published Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Vols in depth

Ja'Wuan James of the University Tennessee football team poses for a photograph during media day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Sunday.
Ja'Wuan James of the University Tennessee football team poses for a photograph during media day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Sunday.
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

OFFENSIVE TWO-DEEP

* returning starter (player started more than half the games of 2010)

Quarterback

Tyler Bray So., 6-6, 210

Matt Simms *R-Sr., 6-3, 210

Halfback

Tauren Poole *Sr., 5-10, 215

Marlin Lane Jr. Fr., 6-0, 205

Fullback

Channing Fugate *So., 6-1, 250

Ben Batholomew Jr., 6-2, 251

Wide receiver

Justin Hunter So, 6-4, 200

Matt Milton So., 6-5, 210

Wide receiver

Da’Rick Rogers So., 6-3, 215

Vincent Dallas Fr., 5-11, 185

Tight end

Mychal Rivera R-Jr., 6-3, 254

Brendan Downs Fr., 6-5, 237

Left tackle

Dallas Thomas *R-Jr., 6-5, 305

Antonio Richardson Fr., 6-6, 325

Left guard

Alex Bullard R-So., 6-2, 309

Marcus Jackson Fr., 6-2, 326

Center

James Stone *So., 6-3, 308

Alex Bullard R-So., 6-2, 309

Right guard

Zach Fulton *So., 6-5, 330

JerQuari Schofield R-So., 6-6, 333

Right tackle

Ja’Wuan James *So., 6-6, 324

Kyler Kerbyson Fr., 6-5, 305

Kicker

Michael Palardy *So., 5-11, 176

Punter

Matt Darr R-Fr., 6-1, 221

QUARTERBACKS

As Tyler Bray goes, so goes UT’s offense and potentially the Vols’ entire season.

The laid-back sophomore created high expectations for himself with his play down the stretch last season, when the lanky 6-foot-6 Californian showed his potential by sparking UT’s big-play passing game. Accounts from coaches and teammates had Bray improving his investment to his improvement and his leadership skills over the summer, but he still was up-and-down at times during camp.

Bray struggled running the offense in the first scrimmage before bouncing back in the next scrimmage, though his completion percentage left plenty to be desired. Coach Derek Dooley is hopeful Bray can develop consistency in his approach and with his play as the experience comes, though he’ll no longer be a secret and the schedule is more demanding.

“He’s worked, [but] he’s never been consistent,” Dooley said. “He’s never shown an ability to play consistently well. He didn’t do it last season. He was all over the place. We’ve got to develop consistency. That comes with maturity.”

RUNNING BACKS

The responsibility for Tauren Poole goes beyond the senior’s role as the Vols’ featured back. Part of the tailback’s task is to provide a voice of leadership for an offense that’s predominantly first- and second-year players. Despite his 1,000-yard season last year, Poole and the Vols’ running game was inconsistent, which must change to help Bray.

Freshman Marlin Lane, who created plenty of buzz during summer workouts and continued it into preseason camp, could provide Poole and UT a dynamic counterpart. Lane, who looked physically ready to play college football the moment he stepped on the field the first practice of camp, has done enough that UT has tinkered with tailback Rajion Neal’s role, experimenting with the speedy sophomore at receiver and as a change-of-pace back. The quietly versatile Channing Fugate has an important role in the Vols’ offense as well.

Even with Lane’s talent and Neal’s speed, Poole will be an important part of UT’s football team.

“For me, I know a lot of people are watching me, whether it’s coaches or players, and I just want to be a great example to the young guys or to whoever needs me,” he said. “I know in order to be a great football team you’ve got to have great leaders.”

RECEIVERS

Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter no longer can watch Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones carry UT’s pass game, and Mychal Rivera doesn’t have Luke Stocker ahead of him to handle the Vols’ complex tight end position. That trio, along with a group of mostly freshmen behind them, has a big responsibility ahead of them to become reliable targets for Bray.

Rogers and Hunter are plenty talented, but the two sophomores quickly must become all-around receivers. Zach Rogers has to stay healthy, and one of the unknowns — sophomore Matt Milton or freshmen Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett — have to step up as third and fourth targets.

“I tell my guys all the time, as go the receivers so goes the offense,” receivers coach Charlie Baggett said. “I put that pressure on them for them to understand that if we don’t get the ball to them and they don’t catch the football, we’re not going to be very successful.”

Rivera has the difficult task of having a big hand in UT’s run and pass game and bringing along freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear behind. Dooley pointed out the tight end position is the lone area on the Vols’ roster about which he doesn’t feel better than he did a year ago.

OFFENSIVE LINE

They were thrown into the fire as first-time starters last year, but the quartet of junior Dallas Thomas and sophomores Ja’Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone might now be the foundation for UT’s offense.

Throw in Alex Bullard, who immediately surprised after transferring to UT from Notre Dame as walk-on in January and now looks poised to start at left guard, and a couple of promising freshmen, and the Vols have some depth up front.

The line has been a reason for optimism in the spring, and they group will have a big hand in helping the Vols find the consistent running game that was missing last season and keep Bray upright.

“What we hope is the growing pains are behind us,” Dooley said before camp. “They should be. Now it’s time to go out there and perform. Even though they haven’t done it over 12 games, they have experience, they’ve had a lot of growth in their chemistry in the course of a year and we need that to be a position we don’t really worry about.”

