With just a week away from the opening kickoff against the N.C. State Wolfpack in the Georgia Dome, the Tennessee Volunteers have other things on their mind besides the suspension of junior wideout Da'Rick Rogers.
This fall, players had many opportunities to prove themselves to head coach Derek Dooley and the new coaching staff, especially in some of the position battles. However, on Thursday the depth chart for the season opener was officially released.
Junior tailback Rajion Neal, who totaled 421 yards of offense last year while playing mostly in the slot as a receiver, was named the team's starting tailback with sophomore Devrin Young falling in right behind. The 5-foot-8 Young will also serve as the kick and punt returner for the Vols, as he showed flashes of his big play potential in his special teams role a season ago.
"It's hard for me to say one day he had a great practice and one day he had a bad one," head coach Derek Dooley said about Neal's performance in camp. "I couldn't identify his great practice or his bad one. He's been real consistent and comfortable in that role, he's produced every day, he's progressed in all areas, so I feel good about him."
The only major surprise released on the offensive side of the depth chart was junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson assuming the number two receiving slot, as UT looks to have parted ways with Rogers for the time being.
"Coach Chaney has always got a good game plan," said senior wide receiver Zach Rogers who is listed as the third wide receiver on the depth chart and will assume a much bigger role now with the shakeup at the position. "He'll probably tweak it a little bit, but overall it'll be the same game plan that we've practiced all camp."
On the defensive side of the ball, junior college transfers Darrington Sentimore and Daniel McCullers will start at defensive end and nose tackle. A close to 100 percent healthy redshirt senior Herman Lathers, who totaled 75 tackles in his sophomore season but was injured all last season, will start at weak linebacker and lead a talented group of linebackers in first year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's new 3-4 defense.
Sophomore starting linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggit, who combined for 136 tackles last season, look to have major impacts once again as they were believed to be UT's first true freshman to start at linebacker.
Sophomore Brian Randolph will take the reins at the free safety position after having a tremendous off-season in practices and scrimmages making plays all over the field. Redshirt junior Byron Moore comes in listed above Brent Brewer at strong safety, as he is believed to be better in pass protection.
"We have seven guys we feel confident about getting in the game right now," Dooley said about the Vols secondary. "They have all played a lot and we will see who goes out there and performs the best."
With the depth chart figured out it is time for the starters to fully assume their roles and focus on preparation for the N.C. State game next Friday. After a good practice on Thursday morning Dooley will give the players time off until Sunday, when they will bear down into full game preparation for the Wolfpack.
While N.C. State appears to be a very similar team on paper to the Vols, with an experienced quarterback in Mike Glennon and a decent running game, one thing in particular stands out most about the Wolfpack. A season ago their defense accounted for an NCAA leading 27 interceptions, and defensive back David Amerson was a big part of that also setting a Division-1 football high of 13 interceptions.
"It'll be a great first game," Dooley said. "It will prepare us for Florida, Georgia, or Alabama, who all have great secondaries. It'll be a good tune up and a good secondary to face the first game to get our minds right."
However, junior quarterback Tyler Bray looks ready to go up against a talented secondary and his teammates believe he will have success.
"He's become more of a veteran every day," said Rogers. "You can sit out here on the practice field, and he's dropping and taking all of his reads, taking more time than maybe he did in his first and second year when he was kind of just slinging it around a little more. He's definitely learned the game a lot better, and I think he'll be ready to go."
With the Vols' focus now turned to their first opponent of the 2012-13 season, they are looking to come together as one unit and bring Tennessee back to its winning tradition in the SEC.