Starting experience

Experience is a valuable commodity for a college football team, but the location of it can be just as important as the amount of it.

An experienced quarterback, for instance, is worth his weight in gold. Experience also is especially valuable in the offensive line and in the secondary. Basically, the positions that require the most thinking benefit the most from experience.

That could bode well for the 2009 Tennessee Vols. There are 212 starts scattered among the position players who will be suiting up for Saturday's season opener vs. Western Kentucky, and many of those starts are in the three most crucial areas.

Discounting the 35 starts of center Josh McNeil and the seven starts of wideout Gerald Jones, two guys who will miss the opener due to injury, Tennessee has 96 starts among its offensive players. Nearly half of those - 45 to be exact - are in the offensive line.

Left tackle Chris Scott, entrusted with the key task of protecting the quarterback's blind side, leads with 26 career starts. Right guard Jacques McClendon has 13 and left guard Vladimir Richard has 6.

Obviously, the loss of a 35-start veteran such as McNeil is huge, especially since the center makes the line calls. Fortunately for UT, successor Cody Sullins is an honors student who has spent four years in the system and has the savvy to replace McNeil mentally, if not physically.

The Vols are not quite so blessed at quarterback. Fifth-year senior Jonathan Crompton and fourth-year junior Nick Stephens have been in the UT program a combined nine years but neither has accrued much experience. Worse, neither has enjoyed much success. Crompton stands 3-4 in seven career starts, Stephens 2-4 in six.

The relative inexperience at quarterback is magnified by overwhelming inexperience at receiver. With Jones sidelined, wideout is the offense's most unproven area. Senior Quintin Hancock and junior Brandon Warren have one start each - and Warren's came last fall as a tight end. No other pass catcher on the Vol roster has ever started a college game.

On a positive note, the Vols have 20 returning starts at tight end, thanks to junior Luke Stocker (12) and senior Jeff Cottam (8). Tennessee also has 16 starts at the running back positions - 10 by junior fullback Kevin Cooper and six by senior tailback Montario Hardesty.

Defensively, Tennessee's experience is clustered in the area where it is most needed - the safety positions. Safeties face a heavier mental workload than the other defenders, so experience is vital. It's a huge plus that junior safeties Eric Berry (26 starts) and Dennis Rogan (12 starts) are veterans, even though 10 of Rogan's starts came at cornerback.

Tennessee also has significant experience at corner. The fact Brent Vinson has 10 career starts and Marsalous Johnson has nine is a positive, even though neither will start vs. Western Kentucky.

The Big Orange boasts valuable experience at defensive tackle, thanks to the availability of Dan Williams (19 starts) and Wes Brown (12 starts). The rosy outlook is tempered somewhat, though, by the fact Brown has two bad knees and made all dozen of his starts at end.

Tennessee has 28 returning starts at linebacker, which sounds pretty good until you consider that 27 of them belong to senior Rico McCoy. Middle linebacker Nick Reveiz has one and strongside 'backer LaMarcus Thompson zero.

Vol linebackers are grizzled veterans compared to the defensive ends, however. Chris Walker, Gerald Williams, Ben Martin, Willie Bohannon, Steven Fowlkes and Chris Donald do not have one college start among them.

OFFENSIVE STARTS (96)

LINE: 45 (Scott 26, McClendon 13, Richard 6)

TIGHT END: 20 (Stocker 12, Cottam 8)

RUNNING BACK: 16 (Cooper 10, Hardesty 6)

QUARTERBACK: 13 (Crompton 7, Stephens 6)

RECEIVER: 2 (Hancock 1, Warren 1)

DEFENSIVE STARTS (116)

SAFETY: 38 (Berry 26, Rogan 12)

TACKLE: 31 (Williams 19, Brown 12)

LINEBACKER: 28 (McCoy 27, Reveiz 1)

CORNERBACK: 19 (Vinson 10, Johnson 9)

END: 0

INDIVIDUAL STARTS (OFFENSE)

Josh McNeil 35

Chris Scott 26

Jacques McClendon 13

Luke Stocker 12

Kevin Cooper 10

Jeff Cottam 8

Gerald Jones 7

Jonathan Crompton 7

Vladimir Richard 6

Montario Hardesty 6

Nick Stephens 6

Brandon Warren 1

Quintin Hancock 1

INDIVIDUAL STARTS (DEFENSE)

Rico McCoy 27

Eric Berry 26

Dan Williams 19

Dennis Rogan 12

Wes Brown 12

Brent Vinson 10

Marsalous Johnson 9

Nick Reveiz 1


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