As a figurehead coach for the Orange team in Tennessee's spring game, I was heartened by the response of the crowd as our offense broke the huddle for its first play of the second half. It sounded as though the entire crowd of 35,000 was cheering us.
Then, I noticed the JumboTron and realized the Orange offense was a sideshow to the main attraction. Former UT star Eric Berry was in the house, and the crowd was responding accordingly.
UT fans will be pulling for Berry on Thursday when he's taken in the first round of the NFL draft. Aside from his pro destination, the only questions: How high will he go and how much will he make? The best answers: Near the top and a lot.
But this draft will enable UT fans to do more than revel in Berry's fame and fortune. It's cause for optimism.
Berry is an example of how much one great player can impact a program. There's no way UT could have made it to the SEC championship game in 2007 if he hadn't become an instant star.
Berry's adaptability and versatility were as significant as his talent. He was an All-American under two different coaching staffs and two different defensive systems.
UT's overall talent level isn't up to traditional standards, but what if it signs one great player comparable to Berry? Or, as the draft reminds us, what if other players raise their level of play significantly from the previous season, as defensive tackle Dan Williams and running back Montario Hardesty did last year?
Williams never made so much as second-team All-SEC team before his senior season. He's now a likely first-round pick.
Hardesty never rushed for more than 384 yards in his first four injury-plagued seasons at UT. He gained 1,345 last year while establishing himself as a high-round draft pick.
Berry, Williams and Hardesty are three big reasons why UT bounced back from a 5-7 season in 2008 to win seven regular-season games last year. Their departure is a good reason to doubt whether the Vols can post back-to-back winning seasons.
But you can look at it another way. UT has potential at each of those positions if you don't get picky about Berry playing strong safety and Janzen Jackson being a free safety.
Jackson had off-the-field issues that detracted from his outstanding freshman season, but former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin compared him favorably to Berry as an all-around talent. And new coach Derek Dooley had nothing but good things to say about him this spring. So it's hardly farfetched to project him as an All-SEC candidate this fall.
Defensive tackle Montori Hughes has the ability to emerge as an SEC candidate as well. In fact, he's probably the most physically gifted defensive lineman UT has had since Albert Haynesworth.
Consistency, not talent, is his issue - just as it was for Haynesworth for much of his college career. But Hughes has played just one college season.
Replacing Hardesty's production won't be easy, especially since the next running back will be surrounded by an inexperienced quarterback and offensive line. Yet production has never been a problem for Tauren Poole, who rushed for 5,413 yards his last three seasons of high school.
Although he is neither as big nor as fast as Hardesty, Poole has repeatedly made yardage through sharp cuts or determined running whenever given the opportunity. Most of those opportunities have come in spring or preseason scrimmages but he also has gained 171 yards on 32 carries for a 5.4-yard per-carry average the last two seasons.
Poole's teammates express great confidence in him. They were similarly complimentary of Hardesty before the 2009 season.
You saw how that turned out.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.