NOTE: Tennessee is picked to finish No. 4 in the SEC East by Scout.com publishers/writers.
Seven true freshmen started for the 2010 Vols and eight more filled second-team berths. Because Tennessee lost nine senior starters from last fall and has very little left from its 2007, 2008 and 2009 signing classes, however, freshmen will be forced to fill key roles again this season.
Eight sophomores project to start on offense this fall - quarterback Tyler Bray, fullback Channing Fugate, wideouts Justin Hunter and Da' Rick Rogers, offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James, JerQuari Schofield, James Stone and Zach Fulton. Two more sophomores could start - offensive lineman Alex Bullard (a transfer from Notre Dame) and tailback Rajion Neal.
Defensively, five sophomores project to be either first- or second-teamers in the front four - Jacques Smith, Corey Miller, Marlon Walls, Daniel Hood and juco transfer Maurice Couch. Two sophomores figure prominently at linebacker - John Propst and Raiques Crump - and five more loom as first- or second-teamers in the secondary - Brent Brewer, Eric Gordon, Dontavis Sapp, plus juco transfers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier.
Additionally, the No. 1 placement specialist will be sophomore Michael Palardy.
Meanwhile, three redshirt freshmen and 16 true freshmen appear capable of making immediate impact. The redshirt freshmen are offensive lineman Marques Pair, defensive end Martaze Jackson and punter Matt Darr. The true freshmen are wide receivers DeAnthony Arnett and Vincent Dallas, tailbacks Marlin Lane and Tom Smith, offensive linemen Marcus Jackson and Antonio Richardson, tight ends Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear, linebackers A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris, defensive backs Justin Coleman, Brian Randolph, Eddrick Loften, Pat Martin and Tino Thomas. Devrin Young, signed primarily as a return specialist, could be the No. 1 option fielding punts.
Despite its mind-boggling youth, Tennessee projects to be better than a year ago. Bray returns at quarterback after going 4-1 as the late-season starter last fall. He should be more polished after completing 55.8 percent of his passes for 1,849 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2010. He'll be backed by senior Matt Simms, who started the first eight games of 2010 and threw for 1,460 yards.
Tauren Poole returns at tailback after rushing for 1,034 yards last fall. His first-team status is being challenged, however, by the speedy Neal.
Tennessee struggled to run the ball against quality defenses last fall but its offensive line should be vastly improved. The Vols entered the 2010 season with just three starts among their five first-team offensive linemen, whereas the five projected starters for 2011 boast a combined 50 starts.
The departure of the top two wideouts from 2010 - Gerald Jones (55 catches) and Denarius Moore (47) - will be offset if flashy sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers live up to their hype. Tight end Luke Stocker (39 receptions last fall) will be missed but junior Mychal Rivera appears to be a solid successor.
Although three members of last fall's starting front four must be replaced, Tennessee's defensive line projects to be bigger and more physical in 2011.
Rising junior Herman Lathers is the only returning starter at linebacker but seniors Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen appear to be capable players.
The secondary outlook is seriously muddled by the absence of 2010 All-SEC free safety Janzen Jackson, who left school last winter to deal with what head coach Derek Dooley called "a personal matter." If Jackson returns, he'll combine with head-hunting Brent Brewer to give Tennessee one of the SEC's premier safety tandems. If not, 6-2, 175-pound cornerback Prentiss Waggner may be forced to fill the void at free safety.
The Vols have quantity, if not quality, at corner. Marsalis Teague started eight games last fall, while Waggner, Eric Gordon and Art Evans started six games each. None has shown much consistency, although Waggner returned half of his six interceptions for touchdowns last season.
Tennessee allowed 152.5 rushing yards per game and 23 rushing touchdowns a year ago. If the Vols can shore up their run defense a bit between now and September, an 8-4 record in 2011 appears attainable. If not, another 6-6 mark seems likely.
No one could have imagined that 12 months after completing a two-year run that included back-to-back…