Vols Need Instant Impact
By Matt Smith
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After a 5-7 season, Derek Dooley prepares to sign a recruiting class that could help save his job.
To say the University of Tennessee’s athletic programs have caught the short end of the stick lately is an understatement.
Lane Kiffin jilted the Volunteers for USC after one season in Knoxville, and the failure of his only recruiting class has hurt the team’s depth under Dooley. Last spring, men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl was terminated following a NCAA investigation into a barbecue at his home, which after the scandals at Ohio State, Miami, and Penn State, seems relatively insignificant. Pat Summitt, the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, announced she was diagnosed with dementia in August.
The bad breaks were not limited to coaches. Five games into the 2011 football season, the team’s two most dynamic players, quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Justin Hunter, were out with injuries. Dooley and the Vols could not overcome the injuries and a challenging SEC schedule, and the team missed a bowl game for the third time in seven years. The season culminated with a disastrous 10-7 loss to a Kentucky team that Tennessee had beaten 26 straight times, and was playing with a wide receiver at quarterback.
From 1995-1998, the Vols went 45-5. From 2008-2011, they’ve gone 23-27. There is little patience with a fanbase who has experienced the success that Tennessee has. Dooley knows his future rides on the fortune of the 2012 Volunteers - not just the upperclassmen like Bray and Hunter, but also the incoming freshman class, currently ranked 11th by Rivals.com.
The good news for the Vols is that they’ll be welcoming back 18 starters. The bad news is that their roster is still feeling the effects of the defections of the 009 class, as only seven of 22 signees remain on the team.
Although the Vols have the most returning starters in the SEC, you won’t win many games in the SEC with just 22 players. Depth, primarily on defense and in the offensive backfield, is still a major concern.
The defense will shift away from a 4-3 base run under departed coordinator Justin Wilcox. Former Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri was hired as Wilcox’s successor, and he’ll bring his multiple formations to Rocky Top.
If elite defensive linemen are precious commodities in college football, then a star nose tackle is pure gold. Tennessee needs a big body in the middle of the line when they line up in 3-4 sets, and junior college transfer Daniel McCullers has a chance to fill that role. Think Terrence Cody from Alabama’s 2008 and 2009 teams, only bigger (yes, bigger).
The Vols’ biggest loss defensively is middle linebacker Austin Johnson, but they were able to lure Louisiana native Otha Peters to Knoxville. Peters is considered the No. 4 player in Louisiana by Rivals.com, and in terms of size, he’s nearly a clone of Johnson. Barring a last-minute switch to Arkansas after a weekend visit to Fayetteville, Tennessee will have landed another key piece to a promising young linebacker corps that includes rising sophomores Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson.
Despite the plethora of talent in Texas, Tennessee has signed only one recruit from the Lone Star State in its past four classes. They’ve landed a big one, however, in this year’s class, in cornerback LaDarrell McNeil. The 6’1” Dallas native should immediately challenge veterans Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon for playing time. Add in recent commit and fellow cornerback Deion Bonner of Columbus, Ga., and the Volunteers very quietly are quietly building one of the best secondaries in the SEC.
The biggest struggle for the Volunteers of late has been consistent production from the ground game. There’s opportunity for growth in 2012 behind a now seasoned offensive line. With Tauren Poole departing, the future in the backfield may be Crowley La., commit Davante Bourque. The 6’3” athlete is an unpolished runner, with an upright style, but he’s elusive for his size and should be able to handle the physical play of SEC defenses.
With wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett being forced to transfer close to home, there is an opening behind Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers. The Vols have two strong candidates in Jackson, Tenn.’s Drae Bowles and Orlando’s Alton “Pig” Howard. Both are smaller receivers and are not the deep threat of Hunter or have the hands of Rogers, but both do have elite speed and should be effective slot receivers who can turn short throws into big gains.
The 2012 class, which currently stands at 21, is subject to change over the next few days with uncommitted prospects making their final decisions and current commitments making last-minute flips. What isn’t subject to change is how much Dooley and his staff need many of Wednesday’s signees to develop quickly.
Tennessee has had to push the reset button way too often lately. With the Vols about to lock up a third straight Top 15 recruiting class, it’s time to find the fast forward button.