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Monday, April 27, 2009

Two-A-Days: Tennessee Volunteers

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

To read the previous entries in the series, click HERE.

The tenth entry in the series is the Tennessee Volunteers.

Head coach: Lane Kiffin (1st year)
2008 Record: 5-7 (3-5)
Total Offense: 268.75 ypg (11th SEC, 115th overall)
Total Defense: 263.5 ypg (1st SEC, t-3rd overall)
On the docket: The Vols open with Western Kentucky on Sept. 5 and host Georgia in Knoxville on Oct. 10.

Tennessee struggled without a speck of offense in 2009 and the result was the end of the line for former head coach Philip Fulmer. Fulmer made for some good jokes over the years (Krispie Kreme, the giant pumpkin, the Alabama subpeonas, etc., etc.), but his replacement, Lane Kiffin, has taken things to a new level by upsetting just about every coach in the SEC within his first few months in the league. So, how will the rest of Kiffin's first year go? I talked with Chattanooga Times Free Press beat writer Wes Rucker to find answers.

David Hale: You don't have to read the paper too often to know that Lane Kiffin hasn't made a ton of friends around the SEC in his first few months in Knoxville. What has been the overall reaction to him from his own players, and is there a concern that quite a few teams (UGA, Florida and South Carolina to name a few) will be looking for revenge when they take on the Vols in 2009?

Wesley Rucker: Kiffin certainly talks the talk, doesn't he? He's a supremely confident man, and one that knows what he wants to do with the UT program. The question, obviously, is whether he and his experienced, expensive staff can produce.

From what I've gathered, on and off the record, most of Kiffin's players respect and/or like him. He's incredibly straight-forward -- I know, shocking, right? -- but that approach has worked with most of his players.

I'm not sure if there's any concern over the bulletin-board material, honestly. The UT-Georgia and UT-Florida games are packed with more than enough intensity, anyway. And credit Kiffin for stating the obvious regarding Florida: The Gators had no bulletin-board material when they waxed the Vols the past two seasons.

I'm not sure Kiffin's words are the best approach -- and they're certainly not the most tactful approach -- but it's too soon to know whether it will be a successful or silly approach.

DH: The biggest problem for Tennessee a year ago was the offense, and that started at quarterback. Phil Fulmer never seemed to find his guy at the position last year, and the offense struggled mightily. Does Kiffin have a clearer picture of how he'd like to see the QB position play out, and what are the odds that the Vols offense can actually show a dramatic improvement in 2009 if they can find their quarterback?

WR: There's no doubt in my mind that UT can compete with everyone in the SEC East not named Florida if it gets good quarterback play. But whether UT will get good quarterback play is a huge question mark -- and one that no one in their right mind could possibly answer until after the Florida game, in my opinion.

The Vols are at least SEC-competitive and relatively proven at every offensive position except quarterback and right tackle, but those aren't ideal places to have question marks. You'd think that a competent quarterback would emerge between Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens and B.J. Coleman -- three highly-rated recruits with impressive offer lists -- but who didn't think that last season, too?

Crompton has taken most of the starter's snaps this spring, with Coleman taking most of the No. 2s and Stephens battling back from a broken wrist, Coleman's statistics have been better, and his offense has scored more points, but he hasn't faced the same front four as Crompton. I envision that battle lasting at least halfway into preseason camp, but rotating similar-style quarterbacks is often a bad idea in the SEC, so these coaches would prefer to avoid another season-long carousel.

(*NOTE: This interview was done a few days before Coleman decided to transfer. You can read Wesley's coverage of the Coleman transfer HERE.)

DH: With Lennon Creer's decision to leave the team, the Vols still have a deep backfield, but after senior Montario Hardesty, it will be very young. Has Hardesty shown enough this spring to be a featured back or do you expect to see a lot of Bryce Brown, David Oku or even Tauren Poole?

WR: Hardesty's ability to be the feature back hasn't been a question since his freshman season, in my opinion. He's tough, strong, fast and has good vision. He just hasn't stayed healthy. Hardesty has just been one of those frustrating cases of a hard-working, well-respected, talented young man simply being plagued with injuries. It's not an effort or conditioning issue -- he's given himself two stress fractures by pushing through sprains too quickly -- but it's fair to question if he will ever stay healthy in a grueling league like the SEC.

