Clawson's arrival is the big news in Knoxville. He will inject elements of the spread into Tennessee's stale offense, which has more than just the fans excited. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton has waited patiently behind the departed Erik Ainge for two years and he'll be the first quarterback to run the new, potentially very quarterback-friendly offense. In filling in for an ailing Ainge two seasons ago, Crompton displayed complete confidence in his abilities and a command of the huddle that frankly surpassed even Ainge at the time. Crompton isn't as physically gifted as Ainge, but he's more than ready to step up and make a name for himself.
Another player excited about the new offense is sophomore wide receiver Gerald Jones. Jones got in nine games a year ago as a true freshman, but only touched the ball 19 times. Look for that number to increase dramatically this season because Clawson has installed a whole package called the "G-Gun" for Jones to take snaps at quarterback. The idea is to get the ball in the hands of their best playmaker as many ways and as often as possible.
One of the biggest reasons for optimism in Knoxville is the return of all five starters on the offensive line. First-team All American Anthony Parker headlines a unit that only allowed 4 sacks(!) all season, so you know the pass protection in the new scheme will be top notch.
In the backfield Arian Foster is back after rushing for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2007. Foster is a stead back who produces (he's poised to break several school records), but honestly he doesn't inspire fear in the hearts of opposing defenses. Montario Hardesty is a thunderous back with potential, but as of now he appears relegated to "wait your turn" status behind the senior Foster. It's too bad LaMarcus Coker messed up off the field and got kicked off the team because he could have been a fantastic feature back for the Vols.
There's reason for optimism on the defensive side of the ball as well. Top defender Jerod Mayo (140 tackles) took his services to the NFL and the Vols gave up 27.3 points per game (10th in the SEC), but a totally revamped secondary, one that might end up being the best in the conference, should lead the way in turning things around.
Any talk of the Tennessee secondary has to start with safety Eric Berry. As a true freshman last season Berry came in and made his presence felt right away, picking off 5 passes and chipping in 85 tackles. He has already established himself as one of the best defensive backs in the SEC, but look for him to rise to All America status this year.
Brent Vinson is another player who saw action as a true freshman in Tennessee's secondary in '07, starting 10 games at cornerback. He's back, but he'll have to hold off stiff competition from the likes of Marsalous Johnson (started the first 7 games last season prior to getting hurt), Antonio Gaines (started the first 2 games prior to injury), DeAngelo Willingham, and kick return specialist Dennis Rogan in order to keep his starting job. If that isn't enough experience for you, the Vols also get stud safety Demetrice Morley back too. Morley was a force in 2006, but missed last season due to academics. All told, the Vols have eight talented DBs with significant game experience who Phil Fulmer can count on.
There are questions in the front seven however. Rico McCoy is back at linebacker, but Mayo's presence in the lineup will definitely be missed. Somebody on the defensive line will need to step up and provide a pass rush. The lack of a pass rush has really hindered the defense in recent seasons, so somebody like senior Robert Ayers or highly touted sophomore Ben Martin has to get to the quarterback or it won't matter how good the secondary is.
KEEP AN EYE ON
I want to say the pass rush, but everyone knows offense is where the excitement is. I'm as curious as anybody to see just how wide open the new scheme is compared to previous Fulmer squads. But you should keep you eye on whether the pass rush improves or not when that offense is on the sidelines.
Gerald Jones. If the new offense is a hit, the all-purpose Jones will be a big reason why. He has the athleticism to be a difference maker and Fulmer/Clawson appear committed to getting him the pigskin.