Mid-term grades

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With six of Tennessee's 12 regular-season games in the books, here's a position-by-position look at how the Vols have performed through the first half of the 2012 season:

QUARTERBACK: Tyler Bray has put up big numbers against non-conference foes but couldn't generate fourth-quarter rallies in losses to Georgia and Mississippi State. Until he finishes well against a quality foe, questions will remain about his ability to perform in the clutch. GRADE: B-

RUNNING BACK: After looking tentative in some early games, Rajion Neal ran harder against Akron and Georgia before spraining his ankle midway through Game 6 at Mississippi State. Backups Marlin Lane and Devrin Young have shown flashes. GRADE: C

WIDE RECEIVER: Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson may be the most gifted wideout duo in college football. Each has dropped key passes, however, that contributed to losses. Unheralded Zach Rogers probably has been the most dependable receiver to date. Freshman Pig Howard could've made a huge impact if he'd been healthy. GRADE: B-

TIGHT END: Mychal Rivera has been everything he was cracked up to be, catching passes and blocking energetically. He even recorded a 62-yard reception against Georgia. Backup Brendan Downs' injury problems have been a bigger detriment than most fans probably realize. GRADE: B

Senior Mychal Rivera has had to step up his game at tight end for the Vol offense.
(Danny Parker/InsideTennessee.com)
OFFENSIVE LINE: Tennessee's uninspired ground-game production in early September was more the fault of ball-carriers than blockers. The big uglies did a fine job against Georgia in Game 5 and Mississippi State in Game 6 and rank as the strongest unit on the team. GRADE: B+

DEFENSIVE LINE: Tennessee's best run-stuffer, 6-foot-6, 362-pound Daniel McCullers, scarcely played in September because opponents spread the field and threw a lot. That's on the coaches, not McCullers. Maurice Couch has been reasonably consistent while splitting time between end and nose tackle. Darrington Sentimore has not played up to his potential at the other end. The backups have accomplished little. Basically, the front guys aren't keeping blockers off the linebackers. GRADE: D

LINEBACKERS: A.J. Johnson is making a lot of tackles but many of them are 10 yards downfield. Herman Lathers, Jacques Smith and Curt Maggitt have been underachieving, although Maggitt (turf toe) has a viable excuse. This group is a disappointment, especially since defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri produced great players during his three-year stint as linebackers coach at Alabama. GRADE: D

CORNERBACKS: Losing Izauea Lanier for the season due to academics has hurt far more than anyone anticipated. Seniors Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague have not played up to their ability, and junior Eric Gordon has been spotty. Sophomore Justin Coleman, who has the speed and agility to be a quality player, has returned to the starting lineup. GRADE: D

SAFETIES: Losing Brian Randolph to a Game 3 knee injury was a crushing blow. He was averaging nearly eight tackles per game and basically running the secondary. Byron Moore has recorded four interceptions but dropped an easy pick that could've turned the Game 6 loss to Mississippi State into a victory. Brent Brewer is an outside linebacker who is trying to fit in at safety. Look for gifted freshman LaDarrell McNeil to develop into a standout by season's end. GRADE: D

SPECIAL TEAMS: Matt Darr punted so badly that he lost his first-team job to Michael Palardy. Palardy and Derrick Brodus have combined to make 9 of 11 field-goal tries but also combined to miss four PATs. Tennessee's kickoffs and coverage generally have been good, and Cordarrelle Patterson's 38.2-yard kickoff-return average ranks second nationally. Devrin Young has handled punt returns well, although he muffed one versus Mississippi State that Tennessee recovered. The Vols failed to field a bloop kickoff against the Bulldogs, however, and their punt-coverage team committed two illegal-formation violations. GRADE: D

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