Jacques Smith  poses for a photograph during the University Tennessee football team's media day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Sunday. In approximately two weeks the Vols open against Montana at home.
Jacques Smith poses for a photograph during the University Tennessee football team's media day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville on Sunday. In approximately two weeks the Vols open against Montana at home.
Photo by Alex Washburn /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

DEFENSIVE TWO-DEEP

* returning starter (player started more than half the games of 2010)

Defensive end

Jacques Smith So., 6-2, 255

Willie Bohannon R-Jr., 6-2, 254

Defensive tackle

Malik Jackson *Sr., 6-5, 270

Corey Miller So., 6-3, 280

Nose tackle

Daniel Hood R-So., 6-4, 293

Maurice Couch R-So., 6-2, 305

Defensive end

Ben Martin R-Sr., 6-4, 265

Marlon Walls R-So., 6-2, 281

Strongside linebacker

A.J. Johnson Fr., 6-3, 245

Dontavis Sapp So., 6-2, 219

Middle linebacker

Austin Johnson Sr., 6-2, 240

John Propst So., 6-0, 225

Weakside linebacker

Curt Maggitt Fr., 6-3, 225

Daryl Vereen R-Sr., 5-11, 215

Cornerback

Justin Coleman Fr., 5-10, 183

Art Evans, *R-Sr., 5-11, 180

Free safety

Prentiss Waggner *R-Jr., 6-2, 185

Rod Wilks, R-Jr., 6-0, 214

Strong safety

Brent Brewer *So., 6-1, 225

Brian Randolph Fr., 6-0, 190

Cornerback

Marsalis Teague *Jr., 5-10, 185

Izauea Lanier R-So., 6-1, 190

Kick returner

Da’Rick Rogers So., 6-3, 215

Rajion Neal So., 5-11, 210

Punt returner

Marlin Lane Fr., 6-0, 205

Anthony Anderson R-Sr., 5-11, 185

DEFENSIVE LINE

Though he missed most of preseason camp with a sprained MCL, Malik Jackson returns as the star of a group that’s short on size and depth. Dooley believes Ooltewah native Jacques Smith can be an elite pass rusher from his end spot, and the coach is comfortable with converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood’s steadiness at tackle.

The Vols are counting on Marlon Walls, Willie Bohannon and Ben Martin at end. Walls has played seven games in his career, Bohannon struggled last season and Martin is coming off consecutive Achilles tendon injuries that kept him off the field for nearly 10 months.

Converted end Corey Miller is a factor at tackle, but the Vols need Maurice Couch to provide some sort of immediate contribution. The highly-touted 305-pound junior college transfer with asthma struggled with conditioning at the beginning of camp, but improved over course of the month.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in a spread league or you’re playing in a pro-style league — you’ve got to be good up front,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “You’ve got to be good there. There’s really no substitute. We’re still probably not going to be the biggest D-line out there, and that’s OK. We’ve got to play very technical, and we’ve got to know exactly what we’re doing. If we do that, we’ve got a shot.”

LINEBACKERS

With Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson on NFL rosters and Herman Lathers out until sometime in October with a fractured ankle, the situation at linebacker looked dire heading into camp.

“We want to play the players based on their demonstrated ability,” linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said during the first week of camp. “Without a good body of demonstrated ability, it’s hard to say who’s good. I think it’s a fair assertion to say we’ve got some issues.”

Then freshmen Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson showed up.

The duo drew rave reviews from just about every coach on staff, from Dooley and Wilcox to defensive line coach Lance Thompson and even Eric Russell, the Vols’ special teams coordinator and tight ends coach. Maggitt (6-3, 230) and Johnson (6-3, 245) have the size and physical tools, but their mental progress has been impressive. Senior Austin Johnson switched from a weakside spot to the middle as an anchor between the freshmen.

The concerns are still there, though, as Maggitt and A.J. Johnson have yet to actually play in a college game and the guys behind them are small, inexperienced or both.

“It’s hard to say any bad things, especially [about] A.J. and Curt,” Dooley said after the first scrimmage. “Those guys are big and physical. They’re playing fast and aggressive. They just bring a presence that we have not had at the linebacker position.”

SECONDARY

It didn’t take long for Terry Joseph’s meeting room to become really crowded. Five new players joined the Vols’ secondary coach’s group, creating a competition that had Joseph shuffling guys in and out of different spots all camp. After the Vols could barely find enough quality, healthy guys to play their nickel package last year, UT could be in the five-defensive back set the majority of the time this fall.

“In the first meeting,” Joseph recalled, “We had 22 guys in the meeting room and I set five chairs in the middle of the meeting room. I said, ‘Stand up if you think you have the ability to help us win games,’ and 22 guys stood up. I said, ‘Well, here’s the problem, guys — there’s only five spots for you guys to go in.’”

Prentiss Waggner’s ability at both corner and safety make him a valuable asset, and Marsalis Teague was the Vols’ best corner last year despite a nagging turf toe injury. Freshman early enrollee Justin Coleman’s competitiveness has likely earned him a spot in the rotation, and the Vols didn’t sign junior college players Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier to watch from the sidelines.

SPECIALISTS

One was worked too much, the other hasn’t worked long enough. And that’s just the Vols’ kickers.

The talent never has been a question for either sophomore kicker Michael Palardy or redshirt freshman punter Matt Darr, but already both have battled issues and inconsistency. Palardy overworked himself last season and handled all three kicker roles at times last year with a groin injury. Darr, who played linebacker in high school, throws shot put in college and came to UT as the nation’s top-ranked punter, fought through a hamstring injury in the spring and is still learning the details of his craft.

“They’re both talented,” Dooley said. “It’s just going to take time. Now it’s consistency.”

A freshman, either Lane or tailback Tom Smith, could be UT’s punt returner, a daunting task after the Vols were so bad there last season they went through five returners and even chose to not put anyone back there at times late last season.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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