With a good deal of help from Year2.
If there's one thing fueling the enigma factor for 2010 Tennessee that Year2 mentioned yesterday, it's the questions about the team's roster -- at least, what's left of the 2009 roster. For a team that went just 7-6 after a disappointing start to the season, the Vols are getting hammered by attrition, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Tennessee returns just 13 starters (all returning starter numbers in this series, by the way, are from Phil Steele), including just four on offense. For one thing -- and these are words I never thought I would ever write -- Vols fans will miss Jonathan Crompton, who completed 58.3 percent of his passes, threw for 2,800 yards and had 27 TDs to 13 INTs in his single year under Lane Kiffin. He was, improbably, selected in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. And he left Knoxville with 629 more career attempts in the SEC than likely starter and JUCO transfer Matt Simms -- which is to say, he had 629 career attempts in the SEC.
But -- and this is not the jab it would have been several months ago -- Vols fans are more likely to miss the contributions of defensive back and one-man wrecking crew Eric Berry, also gone for the greener pastures of the Shield. While Berry only intercepted two passes because of a change in the way he was utilized in Monte Kiffin's defense, he was still the kind of player that altered game plans across the SEC. It would be hard to overstate the impact of his departure on the defense. Dan Williams, another key cog in Tennessee's secondary, is also gone.
Rico McCoy is "also" gone, taking with him his team-leading 119 tackles and five forced fumbles. No, neither of those numbers are a typo.
And don't underestimate the effect of the loss of Montario Hardesty, who rushed for 1,345 yards and 13 TDs in 2009. Hardesty rushed for 140 or more yards four times last year and fewer than 50 yards just twice, arguably against the best overall defenses the Vols faced (Alabama and Virginia Tech).
THE FEW WHO DO RETURN
Not to say that the offense is completely depleted. Back are the top three receivers for the Vols and three of the five who caught more than 20 passes in 2009. That includes Gerald Jones -- 46 receptions for 680 yards and 4 TDs -- and Denarius Moore -- 40 catches for 540 yards and 7 TDs. Receiver is unquestionably the strength of the offense in 2010, if only a quarterback can be found to throw the ball.
On defense, ends Chris Walker (42 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 2 INTs) and Ben Martin (38 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks) bring experience up front. Janzen Jackson returns to the defensive backfield after a solid enough freshman campaign to give Vols fans hope he will be everything the recruiting buzz said he would be.
THE OTHERS WHO HAVE TO LEAD THE WAY
Topping the list of new players who will decide how well the Vols do in 2010 is (probably) Matt Simms. Derek Dooley has publicly named Simms the leader in the quarterback competition with Tyler Bray but pointedly left the competition open -- whether it's to push Simms harder or to actually weigh who gets the position is anyone's guess. Simms played relatively well in 10 games for the 8-3 El Camino CC Warriors, completing 59.1 percent of his passes for 2,204 yards, 17 TDs and 12 INTs. But the SEC is, needless to say, a step up from the Southern California Football Association.
The probable tailback, three-star recruit Tauren Poole, has rushed for 171 yards on 32 attempts in his college career at Tennessee. Unless Bryce Brown inexplicably decides to return to Tennessee (don't bet on it), Poole will have to make some major contributions on offense.
The likely offensive line was fairly well-received by the recruiting services -- you'll see a few four stars from Scouts and Rivals and only one player who got a two-star rating from one of the agencies -- but lacks experience. They had three combined starts in 2009 -- all of them belonging to Jarrod Shaw, and none of them after the Florida game. Simms will have to be ready to buy time with his feet if possible, and the running backs best prepare for the potential that they will have to create their own lanes. None of that might end up being the case -- the line could do perfectly well -- but the potential for problems exists.
Replacing the secondary losses will likely be Darren Myles Jr. and Eric Gordon, whlle sometimes starters Greg King and Nick Reveiz will probably start full-time at linebacker.