Football season is upon us. Tennessee team No. 117 is locked and loaded under first-year head coach Butch Jones. He and his staff plan to give a proud Big Orange Country reason to cheer.
A fan base that's shown it will fill up Neyland Stadium's nearly 103,000 seats if the Orange & White is winning is thirsty for the Vols to do just that. The No. 1 recruiting class in the country will be sitting behind the north end zone looking for merely a semblance of hope.
Kickoff against Austin Peay is still 30 days away. Much can be and must be accomplished between now and then. The Bermuda on Haslam Field and Shields-Watkins Field is going to get a workout. Here's a look at what the IT staff needs to see from camp:
Riley Blevins' thoughts
Gone are Cordarrelle Patterson’s 1,858 all-purpose yards. Justin Hunter’s nine touchdowns count for nothing now. Zach Roger’s reliability is well in the rearview mirror.
The numbers reset in 2013. As does Tennessee’s need for playmakers at wide receiver.
The Big Orange is in dire need for the dust to settle at wideout during fall camp. The Vols look to replace 2,352 yards of receiving with a depleted corps. First-year receivers coach Zach Azzanni works with just three players who recorded a catch in 2012 — Alton “Pig” Howard nabbed 13 balls, Vincent Dallas hauled in nine and Jacob Carter tallied eight. Cody Blanc saw the field but didn’t make a catch.
In a perfect world, redshirt freshman Jason Croom and Drae Bowles will blossom into legitimate options and Devrin Young will add a jolt in the slot. But for now, there are more question than answers.
In order for the Vols to stay afloat in year No. 1 of the Butch Jones era, freshman will need to have an immediate impact. There are promising youngsters on roster, but will they be enough? Signees from the 2013 class like Paul Harris, Marquez North, Ryan Jenkins and Josh Smith need to hit the ground running.
Upgrading at the receiver position in 2014 has been a priority for the Tennessee staff, as seen with the additions of Eric Lauderdale, Kameel Jackson, Dominique Booth and others. But, can the Vols weather the storm before the reinforcements arrive? That’s a question that begs to be answered in the coming weeks. All eyes should be peeled on the competition at the perimeter.
Randy Moore's thoughts
The first thing I want to see in Tennessee's fall camp is leadership from the quarterback position. I probably have a higher opinion of Tyler Bray than most people, but I must admit he didn't provide the level of leadership you need from the QB spot. Given the offensive limitations of this Vol squad, it desperately needs a leader at quarterback, even if he isn't the most talented passer in camp.
I also want to see a team with conviction. I believe unfounded optimism will erode once the Vols go to Oregon and to Florida in Games 3 and 4. That's why I want to see a team built around the conviction that things are getting better ... even when the scoreboard suggests otherwise.
Offense: I want to see running backs break tackles and get some yards beyond what the blocking gives them. I don't know what the YAC (yards after contact) stats were for Tennessee backs last fall but I’m sure it was an embarrassingly low number.
I'd like to see some of the young wide receivers blossom quickly. This is the greenest wideout corps I've seen in three decades covering the Vols, so some of the unproven guys really need to step up in a hurry.
Defense: I want to see a much-improved pass rush. Given how suspect Tennessee is in the secondary, the Vols desperately need to protect their defensive backs by getting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Otherwise, the pass defense could be almost as bad in 2013 as it was in 2012.
Special Teams: I want to see consistency from the kickers. I'd like to see Matt Darr win the punting job, so Michael Palardy can concentrate on place-kicking and kickoffs. And I'd like to see Palardy (who always does well in practice) show he’s ready to carry over that success into the games. Finally, I'd like to see someone provide a big-play dimension on returns similar to what Cordarrelle Patterson did last fall, although I realize that's probably a pipe dream.
Danny Parker's thoughts
Think back to the last postseason game Tennessee played — the 2010 Music City Bowl. In spite of the result, Big Orange Country had reason to be excited with so many freshmen contributing to a team that was a hair away from being 8-5.
Slight attrition and players departing early for the NFL Draft impacted this roster years later, but if what they say about the Southeastern Conference is true, referencing winning in the trenches, then this squad should get bowl eligible. Ten seniors between the two lines in the two-deep should mean punching some foes in the mouth for a change. However, the skill players need to show vast improvement after a below-average spring with this first-year coaching staff. That means putting down the video game controller and cell phone and getting to work using the finest facilities in the country. Did they do it? Have kids like Cody Blanc, Drae Bowles and Devrin Young learned to play receiver? Show me.