Regardless, though, Hardesty has been and will continue to be pushed by a growing group of talented youngsters. Poole has probably been the Vols' most impressive runner this spring, but he's fumbled way too much for the coaches' liking. Toney Williams, who arrived in January from Alpharetta (Ga.) High School, has also shown flashes of promise the past few weeks. And obviously, Brown and Oku have been built up as tantalizing talents who will have opportunities to earn immediate playing time.

DH: Obviously Lane wasn't the only Kiffin to join the Vols' staff this year. As good as the Tennessee defense was at times last season, how much better can the unit be under Monte Kiffin and, from what you've seen this spring, can it be good enough to potentially carry the load to get the Vols back into contention in the East?

There are depth issues on UT's defense, and its linebackers -- always a major strength under former coordinator and linebacker maestro John Chavis -- will be extremely inexperienced aside from All-SEC weaksider Rico McCoy. But I think this will be a very solid defense, nonetheless (and not just because it's faced UT's offense all spring).

Safety Demetrice Morley's dismissal cost the Vols a dynamic playmaker, but there's no shortage of options to start alongside All-American Eric Berry, and many of those options are capable of executing playcalls better than the notoriously freelancing Morley. There are plenty of good options at cornerback, too.

Big freshman defensive tackle Montori Hughes has been the team's biggest pleasant surprise this spring, and he looks to be at least a solid compliment to proven commodities Dan Williams and Wes Brown in the middle. Defensive end, meanwhile, could be UT's biggest strength. Juniors-to-be Chris Walker and Ben Martin have played very well this spring, and Walker has probably been the team's second-best player (behind Berry). Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is cautiously optimistic about his group, and I can see why, but tackle depth is a possible concern.

DH: After seeing the team in its first spring under Kiffin, what jumped out at you about this spring in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Tennessee still needs to answer before the season begins?

WR: I'm sure this will sound cliché, but the energy has been undeniably positive -- and not just because local media are watching full practices for the first time since 2003. Several players buried in the depth chart responded well to Kiffin's “blank slate” philosophy, and practice tempo has been a noticeably impressive upgrade.

Given time, I think this core group of coaches could compete for SEC championships. Lesser-known additions like running backs coach Eddie Gran -- who fiercely recruited South Florida for Auburn and coached six Tiger tailbacks still in the NFL -- have impressed me this spring, and the Monte Kiffin/Ed Orgeron daily tour de force is a seemingly effective, testosterone-filled spectacle.

But, as always in this league, the road to Atlanta and beyond is not an easy one. UT has gradually slipped in the SEC East since 2001. Gritty efforts to outlast the field and play in the league title game in 2004 and 2007 were solid, but the Vols haven't had a bona fide national title contender since 2001 -- regardless of what some around these parts say about the shockingly bad 2005 season.

Several programs have maintained or returned to meet their lofty standards since UT's 1998 national championship. Catching the Floridas, Alabamas, LSUs and Georgias of the league won't be an easy task but, given time, I think these Vols' coaches could do it. But will they stay together long enough to do it? Will fans and boosters allow them the time to do it? And will public opinion stay with them long enough to hold off the initial setbacks?

Those questions combined with Kiffin's supreme confidence leave several interesting possibilities for the next few seasons in the SEC, for Kiffin-lovers Kiffin-haters alike.
The worst-case scenario this season still leaves UT back in a bowl game, I think -- but I wouldn't bet a mortgage payment on it. The best-case scenario leaves them playing a bowl game near January -- where the Vols could showcase their young talent and hope to continue signing similar players and narrow their deficit to the SEC's elite.

* Wesley Rucker has coverd the Tennessee Volunteers for eight years, and is the beat writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. You can read his Vols coverage HERE or check out his blog HERE. His wrap up of Tennessee's spring can be found HERE.

NEXT UP: The South Carolina Gamecocks with The State beat writer Seth Emerson.

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