Opening Our Files: Roundup on Tennessee Previews & Other Volunteer Notes

So let's officially open up our collective notebooks on Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols under first year head coach Lane Kiffin is coming off a picture perfect opener against newly minted D-1 Western Kentucky. The numbers the Volunteers piled up against the Hilltoppers were pretty sick. From the Tennessee team report posted over at Yahoo! Sports:

Western Kentucky turned Jonathan Crompton into Peyton Manning Lite, as the senior quarterback tossed five touchdown passes Saturday in a season-opening 63-7 annihilation at Neyland Stadium.

"To see Jonathan throw for five touchdowns today, more than he threw for all of last year, was really good for him," Kiffin said. "This is a quarterback and an offensive line that has been torn apart for a while now."

Crompton and the O-line did the tearing in front of a sun-drenched crowd of 98,761. Tennessee finished with 657 yards and 34 first downs, numbers that would have required three games to amass last year when the team went 5-7 and cost Phillip Fulmer his job.

Tailbacks Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown each rushed for more than 100 yards and scored a touchdown. Hardesty rolled up 160 and Brown, a highly touted freshman, ended with 104.

Monte Kiffin’s defense had the Hilltoppers in minus numbers during the third quarter and allowed only 83 yards in 46 snaps. Western Kentucky picked up just six first downs.

The Volunteers piled up video game numbers on both sides of the ball, racking up 657 total yards and 34 first downs on offense, while limiting the Hiltoppers to 6 first downs (apparently their only first down in first half came via a penalty).

Yeah, I know it's kind of easy to dismiss those crazy numbers because they were taking on a hapless Hilltoppers bunch that was apparently playing their first D-1 game. However, I am not going to discount this kind of performance in their opening game under new coach, because it (at least on paper) shows that they are trying to put together a team with lethal killer instincts.

Bruins will have a puncher's chance though (even though at this point I am not seeing how we can pull out this win with a freshman QB and a completely revamped OL). The Tennessee team we are going to play this season is going to be a bit different than the one we shocked at the Rose Bowl. I have gathered some of the pre-season notes on their personnel from around the web with the latest update from our colleagues at Rocky Top Talk (RTT), after the jump.

So Kiffin (or should I say the Kiffins?) will be waiting for the Bruins with a team that returns 12 starters (7 on offense and 5 on defense) from last year's team. Paul Meyerberg from the New York Times has the following lowdown on the key losses from last year's team:

Key losses: Tennessee’s losses on offense are most felt at receiver, where the team lost two 2008 starters to graduation and another pair of potential 2009 starters to injuries. Lucas Taylor was one of Tennessee’s more dependable targets last fall, making 26 grabs for a team-leading 332 yards. The Vols also lost the part-time starter Josh Briscoe, who made 14 receptions for 176 yards and a score. Making matters worse, U.T. lost the senior Austin Rogers (14 for 180) for the season in the spring because of an A.C.L. tear, and may also be without the junior Denarius Moore for much of 2009. Moore, who made 11 receptions for 271 yards (a team-best 24.6 yards per reception), broke his left foot two weeks ago and may miss as much as three or four months. The team also faces a gap on the right side of its offensive line, where it lost guard Anthony Parker and tackle Ramon Foster (27 career starts). In the backfield, running back Arian Foster (570 yards, 1 touchdown) might have had a disappointing senior season, but he still departs as the team’s second-leading career rusher (2,964 yards). As a junior, Foster earned all-SEC honors after rushing for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also added 83 career receptions, 19 as a senior. The would-be junior Lennon Creer, the team’s second-leading rusher last fall with 388 yards, opted to leave the program in April.

On defense, Tennessee lost a pair of starters at each level: the line, linebackers and secondary. The biggest is most likely end Robert Ayers, who earned all-SEC honors as a senior. He seemed to put it all together in his final season, making 49 tackles, a team-best 15.5 for loss, and 3 sacks. At tackle, the 21-game starter Demonté Bolden had 35 stops (6 for loss) as a senior. Middle linebacker Ellix Wilson led the team with 89 tackles, and added a sack and an interception; a fine season for the first-year starter and team leader. Rounding out the losses at linebacker are Nevin McKenzie (53 tackles, 10 for loss, a team-best 5 sacks) and Adam Myers-White. The U.T. defense must also replace cornerback DeAngelo Willingham and safety Demetrice Morley. Willingham, a two-year starter, finished second on the team with three interceptions. The would-be senior Morley added 42 tackles and 2 interceptions, but was kicked off the squad after violating team rules. That’s the second time Morley has been kicked off the team in three years; he won’t get a third shot.