Don't count on a true freshman, they rarely post gaudy numbers at receiver their first year in college. That goes for all of you thinking Marquez North is going to step right in for Cordarrelle Patterson and the Vols won't miss a beat. You're kidding yourself. That group has skill but it takes time and this is the SEC.
Another concern is health. Sounds weird, right? Not one play of camp has gone down — but still. Linebacker Curt Maggitt could be a playmaker if used right. Michael Palardy has complained of issues in the past but has every leg specialist duty in his final year. Defensive lineman Maurice Couch, wide receiver Jason Croom, running back Rajion Neal, cornerback Nyshier Oliver, tackle Antonio Richardson and others have all missed games due to their bodies. Football is like being a pitcher in baseball…you're rarely going to be healthy heading between the lines. Can you play through the pain? Will you wave off the trainers? Let's see it.
Quarterbacking coordinator Mike Bajakian's offense is as much of a mental thing as anything. No matter who the guy is, he need only take care of the football and distribute it to the playmakers. The position group that concerns me the most is Willie Martinez' unit in the secondary. No stats from 2012 are needed and an initial two-deep that has first-year players Malik Foreman, Riyahd Jones and Cameron Sutton listed shows an overhaul is in effect. With both Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp on the field at linebacker, that group should be much faster and more productive dropping into coverage. If Brian Randolph is his old self, that alone is a giant upgrade. What I need to seed is the guys on the island match up with NFL-bound receivers like Amari Cooper and Jordan Matthews and win.
To give the DBs aid, the edge rushers need to start living up to their potential. Corey Miller and Jacques Smith were high school All-Americans. It's put-up-or-shut-up time. These Vols have gotten tutelage under Ed Orgeron (while committed prospects), Chuck Smith, Lance Thompson, John Palermo and now Steve Stripling. That's a vast amount of knowledge passed along. Use it and be productive. If Jeff Driskel, James Franklin, Marcus Mariota and A.J. McCarron still have the ball in their hands on third-and-eight for longer than 3 seconds and they're not fearing for their lives, then the chains are going to move and the scoreboard is going to light up.
Lastly, practice with this staff leading the way in its ninth month on the job should be the fastest we've ever seen on The Hill. I'm anxious to see how the offense responds. If the Vols go three-and-out four times in a row and roll about 65 seconds off the clock each possession, then the defense is going to get gassed. In order for an opposing defense to be exhausted come fourth quarter, Tennessee has to have the ball and go-go-go in the first three periods. Who scared the life out of Auburn in the BCSNCG? Who beat mighty Alabama in Tuscaloosa last year? Answer: teams with pedal-to-the-metal offenses. It can work.
Josh Woodward's thoughts
The temperature in Knoxville has cooled some and football is in the air. With the depth chart being released Tuesday, it's go time. Here are a few things I would like to see as fall practice gets underway.
Quarterback, Quarterback, Quarterback. It all starts here for me. They have all wide receivers back from spring injuries so let's see them make some throws. They have had all summer to learn the offense and get in tune with the tight ends and receivers. Will Justin Worley take control of the starting job? I think he can, but I think Peterman's mobility fits this offense more. I want to see the ball come out quick with smart decisions. Interceptions this season will kill this team, so a caretaker of this offense is important. I don't want to see either of the true freshmen. I believe it would be better for the program for a redshirt for both.
The wide receiver position is the second biggest question to me. They have some talent at the position. I would like to see Jason Croom and Vincent Dallas get some early confidence. If they can be the go-to guys it will help bring some of the other young talent along. I would like to see Alton Howard catch the ball. I hope he worked on his catching skills this summer and plant his feet without falling down. I want to see Jacob Carter on the field on third down. This kid can catch anything, best hands I have seen in awhile.
On the defensive side of the ball it starts with cornerbacks. They have faster players at the position this year, which will help tremendously. Really if they just don't fall down they will be better than last year. I want to see the safeties take good angles to the football and have good tackle form.
With Tennessee going back to the 4-3 defense I would like to see more disruption by the front four. I would like to see some meanness there also, a little fire up front will go a long way this season. The linebackers need to make tackles. They are a solid unit and will be the strength of the defense in my opinion.
Lastly from the coaching staff, I would like to see a sense of urgency, which I know they will. I want to see them working on tackling and special teams. I would like them to keep grinding on the recruiting trail during the season. If they can keep this class together, it will be special.