As a general rule, I think the fan base is pretty satisfied. With all the reports coming out of Spring and Summer about the intensity and competition, it's easy to get excited about an atmosphere many around the program say has been lacking for a very long time.
There are some folks that are a little aggravated at the young coach for his brashness at times. But I would say most of those folks are people who are still a little upset over the way the Fulmer thing went down.
Is Jonathan Crompton entrenched as the starter? Who is the backup in case he struggles again this year?
Crompton is the starter, though no one has been officially named. Jon took almost all the first team snaps in the Spring and has done the same so far in Summer workouts. If he falters, Nick Stephens is still there to step in. Many fans feel Nick is more than capable of doing it, but Stephens is going to have to show he's more than guy who can just throw it deep for the coaches to gain confidence in him.
Montario Hardesty is the leading returning rusher but the Vols also signed two highly touted backs. Who is getting the lion's share of the carries at the end of the season?
There is no doubt this staff loves Hardesty. At full speed, he's a very impressive back who cuts hard, gets tough yards and is a little faster than he gets credit for. His career has been plagued by injuries, but if he can stay healthy, there's no doubt in my mind he will get the most carries.
UT used to be "WR U". With the loss of potential starter Austin Rogers, who does Kiffin have to step up as a receiver?
WR is a position of concern to me. Gerald Jones is well thought of by most of the fan base and likely is UT's "best" WR, but he's not a Julio Jones type of go to guy. Denarious Moore is a nice deep threat but must show improvement in his route running and catch the ball in traffic to be a total player.
The two wild cards that could make or break the WR corps are Quentin Hancock and Brandon Warren. Hancock is a Spring warrior who hasn't been able to make it happen during the season yet, but has really impressed his coaches this Spring and could break out this season. Warren transferred from Florida State and had a disappointing season last year, but now has moved out to WR from tight end. A big, physical athlete, Warren could possibly be the best prospect out there at WR, it just remains to be seen whether he can do it on gameday or not.
The offensive line went from four sacks in '07 to 25 in '08. What is being done to get this unit back up to the top of the SEC?
I think the disparity in those sack numbers is a little deceiving. In 2007, David Cutcliffe utilized a quick passing offense and had a senior QB in Erik Ainge who had a ton of experience. In 2008, Cut was gone, a new system was in and Jon Crompton didn't have that experience. So a combination of personnel change and scheme change were a big part of it.
As far as making an improvement, this staff felt these linemen were entirely too heavy. They have all undergone a rigorous off season workout schedule and dropped weight, with a focus on becoming more agile. It's really hard to tell in the Spring, but the coaches have opined that the offensive line is their most improved unit so far. The concern is depth. If someone gets hurt, there is literally no one with any experience to come in and play.
In what area does new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin help the most?
Recruiting. There are many coaches with great records and reputations in college football and especially the SEC. However, there isn't one defensive coach in college football that you can sell to a recruit like Monte Kiffin. He is one of the greatest DCs in NFL history, and the UT staff are using that to their advantage on the recruiting trail.
Many of today's recruits are choosing schools based on their ability to get them to the NFL, and if you are a kid who plays defense, who better to show you what it takes to get there than Monte?
The front seven loses four starters from a defense that allowed just over 100 rush yards per game. Who is going to step up as the run stoppers this year?
Perhaps the biggest loss that may not be overcome was Ellix Wilson at middle linebacker. Nick Reveiz has worked from being a walk on to now being a leader on this team, and is a fireplug. To watch the kid play, you can clearly see that he has the desire to step in and get it done, the problem is no one is sure how he will translate against world class athletes teams like Florida have.
As far as the line, having Dan Williams back is huge, and Wes Brown will slide inside. Freshman Montori Hughes was relatively unknown as a recruit, but has stepped in and played very well in the Spring and Summer. The ends are short on experience, but Chris Walker has been explosive all Spring and will be an up the field type rusher, though it's unknown how well he'll be able to fight off blocks and play the run.
We all know about S Eric Berry, but will any of the Vols talented DB recruits be starting this year?
So far, the returning guys have been able to fight off the youngsters. I think the most likely freshman to step in and start will be Janzen Jackson. As of now, Prentiss Waggner is the starter at FS, but Jackson has been pushing so far.
Though they may not start, right now it's looking like Eric Gordon, Mike Edwards and Nyshier Oliver are all fighting for time on the field. Darren Myles is also in the mix, but I look for him to possibly redshirt unless there are some injuries at safety.
What do you expect to happen in The Swamp when Kiffin and Urban Meyer meet for the first time? Is this a bell weather game for Kiffin's progress or does that come a week earlier against UCLA?
On one hand, conventional wisdom would tell you Florida is so much more talented than UT that this won't even be close, so it's unfair to really judge anything by it. The other side of the coin is that this is the game Lane Kiffin has circled since he came to UT. From his first press conference, it was all about the Florida game this season. So, any expectations for this game rest squarely on his shoulders.
Personally, I believe you'll be able to tell a lot more about where this team is and where they are going after the Auburn game. They should beat WKU handily. I'm confident in the talent and coaching enough that I believe that will happen, and it needs to.
UCLA shouldn't have beaten Tennessee last season, and wouldn't have if Coaches Fulmer and Chavis had any ability whatsoever to make halftime adjustments. So, I believe UCLA should be a win, and not too hard of a win, though it won't be a walk through.
Let's say UT goes to UF and gets blown out. What does that tell us? Nothing if you ask me. There are many good teams getting blown out by Florida recently.
That brings us to Auburn. To me, that's the big one. Auburn and UT were in very similar condition when their old coaches left, and they both got all new staffs. Whether or not Kiffin has had the impact on this program recruiting wise and intensity wise most people think will show in the Auburn game. If Kiffin and his staff are what they are sold to the fans as, Tennessee will beat Auburn pretty bad in Knoxville. If not, there's cause for concern.
Where do you see Tennessee finishing up record wise overall and the SEC?
If I had to bet money, I'd bet it on UT being 9-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC. The losses coming to Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss. Sure, Tennessee's offense is not going to become a juggernaut overnight. But, the Vols will be good on defense, better coached, better on special teams and at the very least somewhat better on offense.
The home schedule is very favorable. UCLA is coming cross country, Auburn is rebuilding, Georgia has a new QB no one feels is a sure thing and had the worst defense in the conference last season. South Carolina has had shaky QB play for as long as anyone can remember. The bottom line is, to me, that anyone that isn't really efficient on offense like Florida is, is going to have a really hard time against UT's defense.
My Thoughts on Tennessee...
7-5, 3-5, Bowl Game
Best Case Scenario: 9-3
Worst Case Scenario: 5-7
BCS Championship 60/1
SEC Championship 20/1 (tied 6th)
Win Total - 7
Thanks again to Kevin at the VSPN for his insight.