Now don't get lulled into a false sense of comfort after reading those grafs. First of all not sure where NYT got their info on Lucas Taylor because I still see him listed in Tennessee's depth chart this season. So that's a mistake. As for their losses at WRs, they have plenty of youngsters sprinkled through their depth chart (PDF) (HT hooper at RTT via Chattanooga Times Free Press).

Also, despite the loss of Paker and Foster at the OL, the Voluntees will have a powerful, huge veteran OL ready for the Bruin front-7 this weekend in Knoxville. If I read their correctly everyone except their center is over 300lbs and all of their starter are upper classmen (except for Jarrod Shaw, the 6-4, 332 Jr. who is listed as "Co-No-1" with Aaron Douglas, 6-6 282 red shirt freshman) From Athlon Sports' pre-season capsule on the Tennessee OL:

Chaney (OC John Cheney, who who Kiffin pried away from the St. Louis Rams, - BN Ed.) has brought with him a zone blocking scheme that has enabled the Vols’ linemen to play with more aggression. The interior line is strong with fourth-year starter Josh McNeil at center flanked by fellow seniors Jacques McClendon and Vladimir Richard. Senior Chris Scott has a hold on left tackle duties, while Jarrod Shaw and converted tight end Aaron Douglas are battling for the starting job at right tackle. "Last season was rough," Richard says. "But Coach (Kiffin) is a competitor. He loves smacking people in the mouth." After years of defensive dominance in practice drills, the UT offensive line stepped up and proved it could hold its own in the spring.

On other key returnees let's go back to that capsule from the NYT:

Players to watch: He’s undoubtedly the best defensive player in the F.B.S. But in my mind, the strong safety Eric Berry is the best player in the country – regardless of position. Yeah, there’s that quarterback down in Gainesville, so maybe Berry’s coming in second. That shouldn’t detract from what we’re all seeing from the talented junior: he’s the best defender U.T. has developed since Reggie White, and in my mind, if Tennessee shocks the SEC and wins 9 or 10 games, Berry should receive very heavy consideration for the Heisman. Through two seasons, Berry stands second in the N.C.A.A. with an SEC-record 487 interception return yards, a total coming off of 12 interceptions. His single-season outputs in this category rank first (265 yards last fall) and third (222 in 2007) in SEC history. Last fall, Berry tallied 73 tackles (8.5 for loss), 3 sacks and 7 interceptions, two of which he returned for scores. (He may have been Tennessee’s best offensive weapon.) For his efforts, Berry was a unanimous all-American – U.T.’s first since 1990 – and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The only college safety I’ve seen match Berry’s combination of speed, ferocity and ball skills was the late, great Sean Taylor. So, as you see, he’s the king of the U.T. defense. Who will help carry the load? The Vols return the junior Dennis Rogan at one cornerback spot, as well as the 2007 starter Brent Vinson. Also competing for a starting spot at corner are the sophomores Art Evans and C.J. Fleming, though I wouldn’t be surprised if one of Tennessee’s heralded incoming freshmen make a push for playing time. U.T. will look toward the freshmen Prentiss Wagner and Rod Wilks or the sophomore Stephaun Raines at free safety. The senior Rico McCoy (87 tackles and a sack last fall) is the lone returning starter at linebacker. Making the push to join him in the starting lineup are the juniors Nick Reveiz (middle) and LaMarcus Thompson (strongside), each of whom played important roles on special teams a season ago. Besides McCoy, U.T. is very young and untested at linebacker. The situation is a little clearer on the line, where the juniors Ben Martin (18 tackles, 1 sack) and Chris Walker (15 tackles, 3 sacks) have secured their places as the starters at end. You’ll likely find the senior Dan Williams (48 stops, 8.5 for loss) on the nose, while the senior Wes Brown (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks) finds himself in competition with the freshman Montori Hughes for the second starting spot on the interior.

