Loss of Rogers increases offensive-line burden

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the importance of Tennessee’s offensive line being the Vols’ key to success in 2012.  The issue dwarfed any concerns that the defense might have, but wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers’ indefinite suspension, which ultimately led him to transfer to Tennessee Tech, only increases the burden that the offensive line carries into the first game of the season.

Prior to the loss of Rogers, Tennessee’s passing attack promised to be one of the country’s most elite.  Now, Tennessee’s passing offense might have to settle for a downgrade to exceptional.  Even though depth is no longer an issue at wide receiver thanks to head coach Derek Dooley’s most recent recruiting class, the offense does not want to ask their freshman wide receivers to do too much.

That’s why it wouldn’t surprise if offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s first-quarter gameplan would involve a lot of running plays to counter North Carolina State’s talented secondary.  While JUCO-transfer Cordarrelle Patterson’s role in Chaney’s offense will increase due to Rogers’ departure, they want to take some pressure off Patterson and Justin Hunter, who is returning from a knee injury he suffered a year ago.  A more balanced attack in the first half would surely open up the passing game late in the game.

Early success in the running game could help open up the passing game in the second quarter and the second half.  Going to the running game early would most likely also go against how North Carolina State believes Tennessee will attack them.  Sometimes offensive coordinators like keeping teams off-guard by doing the exact opposite of what is expected of their offensive gameplan.

Headlines leading up to Friday’s game will likely discuss Rogers’ absence and the impact it will have on the game.  All eyes, however, need to be on UT’s offensive linemen.  Providing more balance in Friday’s game could truly set the tone for the rest of Tennessee’s 2012 season.


Three NFL quarterbacks that need big 2012 performances

In an era of professional football where the demand of having a high-quality quarterback on a roster is at an all-time high, some quarterbacks have a lot to prove in 2012.  For some of these quarterbacks, 2012 will be the deciding year in determining if they have what it takes to be a franchise quarterback or if they will be thrown in the “bust bin.”

2011 presented each franchise with a different set of challenges due to the NFL lockout.  Free agency did not take place until after a collective bargaining agreement had been reached, but the 2011 NFL Draft took place anyway.  Four quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder) came off the board after the first 12 picks.  Two showed glimpses of success in 2011 while the other two left much to be desired.

Christian Ponder arguably bears the biggest burden of anyone in the NFL.  Minnesota drafted Ponder 12 overall in the 2011 draft, which was a huge surprise.  Even though speculation exists that had Tennessee passed on Jake Locker and Minnesota would have taken Locker instead, the point still remains that Ponder was selected with the 12 overall selection and brought with it the high expectations of being a early-pick quarterback.

Christian Ponder’s 2011 can be described as unimpressive at best.  Should Ponder’s 2012 fare as well as 2011, that could lead many fans and even the front office to question whether they drafted the right guy.  Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier wants both to feel like Ponder can be the franchise quarterback.  By adding USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil, the Vikings want to give Ponder more protection to find the open receiver in the passing game.  Minnesota’s rushing attack is led by Adrian Peterson and gives offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave hope for major improvement in 2012.

Musgrave utilized Peterson as well as Percy Harvin last year.  If Ponder makes huge strides in 2012, this is an offense that very productive heading into 2012.

Speaking of the need of improved play out of a team’s quarterback, perhaps no team went through more changes this past offseason than the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Not only does this team have a new head coach in Mike Mularkey, but the franchise is also under new ownership in Shahid Khan who hopes to build attendance back to where it needs to be.  Gene Smith remains as the team’s general manager from a year ago, giving the rest of the team some familiarity heading into 2012.  Smith drafted Gabbert in 2011 who, like Ponder in Minnesota, did not play very well at quarterback.

Mularkey was hired mainly to develop Gabbert into becoming a successful NFL quarterback.  Khan’s hopes that Gabbert’s successful development will mean increased attendance by the fans.  The addition of former Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon will certainly help both.

Gabbert needs to have a strong showing in 2012 to gain confidence from both himself and the front office, but most importantly Gabbert wants to gain confidence from the new owner.  Another lackluster performance could lead Khan to think that maybe his franchise does not have the quarterback of the future.

The last of the three quarterbacks needing a big 2012 is actually a guy who has had success in the past, but rumors continue to swirl that maybe he’s not quite the guy his franchise believes he is.  For years, people have looked at Dallas and wondered if Tony Romo can truly succeed in the NFL.  Dallas continues to stand behind Romo, but their stance can quickly shift if Romo does not reach the level that everyone wants him to.

Being in the NFC East means battles against Michael Vick and Eli Manning.  Being compared to quarterbacks like that can be difficult, especially if one just came of a Super Bowl championship like Manning did.  So if Romo does not play at a high level, Jerry Jones might find someone who can.

Unlike Ponder and Gabbert, however, Romo’s situation is not as bleak.  Romo has succeeded before, and that success can be used to argue that Romo is their guy.  Romo has made the throws that head coach Jason Garrett asked him to make, but a mediocre season could make all of that success irrelevant.  Romo’s record in the playoffs continues to plague him, but a few playoff wins could cure that and silence Romo’s critics once and for all.

