By Frank Gale
The wait is almost over, by this time next week, the Vols will be in Atlanta for their season opener and fans clad in orange will be arriving throughout the day. Now it is just a waiting game while the coaches put the finishing touches on a game plan.
While overall team depth is the best since Coach Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville, there are still some concerns. Coming out of the spring practices, it sure looked like tight end was going to be one of the deeper positions for the Vols.
A dismissal to Cameron Clear for a conduct-related issue started the problem. Then the injuries started and seemed to be never ending, the latest being a dislocated patella to Brendan Downs’ left knee. While he is expected back later this season, the options next Friday are going to be limited.
The starter at tight end, Mychal Rivera, is finally back to 100 percent and his back up is Ben Bartholomew, who is also the Vols fullback. After that, converted linebacker turned tight end/fullback Greg King and freshman Justin King would be the only other options until players get healthy.
Thank goodness for a player like Bartholomew who seems to be a quick study and able to play wherever the coaches need him. It doesn’t hurt that Ben bleeds orange, just like his brother, Will, a four-year letterman and a member of the 1998 National Championship team and his grandfather, Sam, who captained the 1939 SEC Championship team back in the day.
The wide receiver position, which was the strength of the offense, took a hit this week with Da’Rick Rogers’ suspension from the team. UT is referencing “violation of team rules” as the reason and the length of time he will be gone as indefinite. Just what Derek Dooley needed so close to the opener, but at least, he has a quality replacement in JuCo transfer Cordarrelle Patterson.
The running back position also took a hit for the future this past week when Davante Bourque left UT and was reported to have enrolled at a community college in Louisiana. Personal problems and possibly playing for a different position coach that was not here during his recruitment were too many obstacles for the incoming freshman to overcome.
The anticipation of matching UT’s heralded offense against NC State’s veteran laden defense, anchored by several highly rated defensive backs, just became a bit more challenging for UT with Rogers out. State became another ranked team on the Vols schedule when they recently were included in the top 25 of the Sports Illustrated preseason rankings. Well, at least they are not in the top ten like several of the future Big Orange opponents.
It was nice to see Jim Butler back last week. I thought he would come out a little stronger, especially after Vanderbilt’s showing last season. Maybe it is the first game match up this coming Thursday that has Jim playing nice. We will not hear the end of it if, by a miracle, the ‘Dores stay close or upset the team favorite to win the SEC East. Not that I think that is going to happen —but in opening games, stranger things have happened.
The Tennessee fan base finally has a team with the potential to compete against the better teams on their schedule. Apparently, Las Vegas thinks they are a team to be reckoned with by making them a four point favorite against a ranked N.C. State team on a neutral field.
Of course David Kerr, Crossville’s resident Wolfpack fan, would disagree with the Vols being favored. Don’t worry, David, with Rogers suspended, that line will most likely change.
The Pride of the Southland Band is ready to fill the Georgia Dome with "Rocky Top" and there is nothing like hearing the Big Orange Nation singing that great song at a road venue. I have a feeling this offense still has the potential to put up big numbers and N.C. State fans will have the words to "Rocky Top" memorized by games end. Go Vols!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)