Posted: 10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013
By Joel Hollingsworth
We're only 10 days away from the season-opener, and the starting lineup is only now beginning to take shape. Sophomore LaDarrell McNeil has apparently beaten senior Byron Moore (for now) for the starting safety spot opposite redshirt sophomore Brian Randolph, and freshman Cameron Sutton looks to be the starter opposite junior Justin Coleman at cornerback.
At linebacker, it will be senior and former safety Brent Brewer at Sam LB, at least until Curt Maggitt fully recovers from his injury, senior Dontavis Sapp at Will LB, and junior A.J. Johnson in the middle.
Defensive line? Well, there's no real news there other than the fact that a bunch of them are hurt. Maybe Dan McCullers can grow the equivalent of another extra body and we won't need them? If he needs help gaining weight, I apparently have the secret.
The offense, with the exception of the offensive line (more on them in a minute), is still mostly foggy with a chance of OH NOES I CAN'T SEE A THING! Receivers coach Azzanni did offer a glimpse of what he's thinking when he singled out Pig Howard and Devrin Young as guys who have been productive this fall. He's also high on Marquez North and is pushing Jason Croom because he needs him.
But the starting quarterback gig is still up in the air, and there is no clear #1 at running back. The latter isn't really a problem, according to running backs coach Robert Gillespie, who loves him some running back by committee. So look for both Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane to get a lot of carries regardless of which one heads out for the first snap.
Quarterback, on the other hand, well that could be a problem. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has reminded reporters that he and Butch Jones waited until the day before the season-opener last year to name a starter, and he concedes there's a chance they might do the same thing this year, "if they have to." Meaning, they don't want to have to. Junior Justin Worley is getting most of the first-team reps in practice, so you'd think he will be the guy at least for Austin Peay, but you also get the impression that coaches are keeping the competition open in hopes that one of the other guys (probably newcomers Josh Dobbs or Riley Ferguson, although redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman is also still in the mix) does something to give them a reason to turn it over to them. Stay tuned.
The biggest problems with the offensive line appear to be (1) refraining from complimenting them too much, and (2) protecting against the possible negative effects of the idea that they deserve a good season and that that fate rests in the hands of the rest of the team. By all reports, these guys -- James Stone, Zach Fulton, Alex Bullard, Ja'Wuan James, and Antonio Richardson -- are all fantastic players and great guys. If you haven't seen it, you need to read Holly Anderson's excellent piece at Grantland on the unit, which includes this nugget about the o-line's take on Jones's practice noises that made me laugh out loud:
Then there's a file of a wailing infant that seems to stretch on past the point of humane motivational tactics. James, Stone, and Fulton trip over each other to declare it the worst offender. Richardson: "I'm like, Coach, it sounds like somebody's hurting these kids. It ain't right."
These guys are good. They are good guys. They have suffered together through a very difficult time at Tennessee, and everyone wants them to succeed. That can be a very good thing if they can use that to lead and to rally the rest of the team to get the best they have to offer. If it turns into a "you're ruining it for us" kind of thing, though, that could be bad. Fortunately, everything we hear about these guys suggests that we'll see the former and not the latter.
Etceteras. The Tennessee football roster, as best as folks can tell, has 81 scholarship players on it, four under the NCAA maximum of 85. It includes 19 seniors, which is a bit surprising. . . . If you haven't seen it, the men's basketball schedule is out. GVX notes that it includes road games against five of the SEC's top six teams (the other being UT) during the second half of the season and that only two of those teams make return trips to Knoxville.