BY DANIEL MOGOLLON
COLLEGE FOOTBALL INSIDERS
2006 RECORD: 9-4; BIG EAST: 5-3
Lost Outback Bowl vs. Penn St. 20-10
LOCATION: Knoxville, Tennessee
STADIUM: Neyland (102,038)
HEAD COACH: Phillip Fulmer
OVERALL: 137-41 (15 seasons)
AT TENNESSEE: 137-41 (15 seasons)
The Vols have dropped 13 games in the last three seasons and there is little doubt in the mind of many that they have taken a step back as a program. They suffered heart breaking fourth quarter losses to Florida and LSU, with Erik Ainge missing most the game against the Tigers, as well as their loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks. Phillip Fulmer was much closer to pulling out an 11-1 regular season than it may have appeared. Make no mistake…the Vols still have the horses to join the elite…a top ten finish and even a Southeastern Conference Championship are not out of the question.
WHEN THE VOLS HAVE THE BALL
OFFENSIVE COORDINAROR: David Cutcliffe (2nd Season)
OFFENSIVE STARTERS RETURNING: 6
KEY LOSSES: Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, Brent Smith, Arron Sears
Naysayers lament their lack of a running game last season, as well as the departure of their top three receivers, however there is hope for the Tennessee offense. David Cutcliffe did an excellent job of rebuilding Erik Ainge, who is poised to finish out his career in Knoxville with his best season yet. In Eric Young, they actually could have an upgrade over Arron Sears at left tackle and they may have the most depth at tight end of any team in the country. Chris Brown and Brad Cottam are future NFL draft picks, with Brad’s younger brother, sophomore Jeff Cottam showing promise as well. They are unproven at receiver, but do not count out Junior College transfer Kenny O’Neal or highly touted freshman Ahmad Paige, two of several talented prospects in the receiving corps. What can make a difference this season is a more explosive running attack. In Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker, they possess three backs that have all displayed flashes of brilliance, but none of them, is a proven feature back. Coker has the most potential, making his off the field issues, which have put his season if not career in jeopardy, a major blow to the Vols chances.
PRO PROSPECTS: 1) Eric Young (SR), 2) Erik Ainge (SR), 3) LaMarcus Coker (SO), 4) Brad Cottam (SR), 5) Chris Brown (SR), 6) Jeff Cottam (SO), 7) Josh McNeal (SO), 8) Chris Scott (SO), 9) Jacques McClendon (SO), 10) Montario Hardesty (SO), 11) Arian Foster (JR)
WHEN THE OTHER TEAM HAS THE BALL
DEFENSIVE COORDINAROR: John Chavis (13th Season)
DEFENSIVE STARTERS RETURNING: 5
KEY LOSSES: Justin Harrell, Turk McBride, Jonathan Wade, Marvin Mitchell, Demetrice Morley
Leading the defense is a trio of potential superstars in the back seven: senior safety Jonathan Hefney, junior MIKE Jerod Mayo and sophomore WILL Rico McCoy. They are the three best tacklers on the defense and each brings playmaking potential, Hefney as a ball-hawk, with backers Mayo and McCoy making their way across the line of scrimmage. Ryan Karl gives them a veteran presence at the SAM position, while newcomers will have to rise to the occasion at corner. Similar to receiver, they could field one JC transfer, DeAngelo Willingham, as well as a heralded true freshman, Eric Berry, who many believe is the best incoming corner. They have solid depth at defensive end, with the play on the inside a spot where they can elevate the level of play of the entire defense. Junior Demonte Bolden has as much ability as any of their defenders and JT Mapu is ready to have a big senior season after having some trouble assimilating back to football following a Mormon mission.
PRO PROSPECTS: 1) Jerod Mayo (JR), 2) Jonathan Hefney (SR), 3) Rico McCoy (SO), 4) Xavier Mitchell (SR), 5) Demonte Bolden (JR), 6) Antonio Reynolds (SR), 7) Ryan Karl (SR), 8) Eric Berry (FR)
Early season road tests will dictate what type of season the Volunteers will have. In week one, they travel all the way to the West Coast to take on the Cal Golden Bears, whom they took care of rather easily to open up 2006. A win over the Bears will show the Vols are for real, which they can cement when they visit the Swamp just two weeks later. With Georgia coming to Knoxville, a victory at Florida would put them in the driver’s seat to win the SEC East. A 3-0 start could spark a run at a SEC crown, while a 1-2 record could bring back some of that self doubt and put the rest of the season in jeopardy. How they might react to two September losses is anyone’s guess.
To reach their potential, they must find consistency and stay away from making mistakes on and off the field. Coker’s problems are already strike one, as potentially losing their top back is not the way they wanted their season to start. Furthermore, will the new offensive lineman make all of their assignments? Can Erik Ainge stay away from the mistakes that plagued him as a sophomore? How about the newcomers at both wide receiver and corner -- are they ready to play SEC football? Mistakes on defense led to their losses to Florida and LSU, so if they clean it up, the sky is the limit at Rockey Top.
CFI FINAL ANALYSIS
Losing Coker could truly curtail Tennessee’s chances, as he was expected to be the offense’s top breakaway threat. I am not too worried about the receivers…as long as Ainge plays at a high level their passing game will be just fine. With eight of their two-deep back along the offensive line and experience on the defensive line, they should be better in the trenches than they were in 2006, which will translate into more wins. A second season under Cutcliffe will surely help the offense and you can be sure Coach Fulmer is tired of hearing his doubters -- I expect the Vols to be motivated to getting back among the SEC’s elite.
Check back tomorrow to see who is #10 in CFI’s Top 25 Countdown