On offense, the senior Jonathan Crompton will again be the starter at quarterback. Let’s ignore the fact that his starting job has come by default. Quite simply, Crompton must be better in 2009 than he was a season ago. It shouldn’t be too difficult, as he did not play up to his potential last fall: 86 of 167 (51.5 percent) for 889 yards, with four touchdowns against five interceptions. He can – and should – be better, but some aspects of Crompton’s game must improve. His touch, for example. Crompton lacked it last fall, when he seemed to throw every pass as hard as he could. His decision-making must also improve. His only competition for the starting job is the junior Nick Stephens, who has missed most of the last five months while recuperating from a hand injury. Stephens started six games last fall, putting up numbers similar to Crompton’s (840 yards, 4 touchdowns, 3 picks). The senior Montario Hardesty ascends to the top spot in the backfield after rushing for 271 yards a season ago. That total leads all returning Volunteers. He may be the lead back, but the Vols will also give carries to the sophomore Tauren Poole and the true freshman Bryce Brown, the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2009 cycle. Brown chose U.T. in part because of the potential for immediate playing time, so expect to see his number called early and often. Three starters return up front, led by the potential all-conference center Josh McNeil. The senior enters his final season with 35 career starts, the most of any active Volunteer. McNeil was a freshman all-American in 2006 and an honorable mention all-SEC selection in 2007. He’s joined up front by the senior left tackle Chris Scott and the senior left guard Vladimir Richard. I’m intrigued by the potential of the redshirt freshman Aaron Douglas, a former tight end who is in the hunt to start at right tackle. Given his experience and lack of prototypical size (he’s only 282 pounds, my word), can Douglas be the presence required of the right tackle in the run game?

Well as mentioned above looks like Douglas impressed the coaches sufficiently enough that he earned a spot on the depth chart as "co number 1" (whatever that means) with Jarrod Shaw. In some ways, Douglas sounds like he is the same situation as Nate Chandler found himself last year (when we were hurting for bodies at OL) as the coaches are doing whatever they can to incorporate his size and athleticism into the lineup.

Now in terms of what to expect next week, my bet is that Kiffin and Cheney will devise a plan on offense in which they will rely on a power running game. Again from Pete Fiutak's preview at Scout.com:

What to watch for on offense:  Power running. The coaching staff will try to pound the ball, rely on the tremendous defense, and try to control the game and the clock. The passing game will try to push the ball deep a little more to stretch things out, but the offense will spend most of its time using its humongous, veteran line to pave the way for a fantastic group of backs. The backfield was good enough to get by, and then came the recruiting class with Toney Williams, David Oku, and the No. 1 prospect in America according to CFN, Bryce Brown, all ready to make a huge impact and upgrade the stalled ground attack.

What to watch for on defense:
A ton of interceptions. All the pieces are there for the secondary to come up with a phenomenal year. Not only is there track star speed across the board, but there’s all-everything safety Eric Berry as the sheriff in the Tampa 2 scheme, but the pass rush should be better. Even with Robert Ayers off to the NFL, the Vol defensive front should be more active with Ben Martin and Chris Walker two speedsters on the ends who should be camped out in opposing backfields.

Going back to their offense, I am still shocked at how the Tennessee coaching staff from last year forgot to run the ball down our throats last season at the Rose Bowl. They had piled up around 180 yards rushing and 2 TDs running the ball against our defense last year yet for some inexplicable reasons they decided to go away from that and depend on Crompton's arm. I just don't think Kiffin is going to make the same mistake. I fully expect them to come after our front-7 all evening long with their powerful OL, and do what they can to wear us down on their home turf. This is going to be a huge challenge for our defense.

I think the key for us on Saturday is going to be somehow get on the board early. If they we can get on the board early and then force them to go away from the game plan of running the ball down our throats, we will have a shot.Needless to say special teams is going to be a huge factor. We are going to need our kickers to give us good field position as much as possible forcing the Volunteers to go long drives. Otherwise if we fall behind early and make early mistakes on offense, the situation has the potential to snowball out of control like last year in BYU.

It will take supreme concentration and focus on our part to hang in there early against the Volunteer emotion, and then somehow put ourselves in position to steal the game in second half. My head tells me that we are simply too young and inexperienced (on offense) to pull this off. My heart is pulling for our guys to make me eat crow on Saturday night. So that's what I have for initial notes on the Volunteers to get the scouting started for this week. I will throw it back to you start filling up the info. folders on Tennessee (either via comment thread here or in the FanPosts).

GO BRUINS.

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