And first-year coach Derek Dooley is more than just slightly concerned.
“I’m petrified of our depth,” first-year coach Derek Dooley said. “We have zero depth anywhere, except on our training staff.”
Attrition from two coaching turnovers in two years, offseason discipline and academic issues and injuries to probable starters has left the Volunteers’ depth chart in dire straits.
Tennessee lost 12 starters from last season and entered fall camp needing a starting quarterback, more depth on both the offensive and defensive lines, and more experience in the defensive secondary. Since then, the team has lost two potential defensive line starters to injury and could lose a few promising young defensive backs if they’re not cleared by the NCAA.
Once perennial contenders in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division, Tennessee has been picked to finish fourth in the East behind Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The Vols finished 7-6 last season with a loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
They’ve have been through too much in the past year to let a few personnel losses and low expectations get them down, though. They stuck together when a number of their teammates were reported to be involved in a massive bar brawl that left two men injured.
If anything, the offseason embarrassments and going through the firing of Phillip Fulmer in 2008 and the departure of Lane Kiffin in January has made the team more resilient.
“It’s a little bit of adversity, and I think our team has handled adversity well. I know our seniors have been through a lot, but I think that’s going to make us better leaders for the team this year,” senior defensive end Chris Walker said.
Tennessee’s 2010 schedule is tough enough that it’s bound to cause a few more bumps for a team in the throes of rebuilding. The Vols host Oregon on Sept. 11 before launching a typically tough SEC schedule that includes visits from Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky and trips to LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt..
But before they can worry about their opponents, the Vols have to nail down a roster.
Junior college transfer Matt Simms, who played briefly at Louisville as a freshman, began fall camp with a slight edge over freshman Tyler Bray thanks to experience and his spring practice performances. Simms has been gaining ground as an offensive leader, though both players are physically talented enough to earn the starting job, according to their teammates.
“Both of them have strong arms, hands down. Bray is young, Simms is a little more experienced, but they both have tremendous ability and tremendous talent to make the long throw and put it on target,” said senior Gerald Jones, who leads a deep, talented wide receiving corps this season.
Junior tailback Tauren Poole was passed over for playing time by Kiffin last year in favor of Montario Hardesty and Bryce Brown, but he’s managed to impress his teammates and new coaches with his speed and knack for avoiding the tackle. With Hardesty in the NFL and Brown opting to leave with Kiffin’s departure, Poole is expected to start and receive help from sophomore David Oku and freshmen Toney Williams and Raijon Neal.
Dooley is looking to freshmen and sophomores to help round out both the offensive and defensive lines after graduating so many of last season’s starters and losing senior defensive end Ben Martin and sophomore defensive tackle Marlon Walls to what could be season-ending Achilles’ tendon injuries.
The secondary suffered one of the greatest losses with All-American safety Eric Berry skipping his senior year to enter the NFL. Sophomore Darren Myles Jr. was kicked off the team for his involvement in the bar brawl. Dooley has shifted wide receiver Marsalis Teague to corner to help out sophomore Janzen Jackson and junior Art Evans while he searches for other young players to step up, though a few may not be academically cleared by the NCAA.
One of the few bright spots on defense is the return of senior and team leader Nick Reveiz to linebacker after sitting out much of 2009 to recover from a torn knee ligament.
“I haven’t been able to full-speed tackle someone to the ground since Sept. 26, 2009 — I remember the date,” Reveiz said. “It’s been long, and I’ve felt every single day and every single day I’ve just gotten more anxious to be out there.”