Tennessee's key players

As Tennessee's spring football practice winds down, we've seen a new offense begin to take shape, a secondary appear to come of age and an improved pass rush from the front four.

All of those were goals of coach Phillip Fulmer.

But there is plenty of work to be done between now and Sept. 1.

Based on what I've seen, I think Tennessee could have a better team in 2008 but not as good of a record. Why? The schedule. The first six games are brutal.

But if UT is to traverse through the schedule and match last year's 10-win season, two players must emerge. Two players must jump to the forefront and become difference makers.

One is on offense. One is on defense.

On offense, it's quarterback Jonathan Crompton. Crompton, who will be a junior, had a nice spring, but it was nothing magical. That's understandable. Like the rest of his offensive teammates, he was learning a new system, and he was doing it under his third offensive coordinator in four years.

Crompton's best scrimmage was his third. He hit 17 of 22 passes and made just one glaring mistake, a first-drive interception. He seems to have good command of the offense.

Crompton doesn't have to have a great year for Tennessee's offense to score a lot of points. But he's got to have a very productive year. He can't just be a caretaker. He's got to make plays. And he's got to make good decisions.

In several mop-up roles last year, he was a turnover machine. He had three interceptions in the second major Saturday scrimmage. He's got to value the ball more. He's got to eliminate those costly mistakes.

If he does, Tennessee should average close to the 32.5 points it rang up last season.

Everything else is in place. The offensive line returns four starters and two of the reserves last year – Jacques McClendon and Vlad Richard – were two of the best run blockers on the team.

Few teams in the SEC can match Tennessee's depth at running back. Arian Foster is coming off a 1,193-yard season. Montario Hardesty is a talented, though injury prone, running back who missed much of spring ball with a stress fracture. Lennon Creer could eventually be a 1,000-yard rusher.

The Vols also have great depth at wide receiver. Lucas Taylor, Josh Briscoe and Austin Rogers combined to catch 185 passes last year. Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore might be the two most athletic receivers on the team. And Quintin Hancock has proven in practice he has the ability to make plays.

That puts it in Crompton's hands. If he plays well, the offense will flourish.

On defense, the key player is middle linebacker Ellix Wilson.

The Vols are solid everywhere else, although depth is a concern at defensive tackle. The secondary might go from worst to first in the SEC, with Eric Berry, Demetrice Morley, DeAngelo Willingham and Dennis Rogan leading the charge.

A team weakness last year could prove to be a strength. And don't be surprised if Berry makes All-American and is named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. As one coach in the East Division said, he's a freak.

The front four starters are quality. End Robert Ayers has All-SEC ability. Wes Brown, Chris Walker and Ben Martin could form the best pass rushing ends UT has had in years.

Tackles Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams are solid and Walter Fisher was the most active tackle the second half of last season, according to defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks.

Outside linebacker Rico McCoy could come close to matching Jerod Mayo's 140 tackles from a year ago. Adam Myers-White and Nevin McKenzie are productive outside linebackers.

That leaves Wilson as the key.

Wilson, younger brother of former Vol Cedrick Wilson, played well at outside linebacker and middle linebacker in the SEC Championship game and the Outback Bowl. In a limited role last year, he had 24 tackles, including five behind the line, and three sacks. He has ability.

But coaches weren't happy with his play the first few weeks of spring ball. It was as if the starting job was his and he didn't have to work hard to keep it.

Mistake.

Wilson can be a good player, but he has nowhere near the ability of Mayo, who should be a first-round NFL draft pick.

Wilson needs to play at a Tyrone Hines level to make UT's defense championship caliber.


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