Tennessee’s next football season doesn’t kick off for nearly nine months.
But that didn’t stop some players and coaches from looking ahead to next season shortly after dispatching Wisconsin 21-17 in Tuesday’s Outback Bowl.
And there’s plenty to look forward to.
Only three offensive starters from Tuesday’s game — tight ends Brad Cottam and Chris Brown and quarterback Erik Ainge — won’t be back next season.
Junior tailback Arian Foster and All-American guard Anthony Parker have applied to the NFL’s college advisory committee, but if those two return, the Vols will have 10 players back on offense who started at least five games in 2007.
“They have all the talent in the world to do everything,” Brown said. “They need to stay humble and work hard and I think things will go their way. I think we had a lot of lucky bounces and a lot of things went our way. They have a bright future.”
It’s just as bright on defense, too.
In the secondary, Jonathan Hefney is the only player whose eligibility is up. At linebacker, only Ryan Karl is done, however All-SEC middle linebacker Jerod Mayo, a fourth-year junior, could opt for the NFL.
Ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds won’t be back next season, but the defense still could return as many as 11 players with starting experience.
That doesn’t include Demetrice Morley, who was dismissed from UT last January because of academics but is expected back for 2008.
“We’re going to have the best secondary in the country,” Karl said. “Just think with Demetrice Morley and Eric Berry back at safety, there’s not going to be anyone who do anything on that. I just wish I had one more year to to play and be a part of that defense. It’s going to be an exciting year to watch.”
That excitement will continue through this week, as UT coach Phillip Fulmer continues to interview candidates to replace David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator.
San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti is expected to interview for the position sometime this week. Fulmer interviewed Michigan quarterbacks coach Scott Loeffler while in Tampa.
Loeffler, who was not retained by new Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, is a candidate to become UT’s quarterbacks coach.
Cignetti has been offensive coordinator at North Carolina and Fresno State.
He also spent two seasons as the New Orleans Saints quarterbacks coach and was an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs.
His brother, Curt, is the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator at Alabama.
Fulmer said his goal is to have an offensive coordinator in place by Jan. 8, however that deadline is flexible.
Fulmer has also said he wants to hire a coordinator before naming position coaches.
The Vols will apparently have to find four new offensive assistants.
Running backs coach Kurt Roper is expected to join Cutcliffe, who left UT after Tuesday’s game for his new job at Duke head coach, to be his offensive coordinator.
Tight ends coach Matt Luke told his UT players following Tuesday’s game that he’s leaving to become offensive line coach at Duke.
Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor will leave in the coming days to become co-offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State.
Even with those staff changes, though, Fulmer couldn’t contain his optimism for 2008 after the Outback Bowl.
“I’m excited about where we are, and I’m even more excited about where we’re headed, even with the staff changes,” Fulmer said. “I think that gives us a chance to even be excited about something new and different. I’m looking forward to it.”