By Randy Moore
Rocky Top News
Tennessee spent the entire 2008 football season looking for a competent quarterback. As the 2009 season approaches, the Vols are still looking. Jonathan Crompton completed just 51.5 percent of his passes and Nick Stephens a mere 48.5 percent last season, with each starting six games in the 5-7 disaster that got Phillip Fulmer fired. The failure to sign a quarterback last February, coupled with the transfer of sophomore B. J. Coleman following spring practice, leaves the Vols facing another season with Crompton and/or Stephens at the helm.
A year's experience, coupled with a more quarterback-friendly scheme, should make Crompton and Stephens more effective in 2009 than they were in '08. So should an improved ground attack. Senior Montario Hardesty, sophomore Tauren Poole and mid-term freshman Toney Williams ran effectively in spring practice, and two of America's most celebrated tailback prospects – Bryce Brown and David Oku – will be joining the running stable in August.
Still, problems abound: The offensive line is solid but thin. The receivers are competent but not explosive. The tight ends are talented but injury-prone.
Although Tennessee's 2009 offense has to be better than the '08 attack that averaged a paltry 17.3 points per game, it may not be significantly better.
Defensively, the Vols boast perhaps college football's premier weapon in electrifying safety Eric Berry. He'll be joined by fellow junior Dennis Rogan in what should be one of the SEC's better secondaries.
It's what's upfront that counts, though, and there are question marks galore in Tennessee's front seven. The Vols have three adequate tackles (seniors Dan Williams and Wes Brown, plus mid-term freshman Montori Hughes) but no depth behind them. Tennessee is similarly strapped at end, where there is a noticeable dropoff behind first-teamers Chris Walker and Ben Martin.
Linebacker isn't as strong as usual, either. Weak side mainstay Rico McCoy has 27 career starts but the Vols' next-most experienced 'backer is Nick Reveiz, a former walk-on with one career start. On a positive note, long-time NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin installed his heralded Tampa-2 scheme during the spring, and it may take Tennessee's SEC rivals a year or two to figure out how to counter it.
After eight years of brothers Dustin and Britton Colquitt, Tennessee's punting duties fall to Chad Cunningham. He averaged a pedestrian 39.5 yards filling in while Britton Colquitt was suspended the first five games of '08.
Tennessee's placekicker again will be Daniel Lincoln, who was tabbed first-team All-America by the Football Writers Association of America after nailing 21-of-29 field goals as a freshman in 2007. Lincoln hit just 10-of-18 attempts last fall, however, and looms as something of an enigma heading into his junior season.
On paper, Tennessee appears to be no better than average on offense, defense or special teams. New head coach Lane Kiffin has brought an infusion of excitement and enthusiasm, however, that seems to have spread throughout the team.
Ultimately, the energy level will have to carry Tennessee against the SEC's better teams because the Vols' talent level simply isn't on par with the likes of Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss.