- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: The Vols' first practice is on Friday, and their first day in pads is on Aug. 7. They open the season against NC State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta on Aug. 31. The game will be televised on ESPNU at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Returning starters: Ten on offense, seven on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.
Star power: Quarterback Tyler Bray has yet to complete a full season as Tennessee's quarterback, but he has all the talent to be a star in this league. In the 16 games he's played in he has 3,832 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.
New faces: Junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore was a welcome addition on the defensive line this spring, but now things will heat up as he tries to take a starting spot inside. Tennessee's staff is also very excited about the arrival of fellow juco defensive lineman Daniel McCullers, who the staff thinks can come in this fall and immediately compete for the noseguard spot. Another juco player getting a lot of attention is wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, who should add another deep threat to Bray's arsenal.
Don’t forget about: Senior linebacker Herman Lathers missed all of last season after fracturing his ankle in early June. He was expected to have a true breakout year in 2011, after collecting 75 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2010. While he was held out of action last year, it didn't seem to slow him much this spring. The staff is expecting him to build off of his sophomore season, and he should be a key cog on the Vols' defense this fall.
Big shoes to fill: With defensive tackle Malik Jackson gone, Tennessee's staff is scrambling to find someone to clog the middle this fall. Stepping up in the middle will be even more important, as the Vols work more out of the 3-4 scheme. A lot was expected from Maurice Couch last year, but he didn't really get going until the end of last season. Couch enters the fall as a co-starter with Daniel Hood and Gregory Clark. Sentimore is a co-starter with Steven Fowlkes at the other tackle spot when the Vols are in the 4-3. Sentimore and McCullers should get plenty of chances this fall to push for time in the middle of Tennessee's line.
Key battles: The battle at defensive tackle is big for the Vols, but the battle at running back might be even more exciting this fall, as three backs -- Marlin Lane, Rajion Neal and Devrin Young -- all left spring as co-starters. Lane didn't do much in the rushing department last year, but had a very good spring. The staff is also very excited about the potential Neal and Young have. Young could be a big-play threat for this offense. Tennessee struggled all season to run the ball, so improving in that area is key in 2012.
Rising star: Tennessee's staff was always excited about offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, but he was left to special teams duty last year. This spring, he took over the left tackle spot and should give the Vols the stability it searched for up front last year. Richardson is big (6-foot-6, 332 pounds) and athletic. He's young, but the staff isn't concerned about him holding his own against SEC pass-rushers.
Bottom line: There is no doubt that this is the most talented team Derek Dooley's has had in Knoxville. After two straight losing seasons, Dooley believes he has the pieces in place to make a run in the SEC East. The team appears much more confidence and the players have their minds on the SEC championship in Atlanta. Tennessee could have the East's most explosive passing game, while the defense returns a handful of experienced players, but is learning from four new defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. A strong start will go a long way for this team, but if the Vols record another losing season, it could be the end for Dooley.
1530dEdward Aschoff and Chris Low