TIGER RAG PREVIEW: Tennessee Volunteers

Today is the tenth installment of a 15-part series in which Tiger Rag previews LSU's opponents and other members of the SEC. Today, we spotlight the Tennessee Volunteers. Tomorrow, we look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.

With one of the most impressive coaching records in the country already on his resume, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer hopes to achieve even more success this fall, as the Volunteers try and topple defending champion Florida and make their way back into the SEC championship picture.

 

Fulmer, who has been at Tennessee for the past 28 years, is entering his 16th season as the school's head coach and has managed a record of 137-41 during that time.

 

A former Volunteer offensive guard himself, Fulmer's coaching career includes six SEC east titles, two conference championships, and one national title, going 13-0 in 1998. He has led Tennessee to a bowl game in every season except for 2005.

 

In 2006, Tennessee bounced back from a disappointing season the year before to go 9-4, finish second to national champion Florida in the SEC east, and earned a birth in the Outback Bowl against Penn State.

 

This season, the Volunteers will have to replace nearly half of their starters, including a pair of wide receivers in Robert Meachem and Jason Swain that helped give Tennessee one of the top passing attacks in the conference in 2006.

 

While the offense will be without two other players in addition to the two receivers, the defense took an even bigger hit this off-season, as the Vols will have to replace starters at six defensive spots this fall.

 

One person that will return as a key player for Tennessee this season is senior quarterback Erik Ainge, who emerged as one of the SEC's top signal callers behind Kentucky's Andre' Woodson and LSU's JaMarcus Russell last year. As a junior, Ainge completed 233 of 348 passes for 2,989 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 appearances.

 

His nine interceptions and 151.9 efficiency rating also rank the quarterback among the best in the conference.

 

While his performance at quarterback was noteworthy last year, Ainge had the benefit of a stellar tandem of starting wide receivers in Meachem and Swain, two players that Tennessee must replace in a hurry if the Volunteers hope to see the same success through the air this season as they did in 2006.

 

Meachem, a first round selection in this year's NFL draft, led the SEC in receiving last season with 1,298 yards and 11 touchdowns on a 71 receptions to average just under 100 receiving yards per game.

 

The Volunteers will look to a quartet of experienced receivers to fill the shoes of Meachem and Swain this year, including juniors Josh Briscoe and Lucas Taylor, sophomore Austin Rogers and senior Casey Woods.

 

Taylor saw the most action of any of the returning wide outs, hauling in 14 receptions for 101 yards while playing in all 13 games.

 

Both starting tight ends will be back in seniors Chris Brown and Brad Cottam to give experience to the passing game this fall.

 

Ainge went to his tight ends a good bit last season, as the two combined for 45 catches for 421 yards.

 

On the ground, sophomore tailback LaMarcus Coker will play Tennessee's lead role in the rushing attacking once again in 2007 after compiling 696 yards and five touchdowns in 11 appearances last year, making him the most productive freshman in the conference.

 

Senior David Holbert will likely serve as the Volunteers top fullback this fall, though the team opted to run a two-tight end offense without the fullback some last season.

 

Tennessee's offensive line will see the return of three starters this fall, including sophomore center Josh McNeil, junior right guard Anthony Parker and senior right tackle Eric Young.

 

The left side of the line will see two new starters, with the top candidates for the job being sophomore Chris Scott, who lettered as a freshman, at tackle, and either junior Ramon Foster or sophomore Jacques McClendon at tackle. As a unit, the Volunteer line blocked for 1,404 yards of rushing while allowing 19 sacks last season.

 

Defensively, the Volunteers must find starters to fill both of the tackle spots, while seniors Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds will return as starters at defensive end.

 

Mitchell was second on the team with four sacks last season.

 

The two tackle spots have a handful of players capable of earning the starting job, with one obvious choice being senior J.T Mapu, a three year lettermen that saw time in all 13 games as a junior. Junior Demonte' Bolden is a possible candidate at tackle as well after recording 22 tackles and one sack last year.

 

At linebacker, senior Ryan Karl and junior Jerod Mayo return as starters on the outside, while the spot in the middle will be filled by a new body after the departure of team tackle leader Marvin Mitchell. Mayo led the team with five sacks last year, and was the third in total tackles with 83, while Karl 66 tackles with one sack on the season. A host of athletes will be vying for the open job at middle linebacker.

 

Tennessee's secondary will see several new faces this fall as well, after losing both cornerbacks and a starting strong safety from last year's squad.

 

The lone returnee to the defensive backfield is senior free safety Jonathan Hefney, the squad's leading return tackler who amassed 96 tackles and a team-high five interceptions in 2006.

 

Junior Roshaun Fellows, who started in games during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, could also play a part in the secondary this season, along with Antonio Gaines and Ricardo Kemp and Jarod Parrish, both of whom earned letters a year ago.

 

On special the Volunteers will miss departed kicker James Wilhoit, the conference's second-leading scorer last year. Looking to replace Wilhoit at kicker will either be red shirt freshmen Chad Cunningham and Daniel Lincoln, sophomore David Campbell or junior Nino Polimeni, none of whom have attempted a kick in college.

 

Junior Britton Colquitt will be back as the Volunteers starting punter after averaging 44.9 yards per punt, the second best mark in the SEC, during the 2006 campaign.

