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What Will Injuries Reveal About Tennessee's Rebuilding Efforts?

A rash of injuries in fall camp may have slowed fan expectation, but will truly reveal how far the Vols have come under Butch Jones.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

At the peak of our powers, now 17 years ago, injuries were a minor inconvenience.  Jamal Lewis goes down with a torn ACL in the fourth game of the season?  We've got two star backs to take his place.  Best corner goes down just before halftime in the BCS title game and the other team has Peter Warrick?  Next guy up will keep him off the stat sheet the rest of the way home.

There are few examples of injuries having a serious impact on a Phillip Fulmer team.  The most notable one is 2002, when Casey Clausen, Kelly Washington, and Cedric Houston all missed multiple games on offense and more than half of Tennessee's defensive starters sat at least one week in an eventual 8-5 campaign.  But fast forward several years and a couple head coaches, and injuries were much more costly.

Four years ago Derek Dooley's second team earned high expectations after beating Butch Jones' Cincinnati squad, but just a few weeks later it would be without Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray.  But it wasn't just losing two of the team's best players, it was the state of the program behind them.  With little to no quality depth, it wasn't just losses like Bray and Hunter that hurt, but guys like Brent Brewer who also went down leaving a void behind them.  It's a fruitless point now, but before the loss to Kentucky we repeatedly argued it was hard to expect any coach in America to have done much more than Dooley did given so many injuries and so little to fill in the gaps after so much turnover.

Today, Tennessee stands eight days from its season opener.  It has lost projected starters at left guard, nickel, and now one safety position with LaDarrell McNeil out indefinitely with neck instability.  Jason Croom will still be sidelined with a knee scope.  Pig Howard is suspended one game for violation of team rules but will be back to face Oklahoma.  His temporary loss probably represents the most talented player to miss time, but no one expects Howard to be the difference between winning and losing against Bowling Green.

So far these Vols have avoided the loss of any of their very best players, and so far there's been enough depth to semi-comfortably fill holes in the starting lineup with guys like Todd Kelly, Jr.  But in Butch Jones' third year, the Vols are not far enough along to comfortably answer questions like, "Who's after Todd Kelly, Jr?  Who's behind Jack Jones?"

Tennessee still has enough talent for fans to believe in the possibility of 9 wins and the SEC East title.  And it has enough depth, in spots, to keep that possibility alive despite a few injuries here and there.  But what will happen when even an average amount of regular season wear and tear gets piled on top of what has to now be an abnormal amount of preseason loss?

Last year the Vols were extraordinarily fortunate with defensive injuries, losing only Dillon Bates for an extended period of time.  But on offense, the Vols lost Justin Worley, Josh Smith, Marquez North, and Jacob Gilliam for multiple games.  You just never know how these things are going to go.  So while the Vols have built back quality depth in a few places (including, thankfully, wide receiver), there are other spots where Tennessee is far more vulnerable.  There are some spots, like defensive end, where guys like Derek Barnett aren't going to have to play every single snap.  And there are some spots, like tight end, where guys like Ethan Wolf may have to be on the field for far too many snaps.

So perhaps two of the biggest questions for this team this fall are becoming how much will they have to rely on second team guys, and what kind of production will they get from them?  This isn't 2011; there are plenty of recruiting stars on Tennessee's second team.  But this isn't 1998 either, where backups can be fully counted on to come in and sustain a high level of play.

Perhaps this season will end with Butch Jones lamenting the work left to be done, the youth that had to grow up too fast, and a future which remains bright.  But if this season is going to end with the kind of celebration we're all still hoping for, the Vols will need to be a little more fortunate on the injury side of things, and will need to get it right right away with the young talent that must step in.  Has the program been built back to a level where it can sustain these injuries and still win?

I hope we're done finding out about injuries.  But either way, we'll find out about these Vols and exactly how healthy this program has become in eight short days.