Looking ahead

It was hardly a state secret that Tennessee's football team was somewhat lacking in terms of depth, talent and experience this season. Many observers figure the same shortcomings will be in place next season.

I tend to disagree. Here's why:

Fifteen Vol seniors played their final regular-season game last Saturday vs. Kentucky. Tennessee will be signing at least 25 players to replace them in the months ahead. That means the Vols will have 10 more scholarship athletes in 2011 than they had in 2010. If the upcoming freshman class is as solid as the current one Tennessee's depth should be noticeably better next fall than it was this fall.

I'm convinced the talent will be better next fall, as well.

Tennessee entered the 2010 season with zero experience at quarterback. Counting the upcoming bowl game, Tyler Bray will have five starts under his belt when the 2011 season opens.

Tailback Tauren Poole had zero starts and a mere 32 college carries when the 2010 season opened. He'll have 13 starts and approximately 250 carries when the 2011 season opens.

Tennessee opened the 2010 season with five first-team offensive linemen who boasted just three career starts among them. Conversely, the line projects to boast 52 starts when the 2011 season opens.

Certainly, Tennessee will miss senior receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore next fall. Still, the return of 2010 freshmen Justin Hunter and Da' Rick Rogers, coupled with the arrival of prep standout DeAnthony Arnett, suggests the wideout cupboard will be well stocked again in '11.

Senior tight end Luke Stocker will be missed, too, but Mychal Rivera showed promise in a backup capacity this season.

Defensively, the Vols lose a couple of good ends in Chris Walker and Gerald Williams but I'm confident freshmen Corey Miller and Jacques Smith can fill the voids. The availability of Ben Martin, who missed 2010 with a torn Achilles, should help considerably.

The return of a bulked-up Malik Jackson, coupled with the addition of junior college standout Maurice Couch, should make the Vols better at tackle in 2011 than they were in 2010, especially if Montori Hughes can reach his potential.

Tennessee is losing two of its three starting linebackers to graduation - Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson - but linebacker coach Lance Thompson is really high on freshmen John Propst and Raiques Crump, and that's good enough for me.

As for the secondary, all of the key players will be back in 2011, so that area should be significantly improved.

Kicker Daniel Lincoln and punter Chad Cunningham are out of eligibility but Tennessee signed America's No. 1 kicker (Michael Palardy) and No. 1 punter (Matt Darr) last February, so capable replacements already are on hand.

To recap: Tennessee should have better depth and better talent in 2011 than it had in 2010. Only the experience level appears to be worse. The Vols project to have just four senior starters next fall - Tauren Poole at tailback, Ben Martin at end, Malik Jackson at tackle and Austin Johnson at linebacker.

More experience would be a real plus for the 2011 Vols but they'll have to settle for having more talent and more depth.

But, hey, two out of three ain't bad.

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