Sykes and redshirt freshmen Willie Bohannon and Steven Fowlkes. You can count on the coaching staff combing the newcomers roster closely in search of bodies who can fortify an undermanned front four.
Just as Brown at end is head-and-shoulders ahead of his teammates in achievement, Dan Williams enjoys a similar edge at tackle. The sizable (6-3, 327) senior last season had 23 tackles and 25 assists for 48 total stops, embellished by 81/2 tackles for lost yardage, including a sack and a half. The other starter in 2008, Demonte Bolden, has completed his eligibility, leaving an opening at left tackle that will create a pitched fight among four possibilities -- senior Andre Mathis, junior Chase Nelson, sophomore Donald Langley and freshman Montori Hughes. Newcomers enrolling for fall semester should see opportunity beckoning in the defensive line, both end and tackle, where experience is at a premium. Rookies assigned to the line who are not positioned at end will receive a warm welcome at tackle, which appears more understaffed than end. Last season's other starting tackle was Bolden, who contributed 35 tackles, six for lost yardage.
The lone returning linebacker is Rico McCoy, who finished second on the tackle chart, trailing only fellow linebacker Ellix Wilson. In nabbing second-team all-Southeastern Conference honors, McCoy tallied 87 tackles, 38 primary and 49 assists. There should be furious competition for action at linebacker, which suffered the loss of Wilson and Nevin McKenzie. Gerald Williams, happy to be a Vol after struggling through a junior college scenario to reach his goal of coming to UT, had 12 tackles in 10 games and broke up a pass. Williams figures to be a strong candidate for service in his junior season, as does Savion Frazier, who had 18 tackles. Coaches will also keep an eye on Chris Donald, a highly-regarded prospect whose credentials are highlighted by a 10-tackle performance in a junior varsity game last season against Hargrave Military Academy.
Trying valiantly to earn playing time at a position that is short on returnees will be juniors Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson, sophomore Josh Hawkins and freshmen Herman Lathers and Nigel Mitchell-Thornton. Reveiz has already gained a measure of fame for his bone-rattling tackles in his capacity as a kick-coverage artist on special teams.
Now to the consensus strength of the 2009 Vols: the secondary. Dennis Rogan, a junior best known for returning punts and kicks, is back at right cornerback after a season in which he notched 53 tackles, fourth best on the squad. Rogan had one interception and broke up five other passes. Left cornerback was vacated by DeAngelo Willingham, who had 42 tackles and a couple of interceptions. Three-year letterman Demetrice Morley will be back for his senior season at strong safety with a 42-tackle junior campaign highlighting his dossier.
Finally, there's the crown jewel of the defensive unit, free safety Eric Berry, already tagged as one of UT's all-time greats. In 2008 he tied for the NCAA lead in interceptions with seven and set a new SEC standard with 265 interception return yards. His career interception return yardage, 487, is also an SEC record. He needs only 15 more yards to wrestle the NCAA career mark of 501 from the grasp of Florida State's Terrell Buckley.
The rising junior was a unanimous All-America selection, earning first-team honors on the teams chosen by the Football Writers, the Football Coaches, Walter Camp Foundation, Sporting News and Associated Press. Berry was also a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation's outstanding defensive back. He ranked third among the Vols for total tackles, 72, which included eight for lost yardage and two sacks. Also on the roster as defensive backs are senior Marsalous Johnson, junior Brent Vinson, sophomores Daryl Vereen, Anthony Anderson, Art Evans, C.J. Fleming and Stephaun Raines and freshmen Prentiss Waggner and Rod Wilks. Of that group Johnson brings the most experience, having logged 11 tackles last season.
Daniel Lincoln, now a junior, hopes to recapture the form that won him All-America honors as a freshman placekicker. He tried 18 field goal kicks last season, connecting on 10, longest of which was 47 yards. The Vols lost their ace punter, Britton Colquitt, who averaged 43.4 yards per boot last season. Junior Chad Cunningham, who filled in as punter while Colquitt served a five-game suspension at the beginning of the season, brings a respectable 39.5-yard average to the job.
Dennis Rogan and Gerald Jones are back as kick and punt return specialists. Rogan's averages were 4.8 per return for punts and 24.9 for kicks. Jones averaged 10.0 and 38.3 for punts and kicks, respectively.