Halfway home

It seems like only yesterday that head man Derek Dooley was running through the "T" prior to Tennessee's opener vs. UT Martin, yet the Vols' 2010 season already is at the midway point.

With six of 12 games in the books, the Big Orange has a mediocre 2-4 record. Some areas of the team are better than expected, some are worse than expected and some are pretty much as expected.

That said, here's a look at the state of the program with the Vols halfway home:

OVERALL OFFENSE: Tennessee is averaging 23.3 points per game, down from the 13-game average of 29.3 in 2009. Last year's attack featured a fifth-year senior at quarterback and four seniors in the O-line, however, whereas this year's features a first-year junior college transfer at quarterback operating behind a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

The 2010 Vols are averaging 3.6 yards per carry, down from 4.3 a year ago. That can be traced to the inexperience up front. The Big Orange has allowed 23 sacks in six games, up from 18 all of last season. This, too, can be attributed mainly to growing pains in the blocking wall.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Tennessee spent the last half of spring practice, all of fall camp and the first two games with the same five starters - Cody Pope at center, Jarrod Shaw and JerQuari Schofield at guard, Dallas Thomas and Ja'Wuan James at tackle. That group was beginning to mesh until injuries struck. Pope hasn't played since Game 2 and Schofield since Game 3. Thomas had to play Game 6 on one good ankle. Injuries are part of the game but they have decimated a Vol line whose depth was razor thin heading into Game 1.

QUARTERBACK: Juco transfer Matt Simms is completing 57.1 percent of his passes with 7 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He's averaging 189 passing yards per game but is being sacked nearly four times per game. It's true that he sometimes holds the ball too long but it's also true that his mobility has given him time to make some big plays. For a first-time starter, he has been solid. Freshman Tyler Bray has looked good in mopup action vs. UT Martin and Georgia. Despite spotty pass protection, the QB position has held up pretty well through six games.

RUNNING BACK: Like almost every other back on the planet, Tauren Poole is productive when he gets good blocking (23 carries for 162 yards vs. Oregon) and not so productive when he doesn't (10 carries for 23 yards vs. Florida). He showed a big-play dimension with five runs of 20 yards or more in Games 1 and 2 but has only one run of 20 or more in the four games since. Freshman Rajion Neal seems to have overtaken sophomore David Oku for the No. 2 job. Poole and Neal are no match for Alabama's 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson but the Vol duo is better than average.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END: The top receiver, Gerald Jones, missed Games 2, 3 and 4 due to injury, and the top tight end, Luke Stocker, is making routine plays but nothing more. Freshman wideout Justin Hunter is blossoming into a star, as his four-catch, 110-yard receiving effort vs. Georgia suggests. Senior receiver Denarius Moore has been fairly steady but the Vols need more than they've been getting from Jones, Stocker, sophomore Zach Rogers and freshman Da' Rick Rogers.

OVERALL DEFENSE: Opponents are averaging 27.5 points per game, up from 22.2 in 13 games last fall. A schedule that replaced an offensively challenged UCLA team with an explosive Oregon team is partly responsible. Tennessee is allowing 153.5 rushing yards per game - up slightly from last year's 149.5 norm - but is surrendering 227.5 passing yards per game, up from 169.2 a year ago. A pass rush that has mustered just seven sacks in six games has hurt but the coverage by linebackers and defensive backs has been mediocre at best.

DEFENSIVE LINE: After posting 6 sacks in 2009, end Chris Walker has zero midway through 2010. Gerald Williams is picking up some of the slack, with 2.5 sacks. USC transfer Malik Jackson has been dependable. Tackle Montori Hughes has upgraded his pass rush (1 sack, 5 hurries) but has just 13 tackles to show for the first 6 games. Victor Thomas has been adequate at the other tackle spot but depth remains a glaring problem at the position.

LINEBACKER: Despite starting two seniors (Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson) and a fairly experienced sophomore (Herman Lathers), the Vols' linebacker play has been surprisingly erratic. Sometimes the tackling has been slipshod. Sometimes the effort appeared to be lacking. Sometimes the guys just seemed slow to react. Part of the problem is the inability of the front four to keep blockers off of the linebackers but that situation may not be fixed until there is a talent upgrade.

SECONDARY: A preseason injury caused safety Janzen Jackson to start slowly. He played much better the last three games than he did the first three. There are some good prospects among the other young DBs but when you allow UAB to pass for 429 yards, you've got problems.

KICKING GAME: Chad Cunningham is averaging 43.0 yards per punt and Daniel Lincoln nailed his first seven field goals before missing the past two games with a pulled muscle. Except for an 80-yard punt return by Oregon, UT's kick coverage has been good. Eric Gordon showed great promise as a return man until he cost the Vols 14 points by fumbling on a kickoff runback and muffing a punt last weekend at Georgia.


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