Growing up in east Tennessee, becoming a Volunteer fan is as natural as breathing. The Vols are the only game in the state (until the Titans moved to Nashville). So the prospect of Tennessee, the team of my youth, playing NC State, my alma mater, was something I always wondered what it would be like. Well, now, that day is almost here. Football season is finally here. On Friday night (don’t get me started on that fact though) the Wolfpack will play the Volunteers in the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game. The game kicks off at 7:30 PM on ESPNU. I know that many of you have been looking at the 2012 Media Guide to make sure you know all the players and their respective numbers.
As the name approaches, let’s take a closer look at the tape to compare the teams at each position.
Mike Glennon has come into his own as a quarterback. Now in his second year as starter, he is definitely the leader of the team. Glennon, who was described as the best collegiate quarterback in the Manning Passing Academy this offseason, looks to take his team to the next level. Junior Tyler Bray, coming off some off-field issues and a thumb injury, is probably ready for the year to begin as he faces the critical season of his career. Bray is a gunslinger in the Brett Favre mode. He doesn’t think there is a pass he can’t make. He had 17 TDs against 2 INTs last year before he hurt his thumb against Georgia and returned at the end of the year before he was really ready. The backups are true freshman Manny Stocker for the Pack and Justin Worley for the Vols. Worley started 3 games last year and has a good upside.
The Wolfpack will trot out a three header monster with Tony Creecy, James Washington, and Mustafa Greene. The running game had its ups and downs last year, although one of their strengths was catching passes from Glennon. The Vols counter with Marlin Lane and Raijon Neal. Both teams want to improve their running games this year as the Wolfpack averaged 105 ypg (109th nationally) while the Vols averaged 90 ypg (116th nationally).
The Wolfpack brings Tobias Palmer, Quniton Payton, and Mario Carter to the forefront of their receiving corps this year. Palmer is the only one who put up decent numbers last year. There is a some good young depth at the position but outside of Palmer, there is little experience. The Vols have a first round talent in Justin Hunter, but he is coming off of an ACL tear that happened last year against Florida. The other receiver is Cordarrelle Patterson, this year’s #1 JUCO recruit, but this is his first big time game. Da’rick Rogers, who had over 1000 yards in receiving last year, was suspended by Coach Dooley a couple of days ago and as of last night, enrolled at Tennessee Tech.
Both teams have lots of experience and starters returning. The Wolfpack has 4 starters and Rob Crisp, who has started before. The line seemed to gel near the end of the year, especially in the last three games, including the bowl game. The staff seems to feel like the line has taken the steps to be O’Brien’s best since he arrived in Raleigh. The Vols return all 5 starters from last year. Dallas Thomas and Ja’wuan James are the two best lineman of the bunch. They struggled in the middle of the year, although playing Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and South Carolina back to back doesn’t help. After Bray got hurt, they didn’t help the backup QBs enough and the offense stalled for large chunks of games. That being said, the statements coming out of Knoxville have been favorable this fall camp. This position is as close as any.
The Wolfpack return several players who showed signs of promise. Darryl Cato-Bishop, Brian Slay, and Art Norman all had big plays and this needs to continue this year. The middle will be manned by Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill. This group has experience and talent and is striving for more consistency throughout the year (hopefully injuries won’t derail this group like it did last year). The Vols are starting three JUCO defenders, lead by massive Daniel McCullers, a 6-6, 377 lb nose guard. This group needs to make more plays in the second half of games as the line wore down last year.
The Wolfpack replaces all three starters and will be led by fifth year senior Sterling Lucas. Lucas, who is coming off a knee injury, will be responsible to get Brandon Pittman and Rickey Dowdy in advantageous positions, especially early in the year. The Vols return 3 starters and are led by senior Herman Lathers, who like Lucas, missed last year with an injury. AJ Johnson, a consensus Freshman All-American last year, joins Lathers as the linebacking corps is the strength of the defense.
The Wolfpack returns all 4 starters from last year (CJ Wilson is currently dealing with some NCAA issues and won’t play) and is recognized as the best secondary in the ACC and one of the best secondaries in the NCAA. David Amerson is the most known of the group. 13 interceptions in one year will do that for the man. The others have all been together for several years and have all made significant plays on the field. Prentiss Wagner leads the Volunteers secondary. The other cornerback position is still up for grabs between Justin Coleman and Marsalis Teague, who have both played extensively in their times in Knoxville.
Last year, the Wolfpack started three true freshman in the kicking games. A solid first year will now lead into bigger and better things this year. Wil Bauman and Niklas Sade now have experience and confidence. The return game lost TJ Graham and hopes that Palmer, Rashard Smith, or even Amerson will replicate Graham’s production. The Vols counter with Michael Palardy and Matt Darr in the kicking game. Palardy, who was hurt for part of the year, has at times been both the punter and placekicker. Sophomore Devrin Young is the Vols’ return game. He had a good freshman campaign.
Tom O’Brien starts his sixth season in Raleigh with his most experienced team yet. Expectations are higher than usual and if his team can avoid the yearly injury bug and start out fast, a very good year is not out of the realm of possibility. If you googled “Hot Seat”, you would see a picture of Derek Dooley. Not even Frank Spaziani’s seat is this warm. If Dooley’s team loses to both the Wolfpack and the Gators a couple of weeks later, it will take a major miracle for Dooley to get a fourth season. He was put into a hard situation, being the third head coach in three years in Knoxville after Phil Fulmer was let go and Lane Kiffin bolted in the middle of the night for USC. But patience is running thin for Vol fans, especially after the team packed it in against Kentucky, whom hadn’t beaten Tennessee since 1984.
This game should be a close affair. The Vols, who are a 3 point favorite, have to win this game to get some pressure off of their coach. Nothing would be better for the Pack than a statement win against a traditional, yet struggling, SEC power. This game is intriguing as it is strength against strength. For example, the Pack secondary versus the Vols passing offense. The outcome will be decided by two things: rushing offense and turnovers. Whoever wins these two statistics will more than likely walk out of the Georgia Dome with a W.