Brian Randolph on his rehab and spring practice
A month before a college football season is a great time for optimism, even in a losing program.
Sufficient time has passed to dull the memory of all that went wrong the previous season. Also, there’s the possibility a new player or coach could make a difference.
For example, this time last season, Johnny Manziel was a rarely retweeted redshirt freshman and a consensus pick to be nothing more than Texas A&M’s backup quarterback.
He turned out to be a Heisman Trophy winner and a Twitter sensation. And Texas A&M’s first season in the SEC turned out to be grander than almost anyone would have imagined.
There are numerous other cases of individuals — coaches or players — who helped turn losing programs into winning ones or at least lifted their teams beyond preseason expectations.
The preseason expectations for Tennessee are understandably low after three consecutive losing seasons. But a month before the season opener is an appropriate time for imagining what could go right — and who could make it go right.
Here’s my shortlist:
Butch Jones — Everybody seems to like UT’s energetic, first-year head coach. That includes fans, recruits, and a returning cast of players who likely will play harder for Jones than they did previous coach Derek Dooley.
Perhaps, through effort alone, these Vols could win a game or two more than expected.
Sal Sunseri — I’ve already touched on this painful subject, but it bears further mention.
Last year’ defense didn’t respond to Sunseri’s approach or scheme. And Tennessee’s opponents have the highlight videos to prove it.
Strike up the band. Play “Rocky Top.”
Brian Randolph — When UT’s safety suffered a season-ending injury in the first month of the season, a bad defense took a turn for the worse.
If Randolph returns at full speed, UT can’t help but be improved in the secondary, which was victimized so often in 2012.
Daniel McCullers — Jones emphasized how important the 360-pound tackle is to his defense in Wednesday’s media conference.
If he continues to improve, McCullers could do as much for the front end of Tennessee’s defense as a healthy Randolph could for the back end.
Recruits — Though the Vols didn’t sign one of the SEC’s top recruiting class, they still managed to sign a number of promising players during another coaching transition.
On a team with so many positions of need, those new players will have an immediate impact on the depth chart.
Offensive line — Never mind all the questions regarding an offense severely lacking in playmakers. If this veteran line plays up to expectations, it could make things easier for everyone else, including the defense.
Opponents — Other than Kentucky and Vanderbilt, do you really think any other SEC opponent is circling its game with Tennessee?
There are too many better programs in a conference that has produced seven consecutive national champions to fret over UT.
And since the Vols are no longer perceived as a serious threat by the league’s best teams, they’re better situated to pull off an upset.