Tennessee senior linebacker Herman Lathers has returned from a gruesome injury. Now, can UT's biggest leader stay healthy over a rigorous season? That's one of the storylines facing the Vols this year.
It was a routine action that has been repeated in the Shepard household roughly a few million times: I got home from work, plopped down in my rocking chair, picked up the remote and began scanning through my Direct TV schedule to see what was on the next couple weeks. I do this because I'm notoriously forgetful when it comes to DVRing things I want to see. If I learn of something I have to watch coming up, I always have to go ahead and look for it.
So, in my efforts to find something else I knew I'd want to see, there it was:
Tennessee vs. North Carolina State, Aug. 31.
My heart began beating fast. I hit the info button and just sat there and stared at the listing for 2 solid minutes. I felt myself getting extremely excited, not only because it was football season again and we have the opportunity to wash away one of the longest stretches of bad football in UT history. But also because I think we CAN do it.
This season's Vols are one of the most puzzling, polarizing teams in recent memory. Though few people are ranking them to start the season, I've seen everything from some national prognosticators saying we're going to be awful and this is Derek Dooley's last season to saying we're a dark horse to win nine or 10 games and upset some important teams.
One thing's for sure -- we've got more talent than we've had in years. And this preseason has proven it. Even our most worrisome issues aren't as big a concern as they've been in recent memory. The bottom line is this team has got the opportunity to not only be better than last year's 5-7 debacle but to be much, much better. Through all the positivity surrounding preseason practice, our hopes have only been raised more by Dooley, Sal Sunseri and gang and their buzz-worthy comments about this team.
I think the Vols think they can be pretty good. I think the coaches do, too. It's been a while since we've even been able to say that. That in itself is reason for me to get pumped up.
Here are the top 10 storylines in preseason drills that you need to know about to prepare you for the game 10 days from now. Please add more in the comments section if/when I leave one out.
10. Most of our recruiting class is in school, on the football field and ready to help. The greatest thing is most of them won't need to.
So this is what it feels like to have depth? The Vols got everybody into school from this year's recruiting class [not counting Davante Bourque, who came in, promptly got clotheslined by Big Daniel McCullers, took his ball and went home, never to return] and the early returns are these guys can play football. But many of them won't have to play just yet. Dooley has enjoyed success recruiting in the face of losing over the past three years, and UT has enough juniors and sophomores who are quality players that many of the freshmen won't have to suit up.
Still, there are guys who can and will help. JUCO defensive linemen McCullers and Darrington Sentimore either will start or be firmly in the rotation. JUCO WR Cordarrelle Patterson is the third wideout. Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray could find themselves getting some cornerback snaps. Jason Croom or Drae Bowles could work into the receiver rotation. LaTroy Lewis and Trent Taylor also may play some, and if Kenny Bynum and Pig Howard can get healthy, they should help, too. But none of them beyond McCullers, Sentimore or Patterson will be relied on.
9. We're woefully thin at inside linebacker and tight end.
Let me take this opportunity to say "Thanks, Cameron Clear." Even with the loss of the thieving, talented sophomore, UT still had tight end depth. Then, Justin Meredith's persistent hamstring injury continued. Then, Mychal Rivera began nursing a nagging leg injury. Then, Brendan Downs broke his patella. Then, converted defensive tackle Joe Ayres sprained an ankle. Now all of a sudden, the Vols have Rivera, senior H-Back Ben Bartholomew, freshman Justin King and converted linebacker Greg King at the position. Depth died. We need Downs to get back in a hurry -- though the end of September seems the best-case scenario. Most importantly, we need Rivera and Bart to stay healthy.
At inside linebacker, the Vols already worry about Herman Lathers coming off his gruesome leg injury last year. He has battled so many issues during his career that he will always be a concern, though he's one of the best players on the defense when healthy. We all know what we're going to get from A.J. Johnson. But beyond that? There isn't a lot about which to be excited. Channing Fugate is a converted fullback who coaches love, and he'll be the first guy off the bench. Dontavis Sapp can work in there, too. Multiple injuries may force Curt Maggitt to move inside and Willie Bohannon take his place strongside. The Vols desperately didn't need Kenny Bynum to go down with torn meniscus, and they don't know when he'll be back. Redshirt freshman Christian Harris is a legit prospect, but he is returning from a torn ACL and won't be back until late September at best. UT desperately needs to stay healthy at both spots.
