It begins with the offensive line where Tennessee will need to replace four starters from the 2003 opening day lineup. The Vols need to find a tight end who can run, catch and block. They need a tailback who can tote the note and a fullback who can clear the way as well as catch passes. They need a perimeter running threat and a go-to receiver.
The defense needs run stoppers in the middle that can implode the pocket. John Chavis' troops also need a couple of strong pass rushers that can bring heat off the edge and a middle linebacker to fill the shoes of the underrated Robert Peace. The Vols will also have to replace three starters in the secondary, and they have a glaring need for return specialist capable of creating big plays and electrifying crowds. Perhaps the only area that's certified solid is the kicking game where Dustin Colquitt and James Wilhoit performed admirably and capably.
Of course, the need that will receive the most attention, in addition to causing the most angst and debate, will be quarterback. The Vols started a true freshman most of the 1994 and 2000 seasons and finished 8-4 both times. Tennessee clearly had better supporting casts in those seasons with more experience so the challenge is especially daunting.
Although there are obvious drawbacks to starting an inexperienced quarterback, there may also be some intrinsic advantages that aren't immediately apparent. Permit an explanation: It's true that Tennessee's system puts a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to make reads and adjustments, but the approach will be streamlined this fall and a greater emphasis will be placed on establishing the running game. If forced to depend more on the run, Tennessee could develop the natural balance that's required to make the power-I work consistently. The solid ground attack will enable the Vols to better control the ball, the clock and field position while wearing down the opponent's defense and keeping UT's stop troops fresh. This, in turn, will allow the Vols to take over games in the fourth quarter, as has been their history under Phillip Fulmer, particularly the most successful seasons.
In conjunction with this balanced approach, the Vols will need a strong defense and there's ample evidence Tennessee should field one next fall. The biggest problem this year was inexperience at defensive tackle and the lack of a proven pass rusher. However the quality playing time gained by Greg Jones, Justin Harrell and Jonathan Mapu should pay dividends next season when they return stronger and more seasoned. Of course, Mapu's decision on whether to return hasn't been made but the addition of Jesse Mahelone and Demonte Bolden will fortify the position whether Mapu returns or decides to serve his two-year Mormon mission. In fact, Mahelone and Bolden may be the odds-on favorites to start next fall at defensive tackle.
Gaining some push up the middle will strengthen UT's pass rush as will the maturation of such talents as Parys Harralson, Jason Hall, Turk McBride and possibly Daniel Brooks, a redshirt freshman and former high school all-American who appears to have outgrown the linebacker position. Assuming Kevin Bennett returns, he will team with Kevin Simon to give UT one of the best outside linebacker tandems in the conference and both are outstanding blitzers. Marvin Mitchell and Jon Poe should give Tennessee quality and depth at middle linebacker as will Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell on the outside.
The progress of Jason Allen and Antwan Stewart gives Tennessee a couple of capable corners and the Vols didn't lose much when true freshman Corey Campbell filled in for Rashad Baker this season at free safety. Finding a replacement for strong safety Gibril Wilson is a top priority, but junior Brandon Johnson has the size and speed to step into that role. Developing depth among the DBs remains a concern, but the return of Jonathan Wade will fortify both corners and the nickel back positions.
That brings us back to quarterback and what Tennessee can expect from the current crop of candidates. Naturally, it's not likely that anyone will emerge next fall that can replicate what Peyton Manning or Casey Clausen did their freshmen years. However it's entirely possible that one of the QBs will emerge who can manage the team, maintain rhythm and make a few plays every game. If the Vols are strong in the running game, defense and the kicking game they won't need the quarterback to carry the team as they did this season and last.
It might be by not having an experienced quarterback to lean on Tennessee will actually become a stronger team because players won't be waiting for one man to make the big plays that turn the momentum of a game. In the process, it may also become a better team much as the Vols did in 1998 when unproved Tee Martin took over the reins of the offense on a program that had relied on Peyton Manning for four years.
It's interesting to note that Martin is the least heralded of Tennessee's last four starting quarterbacks — along with Heath Shuler, Manning and Clausen — and yet he enjoyed the most successful two-year run going 22-3 including a national title. In truth, it's unusual to see a truly great quarterback, at least in terms of physical talent, take a college team to the national title. Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer led the Ravens and Bucs to Super Bowl wins despite being career backups more than starters.
This does not suggest Tennessee can run it's style offense at full capacity without a competent trigger man. However it is safe to say that the construction of the offensive line will have more to do with the success of UT's signal caller than anything he can do on his own.
JOB ONE at Tennessee is to reestablish the running game. To that end, UT's staff must to put together an offensive front that can not only knock holes in the D-line, it also has to be athletic enough to get outside and lead screens, sprint draws and power sweeps. Getting to the perimeter is as much about deploying the offensive front as it speed and style of the running back.
It's imperative Tennessee find a tailback who can run inside and outside and provide 20 carries a game. Shuler had Charlie Garner and James Stewart. Manning had Stewart, Jay Graham and Jamal Lewis. Martin had Lewis, Travis Henry and Travis Stephens. Clausen had Henry and Stephens the first two seasons, but no one of their ilk the last two seasons and it was reflected in his numbers as well as UT's record. Put a lesser freshman, or senior, or junior in the same position next season and UT fans may come to see Clausen in a different light.
A lot of teams attacked UT from the perimeters this season because they didn't believe the Vols could consistently counter. And they were largely correct. Press coverage by the corners took away the hitch pass in the flat and the quick flanker screens. It's a predicament should be remedied with UT's next group of wideouts, who will be more able to create cushions and command help from the safeties. A versatile offensive line that is better than the sum of its parts will help make some current or future Vols running back a star.
The key to rebuilding the offensive line is not necessarily finding the best five linemen, but the best combination of five linemen. It's also the key to avoiding a quarterback crisis.