We arrive at this question on an interesting day. The guy everyone wants to be the answer to this question got in some extra reps with beer bottles and golf balls over the weekend, and was accurate enough to cause trouble. He's now possibly homeless, which has worked well for some leaders in the past but tends not to fly in 2012. And I'm sure there has been or will be some sort of internal discipline from the head coach, whose own unproven leadership will always only go so far.
There are sixteen seniors on the roster. A dozen or so will play. Four will start.
Before any off-the-field issues are addressed, simple math shows great attrition at the top. We saw it last year, when Tauren Poole and Malik Jackson did perhaps the best they could with a small senior voice on a team full of underclassmen. And we saw it two years ago, with Nick Reveiz doing all he could from his former walk-on role. The leadership a program tends to expect from its seniors simply hasn't had the necessary numbers to stand up.
But as a sign of a good program is juniors leaving early for the NFL, plenty of good teams have relied on junior leadership in the modern era of college football. This Tennessee team is full of juniors who will play well enough for their voices to be respected, and may have the one or two senior voices that can add the necessary volume.
Leaders are born and made. We won't really know it until we see it this fall. But every good team needs good leadership. With no one on this team who knows what it's like to win at Tennessee and everyone eager for a fresh start to put the last two years behind them, here are the voices we think and hope will lead the way this fall:
I don't know what Herman Lathers was born with, but I know what life has made him in the last few years. Better said, I know what he's made of his life.
So for many reasons, of the thousands of things I've read about UT this summer, nothing made me feel better than this:
Without disrespecting others, it's been a while since Tennessee football had a leader like Sr LB Herman Lathers. Inspiring kid in many ways.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) July 14, 2012
Lathers is the guy you want to root for a little more than others. Between childhood cancer, the blood disorder that could have slowed him down early or the gruesome ankle injury that cost him all of last season, this kid is due. And his play on the field - he was UT's fifth leading tackler as a redshirt freshman in Monte Kiffin's defense and the second leading tackler in 2010 - allows him to speak and be heard.
In a crowded field at linebacker, look for Lathers to make his impact known between the lines. But off the field, Lathers has apparently become the voice of not only a defense looking for upperclassman leadership, but perhaps the entire team. When you're asking this question of your team, you want to hear the things we've heard about Lathers all summer. And you especially want to hear them when that guy has this story.
If things go well for Tennessee this year, it will likely be because Lathers played a part in it, on and off the field. And if things go really well for Tennessee this year, we may end up remembering Lathers in the pantheon of great Vol linebackers who led with their heart.
Quarterbacks are leaders by vocation. Any chance you have to avoid such a blessing (or turn it into a curse) is granted only to the inexperienced, and our guy has been our guy since his freshman season. There is no reason on the field or in the huddle to believe that Tyler Bray can't be a leader.
And then there are golf balls and beer bottles, the latest little thing to make us and probably more than just us question. It's the small dose of reality as the season moves just five weeks away to keep us from getting as excited as we'd like to, about Bray and about this team. Because let's face it, we all saw this team without Bray last year, and while Justin Hunter's injury did the real damage in 2011, in 2012 Tyler Bray is absolutely the player we need the most.
And we need Tyler to lead.
I think he knows this. I think he's trying to grow into it. And I also think he's a 20 year old college kid who will do 20 year old college things like every one of us did. We threw firecrackers and spare tires in my day, because when you don't have Bray's arm you have to make up the difference with loud noises and bounce. Even Peyton Manning threw a full moon in someone's direction during his time at this fine university.
So we use the ol' "Everybody does it!" and/or "He'll learn from it and become a better leader/quarterback/human being!", and maybe he will. But keep in mind we've only seen a dozen starts from this guy. Our on-the-field images of him are incredibly great for such a small sample size. It's just that our images also happen to include the throat slash in the Music City Bowl, or the postgame audio from Lexington where a guy fresh off a six week injury said he needed some time away from football, or the 5-of-30 performance from the 2011 Orange & White Game. Maybe they're all totally innocent moments, but in our heads they become the "Yeah, and..." moments that return when you throw beer bottles and golf balls.
Is Tyler Bray a leader? The answer needs to be yes. Will it be yes? That's up to Tyler Bray.
I do think that one of the many great things that would come with a 3-0 start would be increased leadership from Bray. If we get off to a rough start and this thing starts getting sideways, there's simply no one on this team with any experience in saving a sinking ship. For everyone wearing a Tennessee uniform right now, the ship always sinks. Lane Kiffin ran away. The Music City Bowl. The Kentucky game. No one on this team knows how the story is supposed to end in Knoxville.
But this team will write its own story this fall, and for the offense if not the whole team alongside Lathers and others, Bray needs to make sure the pen and his arm are mighty. The true legacy of Tyler Bray is yet to be written at this university...and if it's to become a good story, it will almost certainly involve his leadership. And if he's healthy, I believe the only thing that can stop Tyler Bray is Tyler Bray. And he has the power to make sure that doesn't happen, and to write a great story this fall.
The Offensive Line
Bray has 12 career starts. Da'Rick Rogers has 12. Herman Lathers has a season and a half worth, which is about the same for Prentiss Waggner and Brent Brewer. The rest of this team is still very young on both sides of the ball...
...except up front, where the offensive line and tight end Mychal Rivera have more than 100 career starts between them.
I heard someone, I can't remember who and it may have been on here, say once that you know it's going to be a good year when your leaders are your offensive linemen. We know that Dallas Thomas, the lone senior starter, is more of a quiet fellow. And we know that Tiny Richardson, the biggest boy at the table, is talking more than his on-field experience might suggest.
But together, these guys can be a real force both on and off the field. These are the guys who have been in the battles the longest, back to the beginning of the 2010 season. They're not new to the party, and with the exception of the James Stone/Alex Bullard rotation at center, the other three returning starters haven't missed any significant playing time. Dallas Thomas, Zach Fulton, and Ja'Wuan James have been in the fight and have the scars to prove it. Now it's time for those scars to mean something.
In 2010 the Vols were 116th nationally in sacks allowed. In 2011 the Vols were 116th nationally in rushing yards. And it wasn't like someone else was responsible for those numbers; for the most part, that was these linemen. So in a way, no one has more to prove this year than these five guys...but if they can prove it, they'll already have the necessary experience to become additional leaders for this football team.
I've never been in the locker room, never met any of these guys personally, and have no idea about any of the personality components that go into this. But every team needs leaders, and good teams tend to have good leaders. I am ready for great things to happen to Herman Lathers. I want to believe in Tyler Bray. And I hope this offensive line is ready for some payback.
From there, and from anywhere else it can be provided, the Vols can find the leadership to go with their talent to turn this into more than just a collection of players, but a united football team bent on writing their own legacy. Opportunity is now here.