2010 SEC Preview: Tennessee

Dolly Parton is living proof that it's what's up front that counts. That axiom also applies to football, which is why 2010 could be a struggle for the Tennessee Volunteers.

Minus eight offensive linemen from 2009 - including all five starters - the Big Orange projects to be seriously challenged in both run blocking and pass protection this fall. Complicating matters is the fact the Vols will be breaking in a new quarterback. Jonathan Crompton, who threw for 2,800 yards in a breakout year last fall, has moved on to the NFL and backup Nick Stephens has transferred.

With Crompton and Stephens departed, Tennessee is left with only one scholarship quarterback who has thrown a pass in a major-college game. That would be junior Matt Simms, who completed 4-of-10 attempts as a backup at Louisville in 2008 before spending 2009 at junior college. His chief competition is mid-term freshman Tyler Bray, who showed some flashes in spring practice. Incoming freshman Nash Nance and sophomore Nick Lamaison, a juco transfer who redshirted in 2009, provide depth.

Minus a proven quarterback to throw the ball and proven linemen to pass protect, a good-looking Tennessee receiving corps could be wasted. The top three pass catchers from '09 return in wideouts Gerald Jones (46 receptions), Denarius Moore (40) and tight end Luke Stocker (29). Each of the three has All-SEC capabilities if a productive passer can be found.

On a positive note, junior Tauren Poole had an excellent spring and appears ready to succeed Montario Hardesty as Tennessee's No. 1 rushing option. Poole ripped off touchdown runs of 65 and 67 yards in spring scrimmages and showed his versatility by catching three passes for 58 yards in the Orange & White Game.

On defense, as on offense, Tennessee is suspect up front. Sophomores Montori Hughes and Marlon Wall appear solid at tackle but there is a glaring lack of depth behind them. Junior college transfer John Brown could brighten the outlook if he resolves some eligibility issues.

As shaky as the Vols appear at tackle, they are correspondingly strong at end. Seniors Chris Walker, Gerald Williams and Ben Martin provide talent and experience on the flanks.

Tennessee's linebacker corps should be solid if it can avoid the rash of injuries that wiped out the '09 group. Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier are coming off ACL tears. LaMarcus Thompson, Herman Lathers and Greg King also were sidelined by assorted health issues last fall.

The secondary might project to be the strength of Tennessee's 2010 roster except that juniors Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan elected to bypass their senior seasons in favor of the NFL Draft. With junior Art Evans missing spring practice due to injury, the Vols could wind up starting two sophomores (Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles) at safety and two redshirt freshmen (Eric Gordon, Nyshier Oliver) at cornerback.

Tennessee returns punter Chad Cunningham and kicker Daniel Lincoln but both will be challenged by incoming freshman Michael Palardy, the No. 1-rated kicking prospect in America. Cunningham averaged 42.1 yards per punt in 2009. Lincoln made 10-of-16 field-goal tries but was just 1-of-6 between 40 and 49 yards.

The abrupt departure of Lane Kiffin last January after just 14 months overseeing the Big Orange program cost Tennessee some key recruits and some of its returning veterans. Given how thin the talent already was, new head man Derek Dooley could be in for a difficult debut season in the Valley of the Vols.

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