It's not any secret that Tennessee was a little, um, lacking in the roster department over the last few years. Between two coaching changes and the large number of misses among Lane Kiffin's recruiting efforts, the depth chart in Tennessee has at times been an effort just to list enough players to play. Those days a presumably coming to a close, and not a moment too soon for Derek Dooley.
There are some bona fide stars on this team, and perhaps even a little depth behind them. Not much just yet -- but a little. And at running back, there's a crowded competition for the starting job, though you can argue about whether that's because of a surplus of talent or the inability of one player to break out from the pack. Whether or not there's enough depth here to compete in the loaded SEC East -- well, the placement of the Vols this early in our countdown gives you a clue on that. But it's a start.
BIGGEST RETURN | The passing game
It's hard to pick just one player out of the key figures in the passing game, two of whom missed parts or all of last year. Tyler Bray's passing efficiency numbers were solid if not spectacular -- even very good for a young quarterback -- and he doesn't make a lot of mistakes, matching up 17 touchdowns with six interceptions in his seven games in 2011. Justin Hunter was by far the leader in receiving yards per game, the only problem being that he played in just three games. And Da'Rick Rogers -- who, as of this writing, is still a member of the Volunteers (I think) -- did a great job of filling in for Hunter as the team's top receiving threat, grabbing 67 catches for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns. If the Vols are going to contend early this year, it's going to be because the passing game might be more explosive than any Tennessee team in recent years.
BIGGEST LOSS | LB Austin Johnson
On a team that doesn't really shed all that much talent, Johnson might be the one guy they will really miss. He led the team with 81 tackles and four interceptions -- which was almost half of the nine picks the Vols defense made in total. In all, he defensed five passes. Johnson was also tied for fifth on the team with five tackles for loss. In other words, he was the kind of guy that could create havoc for the offense on both ends of a play. Johnson might not have been a household name, but he was very, very good.
BREAKTHROUGH POSSIBILITY | RB Rajion Neal
Marlin Lane Jr., who probably entered spring practice as the most likely starter for the Vols, still hasn't been able to shake Neal. The Vols' post-spring depth chart has them as part of a three-way tie for the top spot with Devrin Young, but Neal had a higher average on his runs, 5.0 yards per carry compared to 3.7, despite bouncing around the field in a variety of roles. Even if Lane manages to lock up the starting spot, look for Neal to get some significant work backing him up.