Vols’ offensive line will carry this year’s burden

2012’s arrival did not just bring about the change of a new year, it also seemed to initiate a year of change for the Tennessee Vols.  Several assistant coaches, not to mention former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, accepted offers elsewhere and left the Vols with many questions to answer in the upcoming season.  Change, as it always does, creates both excitement and anxiety in the fans.

The 2012 season holds that same excitement and anxiety for Big Orange Country.  Great attention will be paid to new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri and his defense, and the attention is well-deserved.  Tennessee’s defense found it difficult to play at a high level for four quarters a year ago, which many attributed to Tennessee’s youth and inexperience.

Among one of the other changes to Tennessee’s coaching staff was the addition of Sam Pittman, the Vols’ new offensive line coach.  Pittman, who coached the North Carolina Tarheels offensive line in 2011, faces the challenge of taking a group, who struggled against the NFL-talented defensive squads of Alabama and LSU, and turn them into a reliable group that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney can rely on to generate a running game.

A change in defensive coordinator and offensive line coach might make any fan believe that the former will play a larger role in a team’s performance.  While Tennessee’s defensive play will help determine how many wins the Vols can get, the offensive line play will lay the foundation for success on both sides of the ball.

In fact, it is because of Sunseri’s arrival that Tennessee’s offensive line must play better.  Regardless of the amount of time the defense takes in transitioning into Sunseri’s system, the presence of a running game means one thing: more time of possession for Tennessee.  That means that the offense takes the pressure off of the defense and it keeps junior quarterback Tyler Bray and his arsenal of receivers on the field.

If the transition into Sunseri’s system takes more time, then Tennessee’s offensive line can help give those guys a break.  If the transition does not take that long, then an improved defense and offensive line means Tennessee makes a stronger argument to win the SEC East.

Without improved play from the offensive line, however, the defensive-transition issue becomes irrelevant.  Should Tennessee’s offense become plagued with three-and-out’s against Florida, Alabama or Georgia, the defense stays on the field longer.  The longer this goes on in one season, the more tired a defense can become overall.  Tennessee wants their defense to make plays and contribute to their success, but at this stage they do not want to ask the defense to do too much.

Paying attention to Tennessee’s defense makes sense as the new defensive coordinator poses a huge question mark for this team in 2012.  Make no mistake about it though, Tennessee’s offensive line will control the team’s destiny this season.

Bryce Brown drafted in round seven by Eagles

When Lane Kiffin became the head coach for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2009, Big Orange Country held high hopes for their team.  They had just fired long-time head coach Phillip Fulmer and the team’s stability became an area of question.  Kiffin brought in one of Tennessee best recruiting classes at that time, including one of the top prospects coming out of high school, running back Bryce Brown.

Brown, now drafted to the Philadelphia Eagles with the 229th overall pick, went from being considered one of the elite prospects from his days in high school to sneaking in the end of the draft as his limited playing time is a huge question mark on his stock. 

When Kiffin left the program, Brown decided to part ways with the Volunteers as well.  He transfered to Kansas State where he did not get that much playing time.  Brown left Kansas State and decided to enter the NFL Draft.

Now Brown finds himself behind LeSean McCoy, one of the league’s primier running backs.

Giants add another Hokie

Just two days after drafting Virginia Tech running back David Wilson with the 32nd overall pick, the Giants added another Hokie in cornerback Jayron Hosley. 

Hosley, like Wilson, found a way to sneak into a round of the draft.  He was the 31st pick of round 3 and the 94th pick overall. 

Last season Hosley contributed by forcing two fumbles and intercepting three passes for his defense.  The Giants won the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots back in February, but the Patriots passing game still found success in that championship game as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 276 yards and two touchdown passes.  New York hopes that the addition of Hosley will help shore up the passing game.

David Wilson sneaks into first round

Many speculated about whether Alabama running back Trent Richardson would be the only running back selected in the first round.  That speculation came to a screeching halt when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up to the 31 overall pick and selected Boise State running back Doug Martin.  Then a pick later, the Giants chose Virginia Tech running back David Wilson. 

Wilson comes to a team looking to replace Brandon Jacobs, who signed with the San Francisco 49ers, the team that the Giants beat in the NFC Championship.  New York still has Ahmad Bradshaw on the roster, but Wilson should expect to get some of the carries to let Bradshaw rest.

Wilson had a solid year at Virginia Tech a year ago, getting 290 carriers and rushing for 1,709 yards and nine touchdowns.  Even though Wilson only stands in at 5’9 and weighs 206 pounds, in comparison to Jacobs’ 260, the Giants will still look to find ways to incorporate Wilson into the offense.

Malik Jackson finds new home

With pick number 137, former Tennessee Volunteer defensive lineman Malik Jackson was selected by the Denver Broncos. This makes another Tennessee Vol addition to the Bronco locker room as Denver signed quarterback Peyton Manning during the offseason. 

Jackson, who is 6’4 and weighs 284 pounds, will be expected to help contribute as a 3-4 defensive end.  The Broncos defense still was not at the level that head coach John Fox wanted, despite the team drafting Von Miller with the second-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.  Jackson comes in to help a run defense that was ranked 22 in the league and allowed an average of 126.3 yards per game.

Jackson was one of the bright spots in the Tennessee Volunteers 2011 season.  Jackson brought in a total of 56 tackles and three sacks during his last season with the Vols.