This is where the final game preview will go throughout the season, but for the third year in a row the Vols open with an opponent none of us have ever seen. So for the third year in a row, we take a look at the UT players we're most interested to see in the season opener.
Every team is unique, but this one is strange in the sense that even the guys we feel like we know, we really don't - not that well, anyway. Just because Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter aren't on this list doesn't mean we should all feel 100% confident in their ability to be the primary options in the passing game. Right now, if your name isn't Tauren Poole, we're still getting to know you. Malik Jackson is preseason All-SEC, but has started only a handful of games at defensive tackle. I know about Prentiss Waggner at corner, but not safety. I know the offensive line is going to be better, but how much?
We'll get answers to those questions as the season goes along. And in many ways, just because a player does something good against Montana doesn't mean he'll do the same good things in SEC play. But here are the players we'll be watching closely against the Grizzlies, eager to see what they can show us right away.
A new starting kicker is always going to make this list for me. As Joel pointed out on Wednesday, the statistical category the Vols were best at last season was kick coverage. Chad Cunningham is gone and the job will belong to Palardy alone, but it will be a healthier, more experienced Palardy. All the super optimism of, "He's the number one high school kicker in the nation, of course he's going to be awesome!" has faded, but Palardy still has plenty of kicks left for this university. Putting kickoffs in the end zone would be glorious, but there's no reason UT can't continue to excel in kick coverage either way. What I really want to see on Saturday is Palardy make a field goal. Not because I think we're going to struggle to score touchdowns against Montana, not because of Palardy's freshman stats, and really it's nothing to do with Palardy personally. But kickers in general tend to be head cases, and it's very important for them to get off to a good start. And if we have to have one in the final minute against Cincinnati or Florida, I don't want it to be the first time we've attempted one all season.
4. Marlin Lane
This is about the present and the future. First of all: can he catch a punt? If he simply does that, he'll have nowhere to go but up, and trust me, we'll be easily impressed ("A ten yard return?! LANE4HEISMAN!"). But what we all really want to know here is, can he be the answer at tailback down the road? It's the perfect situation for him to come in and play behind a senior who knows how to get the job done. Last year Rajion Neal had 46 carries and David Oku 42 - if Lane can establish himself as the lone secondary option, he'll get at least all of those carries this fall and we'll have plenty of chances to see what he can do. I don't think Neal or Oku ever made us feel like they were the answer for the future. Lane will have a big chance to do that this season, and that can start on Saturday. Yards will be out there against Montana - I'd love to see Marlin Lane get some of them.
The starters at wide receiver should be able to make plays in this game. But I'm interested to see who Bray is most comfortable throwing to after that. Of this group, who is going to see the field the most? Rogers' health is a concern, and I feel like we've had conflicting reports about Arnett - the highest rated player in UT's freshman class - who is, at this point, somewhere between the true #3 option and a non-factor in the passing game. He's a freshman (and wasn't here in the spring as Dallas was), so if he doesn't see the field with the ones I'm not going to lose any sleep over it. But it is important for Bray to establish some rhythm with someone other than Rogers and Hunter. Anthony Anderson, fifth year senior and wide receiver for all of three weeks, could be a really great story if he can see the field and make an impact, and he was higher on the depth chart than I thought he'd be...but he's only a great story if he's actually good enough to make the field in such a short time, not because everyone else was so bad the Vols just threw him out there to see what happened.
2. Curt Maggitt & A.J. Johnson
Justin Coleman will start, but we saw him in the spring. Maurice Couch will play, but isn't ready to start yet. Marlin Lane, as previously discussed, could be something special, but right now we don't need him to be. So the primary option for your usual freshman hype now falls to Maggitt & Johnson, both of whom will start at outside linebacker Saturday night. Johnson will do a better job looking the part in uniform, but it's Maggitt who has generated the most buzz in camp. Not only does he have coaches singing praise instead of reserving it, he had scrimmage stats that put fans into an even greater frenzy. Curt Maggitt is the new guy you want to see the most, the one you'll look for pre-snap and watch just to see what he can do. Again, it's Montana...but how great will it be if he gets to the quarterback early in the game?
1. Tyler Bray
Because everything with this team still starts and ends with him. Maybe if his performance in the Orange & White Game wasn't what it was and his numbers in the scrimmage were slightly better, we could just all assume he was going to light Montana up and focus our attention elsewhere. I don't need to see him throw for 400 yards and 4 TDs on Saturday, and if he does we'll all say, "It's Montana." I simply want to see him execute the offense...and if the offense is something more than "Throw it deep" (which might be enough to win this week), even better. Bray's average stat line from the last five-and-a-half games was 20 of 35 for 310 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT. Anything in that neighborhood would be more than fine. But we thought the world of Erik Ainge coming into his sophomore year, and he went 5 of 14 for 57 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs in the opener against UAB. We don't have enough quality data on Bray to give him the Heisman just yet, and we won't get it on Saturday either. We'll find out exactly who Tyler Bray is in Gainesville and in October. He simply needs to get off to a good start Saturday. Right now we just need execution, confidence, and victory.