A final look at the Tennessee Volunteers' 2007 season. Up today: the preseason.
Photo by bb_matt
In the summer of 2007, the Tennessee Volunteer football program was basking in the success of 2006, a season during which they’d done the equivalent of righting the Titanic. Coach Fulmer’s post-2005 shuffling of the offensive staff had resulted in a decent 9-4 record, the losses coming to LSU and Arkansas without starting quarterback Erik Ainge, to Penn State in the Outback Bowl, and by one point to eventual national champion Florida. Not quite up to the standards of yore, but a solid recovery from The Season of Which We Do Not Speak.
Kicking up dust. Of course, there were some serious concerns going into the 2007 season. As promising as the beginning of the turnaround was in 2006, the running game really hadn’t yet recovered. That Tennessee’s ability to run the ball had been in a funk for several years wasn’t exactly a secret, and whether you trace the problem back to 2005 or to the hiring of former Florida o-line coach Jimmy Ray Stephens, there was really no arguing that Tennessee’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust identity had gone up in smoke.
Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe conceded as much, saying that he had mismanaged that aspect of the game in 2006. No wonder, really. He’d had his hands full with the Reanimation of Erik Ainge. In any event, getting the running game up to speed was high on Cutcliffe’s priority list for the upcoming season.
Cutcliffe had a solid unit with which to work. Arian Foster, who’d followed up a very solid half-season as a freshman in 2005 with a mere 322 yards in 2006 had motivated himself all summer with a picture of his disheartening fumble against Penn State in the Outback Bowl. The starting job was apparently his to lose.
Some were hoping that Foster would indeed lose the starting gig to LaMarcus Coker, the team’s most dynamic playmaker who had accounted for a full quarter of the 16 Best Plays of 2006. And why not? Word was that he was maturing and that his off-and-on cohabitation with Smokey IX in Fulmer’s doghouse appeared to be “off” for good.
But oy, almost as soon as that feel good article about Coker was published, word came that Fulmer had suspended Coker indefinitely, citing some mysterious medical condition. ESPN later reported that the suspension was triggered by another in a series of violations of Tennessee’s substance abuse policy. But that mysterious “medical condition” must have qualified as some kind of loophole or something because Coker was allowed to return to the team about a week before the season’s first game. Vol fans hoped he’d learned his lesson, because only LaMarcus Coker could stop LaMarcus Coker.
Can any of you catch? The real concern for the offense wasn’t the running game, though. No, that distinction belonged to the passing game. Gone were Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith, and stepping into the void would be . . . well, nobody really knew.
At least the unit was in good hands. Trooper Taylor had, upon arriving on campus, rejuvenated an underachieving group of running backs, and in his first year, he’d done the same thing with Meachem, Swain, and Smith. This year, his task would be different, though, as he wouldn’t need to coach up players discouraged by setbacks so much as he would need to develop receivers with no college experience from the ground up.
The pool of candidates? Senior Casey Woods, juniors Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe, sophomore Austin Rogers and Quintin Hancock, junior college transfer Kenny O’Neal (RTT#17), prep school grad and changed man Brent Vinson (RTT#3), and true freshmen Todd Campbell (RTT#13), Gerald Jones (RTT#7), Ahmad Paige (RTT#4), and Denarius Moore (RTT#14). There was some serious potential in that group of 11, especially with the guys in that shiny new recruiting class. According to backup QB B.J. Coleman, some of the new guys were “wooo!” fast, and it was a race just to get back in the five step drop and throw the ball before the receiver was finished with his route.
The odds were with the upperclassmen, though, as history shows that with the exception of Kelly Washington, first year receivers don’t get much playing time for the Vols, and Trooper Taylor pointed out that the thing about fast young guys is that they can get to the wrong place in a hurry.
Tight end, anyone? Whatever the receiving corps ended up looking like, one thing was certain: it would be fresh from the farm new. That fact had the offensive coaches looking in whole new ways at tight ends Brad Cottam, Chris Brown, David Holbert, Jeff Cottam, and Luke Stocker. Brad Cottam could hardly contain his enthusiasm, and coaches’ comments about him were inducing in Vol fans visions of Jason Witten beating linebackers down the field and dragging three defensive backs into the checkerboards. Fulmer and Cutcliffe were reportedly tweaking the system to make the tight ends a focal point of the offense.
And then tragedy. Holbert suffered a knee injury, and his season ended before it began. Then, just before the season began, Brad Cottam suffered a significant wrist injury that was projected to keep him sidelined for two to three months. Back to square one.
Defense. New. Green. Good? The defense had concerns of its own. The d-line (and the rest of the defense) had been embarrassed by Tony Hunt and Penn State in the Outback Bowl, and the coaches were looking at having to replace both of their starting defensive tackles (as well as Justin Harrell, who had missed most of the 2006 season) and were in serious need of depth.
The biggest problem on defense, though, was going to be the secondary. Senior Jonathan Hefney would return at safety, but the other three spots were up for grabs and would likely be filled by still more green.
The good news was that Eric Berry (RTT#1) was on campus. The wake of hype trailing Berry everywhere he went was something Tennessee fans hadn’t witnessed since Peyton Manning committed to play for the Vols. Even better, though, was the fact that when Berry started practicing, the hype actually appeared to be warranted. In fact, the coaches seemed to have discarded their usual reign on restraint altogether:
Recruiting high school players into college is a funny business. With middle of the road recruits, you generally have more hope than hype. And with the hype guys, the coaches generally embark on a de-recruiting campaign as soon as the VHTs step onto campus because their substantial egos are in the way of progress. We've all heard coaches utter ego malleations such as "[VHT] is showing talent and potential, but he's got a lot to learn before he's ready to play in the SEC."
Not so with Eric Berry, at least so far. Go google-hunting for a negative quote about Berry. Shoot, try to find even a "hold your horses" kind of quote. Nonexistent. No, it appears that the coaches feel that Berry is not only primed to seize control of a starting position at right corner in the first game against Cal, it seems that they think he's mentally ready as well. His maturity renders star-stripping unnecessary.
Woo, Berry. It grows on the Woobush. It’s very rare.
Nostradamus abstains. So could Tennessee continue to build on the improvement it had enjoyed in 2006 with all of those concerns? Nobody really knew.
Florida, having won the National Championship in 2006 with Chris Leak at QB now featured Urban Meyer running Meyer’s offense with Meyer’s players, including baby rhino Tim Tebow. Georgia was going to be solid again, and they’d be looking for revenge for the 51-33 pounding we’d given them at their place the year before. Steve Spurrier was beginning to like his team so much that he was getting cocky again. And that was just the top four teams in the East. Both Kentucky, which was improving due in large part to former Vol Randy Sanders’ work with QB Andre Woodson, and Vanderbilt were legit trap games. Shoot, even college football guru Phil Steele couldn’t make up his mind about the SEC East. He had Georgia and South Carolina tied for first and Florida and Tennessee tied for third in his preseason poll. The league would again be strong -- the coaches poll had five SEC teams in the top 15 – but nobody could agree on which team was the strongest.
No, nobody knew what to think going into 2007. Nobody knew about Tennessee’s receivers, or its secondary, or its defensive tackles. Nobody knew what was going to happen in the SEC East, or the West, or what would happen nationally, for that matter.
Nobody knew anything about the season that was about to unfold. Nobody, that is, except our own Corn from a Jar, who somehow divined the coming national catastrophe and correctly predicted that Tennessee would be one of the few to survive the calamity.