8. Justin Worley seized the backup quarterback job and has looked like he'd be able to help if we needed him.
As a true freshman from Rock Hill, S.C., the former Gatorade National Player of the Year didn't exactly exude confidence in Tyler Bray's absence last year. He didn't instill confidence with his play, either. But just when everybody expected true freshman Nathan Peterman -- a coaches' favorite -- to usurp Worley as the team's backup, the rising sophomore went out and played his butt off the past three weeks. Now, there's almost no question Worley is the man behind The Man Tyler Bray. He understands the offense, makes proper check downs and has really worked on his strength and arm strength. Interceptions are still an issue, but he has the tools to be one of the better backups in the league. Let's just hope we don't see him any time other than mop-up duty.
7. If Dooley truly 'lost the team' last year, he's done everything in his power to gain them back this summer.
First, the team simply spent more time with each other this offseason. It was something the team and coaches discussed, and team cliques disappeared. What emerged -- if you believe the guys -- was a bigger sense of accountability for personal actions and how they affect everybody on the team. It was a great start.
Next, the team climbed Mount LeConte with strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery, something that was a character-building exercise as well as a physical accomplishment everybody who participated was proud of.
Finally, Dooley designed an old-school, school bussed trip up the road to Milligan College for a weeklong camp away from Knoxville. For that week, there was limited cell phone reception, team bonding stuff, karaoke contests, talent contents where players impersonated coaches, etc. Basically, the team worked hard and had fun doing it. They arrived at Milligan in school buses but left in charter buses. Dooley believes his team grew up a lot there, and this team seems to have a better feeling of unity than others under Dooley's watch.
This team seems to love one another. All of that is hunky-dory when you haven't lost any football games yet. So, we'll see how they -- chiefly Da'Rick Rogers -- react when adversity strikes. But you have to like that everybody appears to be on the same page. At least currently.
6. While the UT secondary is certainly the weakest unit of the defense, there is hope in talent.
Prentiss Waggner isn't flashy, but he is steady. Eric Gordon isn't steady, but he is flashy. Justin Coleman and Marsalis Teague have rebounded from forgettable 2011 seasons to have really impressive preseason practices. True freshmen Bonner and Gray look like they could help now if they're needed. At safety, Brian Randolph locked down free safety with last year's stellar freshman All-SEC campaign, and rehabbed junior Brent Brewer and classmate Byron Moore waged war in a healthy, productive battle for the strong safety spot the past month. Moore looks to be the guy who has emerged as the starter, but Brewer -- as well as senior Rod Wilks -- can provide quality snaps if need be.
Then there are Naz Oliver, Tino Thomas, Waldo Orta, Vincent Dallas, LaDarrell McNeil. There is plenty of talent back there -- even if it's unproven. The loss of Izaeua Lanier really hurt this unit, but there is at least a belief that while they'll give up some plays, they'll also make some. That's something last year's group couldn't say.
5. Defensive line depth at Tennessee is -- gasp! -- a team strength.
McCullers isn't a superstar, but at 6-feet-6, 362, he doesn't need to be. He has lost near 30 pounds since he arrived on campus, and he's going to help a lot immediately. He is giving coaches exactly what they wanted him to at nose guard, and his emergence has allowed the Vols to really stretch out its depth on the line. Perhaps UT's most accomplished D-lineman Mo Couch can now move to 3-4 defensive end, where he could be a 295-pound force rushing the passer and especially against the run. His move out there makes this UT line look -- at least physically -- like the Alabama lines when we can trot 295 pounds, 365 pounds and 285 pounds out there along the front. Sentimore is perhaps UT's biggest havoc-wreaker at the other end spot. Then, we've got a guy like Daniel Hood who started most of last season, who coaches love and who can play inside or out. Corey Miller has his grades straight and has had an impressive preseason. Steven Fowlkes is the team's best pass rusher and will play a lot as well. All of this and I haven't even mentioned Marlon Walls, who exited spring as a starter at defensive end.
