Know your Vols: The specialist crew
The recruiting of junior college football players is generally regarded as a desperate venture for an SEC school. But better to be desperate than in denial.
Imagine how Tennessee's depth chart would look without its successful pursuit of junior college players.
The front three on defense is all-juco. So is one of the safeties. And, now that All-SEC wide receiver and serial troublemaker Da'Rick Rogers has been suspended indefinitely, so is one of the starting wide receivers.
Has any UT team since the early 1990s been so dependent on junior college recruits? Has any junior college recruit since then mattered more than Cordarrelle Patterson?
My guess: no and no.
The front three is the least experienced area of UT's defense. Daniel McCullers has never played in a college game. Darrington Sentimore has never started a college game. Maurice Couch has four career starts.
Yet they succeeded in winning jobs at competitive positions. The two least experienced of the three are now positioned to fill vital roles.
The 362-pound McCullers established himself a menace to inside running in preseason camp. If he can carry that over to the regular season, linebackers will start a Daniel McCullers Fan Club and Tennessee won't be as apt to give up 200 yards rushing, which it did in four of seven losses in 2011.
The Vols also need a pass-rush upgrade. They ranked 11th in the conference in sacks and had only one apiece against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Georgia and Florida.
That's where Sentimore could be a factor. He demonstrated a knack for pressuring the quarterback
while playing sparingly at Alabama as a freshman, had seven sacks at Gulf Coast Community College, and was lauded for his performance in UT's preseason camp.
But no junior college signee became as significant as Patterson after the news broke about Rogers on Thursday. In a crucial season for third-year coach Derek Dooley and a program that has suffered back-to-back losing seasons, Patterson qualifies as one of the most important non-quarterback signees in recent UT history.
Zach Rogers is an experienced slot receiver. Mychal Rivera already has been productive at tight end. Combine them with star wide receiver Justin Hunter, a proven passer in Tyler Bray and a veteran offensive line, and UT seemingly has all the necessary parts to pass its way back to prosperity.
Patterson is the variable.
You naturally wonder about someone making the transition from junior college to major-college football and learning a new offense as well. But Patterson's teammates weren't wondering after preseason camp. One player after another put the 6-foot-3 Patterson in the same class as All-SEC candidates Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers.
He has more going for him than teammate testimonials, though. While you might be skeptical of 40-yard times, you can't argue with his track time. He ran a 10.3 100 meters at Hutchinson Community College, where he also averaged almost 50 yards on 10 kickoff returns.
Remind you of anybody?
In 1990, UT signed another accomplished kick returner from junior college. Dale Carter later led the country in kickoff returns and was a two-time All-American safety at UT.
If Patterson could do as much for UT's offense, he would provide a worthy complement to Hunter and make Rogers nothing more than a bad memory.