The picture is starting to come into focus for University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones. Though he’s only been on the job for two weeks, some key roster questions have been answered.
On Monday, Wide receiver Justin Hunter announced his intentions to declare for the NFL Draft. The announcement was made on Twitter with little fanfare and even less surprise. Most believed Hunter was going to leave after his junior year before the 2012 season kicked off.
In 2012, Hunter posted one of the best seasons by a Tennessee wide receiver in school history. He finished the year with 73 catches, the 2nd most in a single season in school history. His yardage total, 1,083 yards, is the 3rd highest total in school history.
On Wednesday, word came that Tennessee’s other dynamic wide receiver, Cordarrelle Patterson, is planning on going pro. Patterson set a new school-record for all-purpose yards (1,858) and scored 10 total touchdowns.
The final domino fell on Thursday when quarterback Tyler Bray decided to declare for the NFL Draft. The junior signal-caller threw for 34 touchdowns and more than 300 yards per game in 2012.
The offense is already working to replace senior tight end Mychal Rivera (36 catches for 562 yards) and senior wide receiver Zach Rogers (32 catches for 491 yards). With Patterson and Hunter joining them, the offense will be working to replace their top four pass catchers, a group that accounted for 26 of Tennessee's 35 passing touchdowns and 80.4 percent (2,914 of 3,612 passing yards) of the Vols’ passing yards.
While the trio of talented playmakers is a big loss, the news they made overshadowed the news that offensive tackle Ja’Waun James will return for his senior season.
With James deciding to come back, the Vols are set to return one of, if not the most experienced offensive fronts in college football. As it stands today, Tennessee will return 4-of-5 starters, and their top two reserves, from a unit that was regarded as the second best in the conference last year behind Alabama. In all, next year’s projected top six have made 124 starts -- JaWaun James (37) Antonio Richardson (12), Zach Fulton
(29), James Stone (27), Alex Bullard (14) and Marcus Jackson (5).
To put that number in perspective, Lane Kiffin’s opening day offensive line had a combined 45 starts. Derek Dooley inherited an offensive line that returned 3 starts! Not starters, starts. No doubt, Hunter, Patterson and Bray, all potential first or second-round picks, leaving early is a hard pill for the staff and fans to swallow.
With Bray, however, it’s a mixed bag of emotion. Though his numbers were impressive, his interception total was so high (28 INTs in 28 games, 21 of those came in 15 SEC starts) and his completion percentage was low (53.7% vs SEC opponents), many Tennessee fans are OK with his early exit.
Despite the departures, the Vols can still be really good on offense next year. The offensive line provides a strong foundation for Coach Jones to build on. Behind Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane – both back next year - Tennessee averaged 4.7 yards per carry last season. In 2011, the run game managed a futile 3.7 yards per carry. If the Vols can run for five yards a play next year, the offense will be just fine.