Freshman Trent Taylor was a beast this spring, and if he doesn't help this year, he will soon. Then there is Jacques Smith, Jordan Williams and LaTroy Lewis at the Jack position. Though Smith is the clear-cut starter there, Williams and freshman Lewis are locked in a full-tilt battle for playing time. Rising redshirt sophomore nose tackle Greg Clark will see meaningful snaps, too. The Vols are in such shape on the line that four-star tackles Dan O'Brien and Dante "Omari" Phillips don't have to play and probably won't. That's depth, folks. How long has it been since UT had it on the defensive line?
4. Rushing the passer continues to be a major issue and one UT needs to solve somehow, some way.
In our dreams, Fowlkes, Sentimore and Couch will provide the push that we need, and Jacques Smith will be the sack machine we [and Bama, LSU, Georgia and everybody else] expected he'd be when we recruited him out of Ooltewah High School outside Chattanooga.The Vols get back to having a bit of swagger on defense, and every coach knows going in that they have to gameplan for UT's staunch surge to the quarterback.
In reality, all the beat writers say a redshirt senior who has never played meaningful snaps and was academically ineligible last year [Fowlkes] is our team's best pass rusher. So, yeah, that's an issue.
Sal Sunseri will play a more aggressive style, and Maggitt definitely has the ability to get to the quarterback, but Tennessee's secondary is going to be an Achilles to the point that if the Vols can't get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, this transition to the 3-4 may make us want to cover our eyes this year. The Vols desperately need for some candidates to step up and get to the passer. It's time for guys like Smith and Couch -- now or never.
3. Sam Pittman and Jay Graham openly, honestly believe Tennessee will be able to run the football.
Raijon Neal is a beast. Now, we don't know if he's a good running back or not, but we know he is the strongest, fastest running back in UT history, according to Wes Rucker of GoVols247, who uncovered his workout/40-yard-dash numbers. We just need to know if he can produce on the field. Before anybody discounts him, remember he only had 25 carries last year. This preseason, he is running the football very consistently well -- even if it is against our own defense. Devrin Young is providing a nice change-of-pace and could help the team this year. Most importantly, Pittman says the offensive line -- to a man -- has gotten better. It's difficult to believe they could have gotten worse from a historically horrific season last year. But they've given us a reason to believe that if we could run the ball just a little then we can be dynamic on offense. Like I said, it isn't just lip service. The coaches legitimately believe they've turned a corner and will be productive running the ball. We'll see.
2. Herman Lathers is the unequivocal leader of this team and we desperately need him to be on the field.
How many games will Lathers play? The answer to that question may be the biggest one for UT's young defense adopting a new scheme. The fifth-year senior could be a candidate to receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA. How could you turn down a man who had a gruesome leg injury, beat cancer and has remained a model citizen above it all? But if he doesn't get that extra year or attempt to, this will be his swan song, and the Vols desperately need him to be the player he showed flashes of being before the injury. Lathers is not only talented, he's also the biggest leader UT has had possibly since Al Wilson. He quarterbacks the defense, lines everybody up and we desperately need him to be healthy. That doesn't even bring into the equation how shallow the Vols are behind him. If Lathers plays and plays near 100 percent, all bets are off on this defense being poor. If he doesn't play, we could struggle because he knows the defense better than anybody. That's my bold prediction for the season.
1. We are who they say we are.
How confident is Dooley in Bray and the triumvirate of receivers? In the second major scrimmage of the preseason, UT mocked adversity by having Bray get "injured" and making Worley take all the first-team snaps. If it works, Dooley could be lauded for his preparation foresight. If Bray struggles against N.C. State, Dooley's critics will say his quarterback didn't have enough scrimmage reps before the season. Dooley doesn't seem to mind and decided to throw his team a curveball with the innovative experiment rather than get his upperclassman quarterback some more first-team reps.
Dooley knows what he's going to get with Bray and from Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Patterson, or at least he thinks he does. Besides Southern Cal, the Vols may have the best passing-game talent in the country. I expect UT will fling the ball all over the field and fling it with success. But we desperately need the reports of Bray's better handling/management of the offense to be true. We desperately need for Rogers to stay committed. We desperately need for Hunter to be fully healthy. And we desperately need Patterson to live up to expectations. There isn't much worry from the staff when it comes to those four, and if they all stay healthy, they could be very fun to watch.
It's only 10 days away now. Are you as excited as I am?