Even with a short list of seniors to replace, Tennessee hasn't reached the point where it can simply count on another wave of veterans to step up and fill the leadership void. But the Vols are certainly getting closer as they head into coach Derek Dooley's third season with the program, and the pool of talent and experience in the current junior class appears to be deeper than the one on the way out — a group that was decimated by attrition and adversity.
The rising bunch of seniors has faced its share of difficulties as well, and while some pieces have fallen by the wayside, there are still enough around to help establish a veteran presence next year.
Here's a look at the top five soon-to-be seniors most critical to turning things around on and off the field in 2012.
No. 5: Willie Bohannon
Position: Defensive end
Junior campaign: 27 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for a loss.
Career stats: 49 tackles, five sacks, 10 tackles for a loss, one forced fumble.
Upside: Bohannon finally started establishing himself as a regular option for the Vols on the line at the end of last season, starting the last three games for a unit that was supplying pressure in the backfield and handling itself well against the rush. In the late-season win over Vanderbilt, Bohannon was a consistent threat on the quarterback and finished with three hurries. If he can convert a few more chances like that into sacks, Bohannon could be in position for a breakout season as a senior.
Group work: The Vols aren't likely to need Bohannon to do all the work as they move on without Malik Jackson and Ben Martin though, particularly if Jacques Smith is able to get his production to match up a bit more evenly with his considerable potential. UT also saw some encouraging things from freshman Jordan Williams in his first year with the program, but as the elder statesman now on the line, it should at least be up to Bohannon to set a strong example.
No. 4: Zach Rogers
Position: Wide receiver
Junior campaign: 14 receptions for 189 yards with a touchdown.
Career stats: 31 catches for 415 yards with two touchdowns, a long of 72 yards.
Upside: Rogers might not have the size or durability to be a featured target on the perimeter, and he's occasionally put some critical balls on the ground over the last couple years. But there aren't many veterans around to throw the ball to, and his speed and understanding of the game can still make Rogers a productive and integral part of the attack as he heads into his last season with the program. Nobody questions the work ethic of the Nashville native, and along with those couple drops, Rogers also stuck his nose in as a blocker and made a few difficult grabs to prove his toughness.
Group work: The lack of depth at receiver was exposed last season when Justin Hunter went down in the third game, and his absence changed pretty much everything about the passing attack. Da'Rick Rogers was still a major factor, but a cast of young guys along with Zach Rogers wasn't capable of maintaining the fast pace the Vols set early on with Hunter. A couple more pieces should be added to the equation, including recent commit Alton Howard, but Zach Rogers could be a nice option to work on defenses from the slot.
No. 3: Dallas Thomas
Position: Left tackle
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Junior campaign: Started all 12 games, part of a unit that allowed just 18 sacks
Career stats: Has earned 25 consecutive starts on the line
Upside: Thomas doesn't seem to get much credit for the work he's done over the last couple seasons, probably due partly to the fact that his quiet nature doesn't command much attention. But despite the assumption that at some point Antonio Richardson would pass him on the depth chart, Thomas has made himself a fixture up front and doesn't appear willing to simply hand off his role heading into his last season with the program. At 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Thomas has pretty good size himself and moves well on the edge.
Group work: The development of Richardson will be worth watching when spring practice rolls around, and the rising sophomore is expected to push for more extensive playing time. But he'll have to earn it with Thomas and Ja'Wuan James bringing plenty of experience to the tackle position after two years as full-time starters — though that competition is a clear sign of progress as UT restores depth on the line.
No. 2: Mychal Rivera
Position: Tight end
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Junior campaign: 29 catches for 344 yards with one touchdown
Career stats: 40 receptions for 456 yards with one touchdown
Upside: The versatile weapon finished his second season with the program as one of the most productive players on offense, but it still seemed like the Vols weren't getting everything they could out of Rivera in the passing game. That wasn't necessarily his fault though, since the loss of wide receiver Justin Hunter changed his role and the need to use him more as a blocker also kept Rivera from perhaps turning in the statistical season the junior was capable of posting. When all the pieces are back on the field and healthy, Rivera can be a dangerous threat to a defense and is more than capable of creating mismatches in personnel.
Group work: The Vols have some young talent on hand already to complement Rivera and perhaps allow offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to use the multiple-tight end sets he desires, but neither Cam Clear nor Brendan Downs were ready to lend a regular hand as freshmen. UT picked up a commitment from another highly-rated player at the position last week with Justin Meredith offering a pledge, and the program could be in a pretty comfortable spot with depth there moving forward.
No. 1: Prentiss Waggner
Position: Defensive back
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Junior campaign: 48 tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss, one forced fumble, seven passes defended, two interceptions
Career stats: 116 tackles, two sacks, six tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, 11 passes defended, seven interceptions, three returns for touchdowns
Upside: No matter where Waggner lines up, he's shown an uncanny knack for making plays. His junior campaign didn't produce quite as many highlights as the coming out party the season before, though a nagging injury, personnel losses around him and his own shifting role all played a part in cutting down his chances. Waggner isn't the most vocal guy on the roster, but he's earned respect for his willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team — and he's also not afraid to speak up if needed.
Group work: The surgery performed on his shoulder late last week will prohibit him from contact during spring practice, but that might allow the Vols to look closely at the other options they have in the secondary moving forward. UT has used Waggner all over the back end over the last couple seasons, and he seems best suited to playing cornerback. Brian Randolph emerged as a viable option at safety as a freshman, and that will be a fine place for the Vols to start when they go back to work. That should put the spotlight on a group of cornerbacks that didn't have anybody step up and claim the position outright last season after Waggner was forced to move to safety, because he could be back there in the fall.