We won't see something like this again.
The seniors on this team have played in the SEC Championship Game, suffered through the end of the Phillip Fulmer era, got one year of the Lane Kiffin experience, and now find themselves one win away from establishing a firm foundation for Derek Dooley.
As Hooper pointed out earlier this year, what was thought to be a star-studded 2007 recruiting class will see only 15 names called when the T opens up tomorrow. 14 of them have contributed in significant form this year, the backbone of a young team that could've quit when October got rocky, but instead have helped this team turn things around. They'll get one more chance to make sure we're pointed in the right direction on Saturday. They also pave the way for those who will replace them as Derek Dooley's process moves forward, and in many cases we've already seen a glimpse of who's next.
But win or lose on Saturday, these guys not only laid the foundation for Dooley, but should be forever appreciated for giving their all for Tennessee during a period when it was most difficult to do so. For them more than anyone else...let's get a win on Saturday and send them out the right way.
Here's who we'll say goodbye to, what we'll remember them for, and who will try to fill their shoes as the program moves forward...
As excited as we may be about Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter, GJones and DMo have brought consistency to an offense that badly needed it. They've both showed flashes throughout their entire careers - Jones made a huge touchdown catch in overtime at Kentucky as a freshman, and made two huge runs in the SECCG the next week. Moore has become a human highlight the last two years, from his leaping touchdown against Georgia last year to his 8 touchdowns this year. Before we get all carried away about our freshmen, remember that Jones, Moore, and Stocker have combined for 105 catches (Jones leads the team with 40 despite missing all of three games), 1,441 yards, and 11 TDs. Their replacements (Rogers, Hunter, and Mychal Rivera) are off to a good start with 35 catches for 626 yards and 7 TDs (6 via Hunter), but it's unfair to the new guys and disrespectful to the old guys to assume the Vol passing game will automatically be even better next year. All three of these seniors should at least get a look from the NFL, and credit Stocker in particular for being patient when his numbers haven't been what we all thought they would be.
Kevin Cooper was benched two games for academic reasons, and Channing Fugate picked up time at fullback in his absence. And Jarrod Shaw, who's been moved around all over the line, will give way to Jer'Quari Schofield and Zach Fulton at guard next year. Again, the Vols will be fortunate to replace five senior starters on offense with players who've already gotten their feet plenty wet.
Same with the offense, on paper it'll say that the Vols have to replace three starters on the defensive line next year, but the guys who will come in behind them have already gotten plenty of potential. Chris Walker was deemed unblockable by Lane Kiffin, and he made several big plays last year, including an impressive pick six against Ohio. As the calendar has turned to November, both Walker and Gerald Williams have stepped up their play, finishing strong up front. Victor Thomas is another guy who got shuffled around, but ended up giving the Vols solid reps as a starting defensive tackle. An early guess at the Vols' starting defensive line next year - DE Ben Martin & Jacques Smith, DT Malik Jackson & Montori Hughes - still leaves plenty to be excited about here.
While sophomore Herman Lathers beat out Savion Frazier for the final starting spot this year, the Vols will still be hurt by graduation at LB more than anywhere else, by far. Nick Reveiz is a tremendous story on his own, but he also leads the team in tackles with 86, an absurd 26 more than the next closest player (Lathers). That kid is everywhere. LaMarcus Thompson is fourth on the team in tackles and made several spectacular plays earlier this year, including a sensational end zone interception at LSU. While Austin Johnson is the likely replacement for Reveiz in the middle, there's no clear answer for who fills the other OLB slot next year.
And though youth reigns in the secondary, we'll be sad to see Tyler Wolf go, a guy who played hard and filled in well in Tennessee's nickel package at times this year.
It's easy on one hand to say "We've got Palardy (and Matt Darr), we're good here." But even if you chalk Palardy's struggles up to inexperience, Lincoln is 9 for 9 kicking field goals this year - that's a pretty solid standard to leave behind. Cunningham's only real crime is that his last name wasn't Colquitt, because while he may not have been noticed as much, he was always very solid here, averaging 42.1 yards per punt this year.
The magazines in April and May will say we lost five starters on both sides of the ball, plus both of our kickers. Our lack of depth has already pushed the next group of guys into action, and should prepare them very well to continue to make progress. But they'll always be chasing this group of seniors in terms of perseverance, dedication, and loyalty. Maybe none of them will make it in the NFL, and maybe ten years from now we'll have forgotten all of their names.
But if Derek Dooley is the right man for the job, and one day hoists a trophy...we'd do well to remember this group then. They're the class that stayed when it was easiest to leave...and will always get to be in on the ground floor of whatever good Dooley will do here.