by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

While this is only Tennessee HC Derek’s Dooley’s third campaign at Knoxville, word is this could be a make-or-break after finishing 5-7 in 2011, ending with a depressing 10-7 setback vs. Kentucky, which not only ended the Vols’ protracted 26-game series win streak but also eliminated them from bowl eligibility. Sure, well-liked Dooley had to clean up the mess after the Lane Kiffn fiasco, complete with recruiting restrictions and a self-imposed two-year probation that the NCAA brought. But with 18 starters back, Volunteer Nation is expecting UT to at least be in the conversation for SEC East title come November.

Dooley brought in seven new assistants, including well-respected defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who replaced Justin Wilcox after he left to fill the same job at Washington. Sunseri, who spend the previous three years helping Alabama win two national championships, installed about 80% of his 3-4 alignment during the spring.

Ten starters are back on the offense (20.3 ppg, 332.7 ypg) that could boast one of the nation’s most explosive aerial assaults, led by 6-6 gunslinger Tyler Bray (right; 59.5%, 17 TDs, 6 ints.), who is most comfortable in the pocket, but the lanky Californian has shown the ability to make plays and accurate tosses on the run. Note, Bray has six 300-yard games and 35 TDs in only 12 career starts, but has yet to lead UT to a victory over an SEC team with a winning mark! Expect that to change in 2012 with the return of the phenomenal WR duo of All-SEC Da’Rick Rogers (67 grabs, 9 TDs) and acrobatic Justin Hunter (17 catches), who is coming back from a torn ACL suffered in the third game of last season. Coaches are excited about No.1 juco prospect WR Cordarrelle Patterson, while sure-handed sr. TE Mychal Rivera (28 catches) should increase his output in his final term. And there is promising talent at the backup QB spot with 6-4 soph Justin Worley (2010 Gatorade National Player of the Year), who has the size, smarts and moxie, and has three starts under his belt after filling in when Bray was out with a broken thumb.

Update August 23: WR Da'Rick Rogers suspended...

And the Vols are hell-bent to achieve a more balanced attack after the woeful ground game (90.1 ypg, ranked 116th nationally) mustered a meager 2.8 ypc, which is the worst in Knoxville since 1964! After all, the entire OL returns intact, with 99 combined starts. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney plans on using a committee approach at TB, with Marlin Lane Jr., Rajion Neal and small but speedy 5-7 Devrin Young sharing the workload. And expect the OL, which was pushed around some by bruising SEC defenses in 2011, to have a nastier attitude after coaches placed a high priority on having a more physical approach in the spring.

Eight starters return to a defense (22.6 ppg, 4.4 ypc) that played well in spurts but needs to raise its game vs. the traditionally-powerful SEC attacks, after yielding a whopping 39 ppg vs. Florida, LSU, Alabama and Arkansas in 2011. LY’s sagging run defense should stiffen with further developement of fearless soph LB A.J. Johnson (80 tackles; 2011 Freshmen All-American) and anticipated return of sr. LB Herman Lathers (75 tackles in 2010), who missed all of LY due to injuries. Dooley now believes his LB corps is as talented as any in SEC, while 6-2, 295-pound jr. NT Maurice Couch and/or massive 6-6, 380-pound juco NT Daniel McCullers could be the required run-stuffers in the 3-4. Sunseri is hoping that juco DT Darrington Sentimore (7 sacks for Gulf Coast CC LY), who spent his first two seasons at Bama, and aggressive 6-4, 245-pound Jacques Smith (moved from DE to OLB) will help provide a steady pass rush that was clearly absent in 2011, producing a paltry 16 sacks and 36 hurries. The veteran, athletic secondary, which is four-deep at CB, will take more risks under Sunseri, who likes to blitz his DBs and roll his safeties down, according to skillful soph FS Brian Randolph. On special teams, the coaches hope jr. PK Michael Palardy (only 14 of 21 in his career; missed 4 of 5 attempts outside the 40-yd. line LY) and soph punter Matt Darr (only 38.1 yd.avg.) can finally measure up to their prep accolades.

Summary...While the SEC East is certainly on an upward trajectory, UT has a chance to make some real noise in what could be a do-or-die campaign for Derek Dooley. With the highly-experienced OL primed to do a much better job of run-blocking, play-action passes should work more effectively for Tyler Bray, who’ll take full advantage of one of the nation’s premier WR duos. Fully incorporating Sunseri’s complicated defensive system will take some time, but the deeper, restructured stop unit should come up with more big plays in 2012. Yes, Dooley has improved the roster considerably since taking over. And with a more forgiving schedule (Alabama and LSU off the slate; nonconference home games vs. Georgia State, Akron and Troy), seven maybe eight wins is a realistic goal. Surely, a season-opening victory vs. North Carolina State in the Georgia Dome would do wonders to set the tone for the first half of the campaign.


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