 

The kickoff return responsibilities were spread around last year, and could be again this fall, with LaMarcus Coker the possible front runner.

 

Jonathan Hefney, who averaged 12.1 yards per punt return on 17 tries, will be back as the defense's punt handler.

 

- Matt Dearman

 

 

QUICK FACTS

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

 

All-Time Series: 6-20-3

First Meeting: 1925, LSU 0, Tennessee 0

Last Meeting: 2006, LSU 28, Tennessee 24 (ot)

 

Location: Knoxville, Tenn.

Stadium: Neyland (104,079)

Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer, 138-41 at UT and overall, 15 years

 

 

2006 IN REVIEW

 

2006 Record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC (T-2nd East)

Final '05 Ranking: 25th AP, 23rd Coaches, 17th BCS

Returning Starters: 13; 7 offense, 5 defense, punter

Last Bowl Appearance: 2005 Outback Bowl – Penn State 20, Tennessee 10

Last Conference Championship: 1998

 

 

2006 STAT BREAKDOWN (SEC/NCAA)

 

Total Offense: 372.5 ypg (6/36)

Rushing Offense: 108.0 ypg (10/96)

Passing Offense: 264.5 ypg (2/12)

Scoring Offense: 27.9 ppg (4/34)

Total Defense: 327.5 (8/50)

Rushing Defense: 146.7 ypg (8/72)

Pass Defense: 180.9 ypg (5/27)

Scoring Defense: 19.5 ppg (8/33)

 

 

RETURNING LEADERS

 

Rushing: LaMarcus Coker – 108-696, 5 TD, 6.4 ypc, 63.3 ypg

Passing: Erik Ainge – 348-233, 2989, 19 TD, 9 Int., 249.1 ypg

Receiving: Chris Brown – 31-239, 1 TD, 18.4 ypg

Tackles: Jonathan Hefney – 96

Interceptions: Jonathan Hefney – 5

Sacks: Jerod Mayo – 5

Tackles for Loss: Jerod Mayo – 12.5

 

 

2007 SCHEDULE

 

Date                    Opponent                              '06 Result

S-1                  at California                       W, 35-18

S-8                  SOUTHERN MISS                 ---

S-15                at Florida                           L, 20-21         

S-22                ARKANSAS STATE                ---

O-6                  GEORGIA                            W, 51-33

O-13                at Mississippi State               ---

O-20                at Alabama                          W, 16-13

O-27                SOUTH CAROLINA                 W, 31-24

N-3                  LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE          ---

N-10                ARKANSAS                           L, 14-31

N-17                VANDERBILT                        W, 39-10

N-24                at Kentucky                        W, 17-12

 

 

Offense at a glance:

 

Fielding three new secondary starters can be troublesome. Fielding three new secondary starters without a proven pass rush can be a recipe for disaster. But that's the situation facing the Tennessee Vols this fall.

 

Except for senior All-America candidate Jonathan Hefney at free safety, Tennessee will be frightfully inexperienced in the defensive backfield. The other first-teamers – sophomore Marsalous Johnson, junior Antonio Gaines and senior Jarod Parrish – combined for just 11 tackles and one pass breakup last season. They'll be challenged in August by incoming junior college transfers DeAngelo Willingham and Nevin McKenzie, plus Eric Berry, rated the No. 1 high school cornerback prospect in America last fall.

 

A strong pass rush could take some pressure off of the youthful defensive backs but the 2006 Vols recorded just 17 sacks, the program's lowest total since 1988.

 

Rising senior Jonathan Mapu and junior Demonte Bolden will assume the tackle spots manned in '06 by NFL Draft picks Justin Harrell and Turk McBride. Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds return for another year as the first-team ends but they combined for just five sacks last season.

 

Given the shaky outlook in the front four and secondary, the Vols are fortunate to be loaded at linebacker. Jerod Mayo is an All-SEC candidate at middle linebacker after starting on the weakside in 2006. Ryan Karl is back for a second year as the first-team strongside linebacker. Flashy sophomore Rico McCoy assumes Mayo's old spot.

 

 

Defense at a glance:

 

Offensively, Tennessee will be looking to recapture the form it showed in the first half of 2006. After scoring 211 points (35 per game) in the first six outings, the Vols limped to the finish line, scoring just 151 points (22 per game) in the last seven outings.

 

Tennessee's  2006 attack was built around receivers Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith. None will be back in '07, so the Vols must rely on unproven returnees such as Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe, Austin Rogers and Quintin Hancock. They combined for just 26 catches, 252 yards and zero touchdowns last fall. Junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal and prep school grad Brent Vinson will get every opportunity to win jobs in preseason.

 

Unless the Vols can pinpoint some capable receivers, they'll be wasting one of the NCAA's premier quarterbacks. Rising senior Erik Ainge completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,989 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2006 with just nine interceptions.    

 

Regardless of what happens with the wideouts, Ainge will have excellent weapons at tight end and running back.

 

Seniors Chris Brown (6-3, 250) and Brad Cottam (6-8, 270) should be as good as any tight-end tandem in college football. Meanwhile, the running corps consists of Arian Foster (10 career starts), Montario Hardesty (five starts) and LaMarcus Coker (four starts). All are quality players who have been injury prone.

 

- Randy Moore, Rocky Top News


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