KNOXVILLE - The Big Orange is expected to make its return to the big stage at the NFL draft.
Former Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is projected to end the Volunteers' two-year first-round drought when the draft begins tonight.
Fellow receiver Justin Hunter hopes he'll know his professional destination when he goes to bed tonight, too.
"I feel like I know it's up to the coaches, and it's up to the coaches," Hunter said last month at Tennessee's pro day. "Anything can happen, so I've just got to wait till draft day. It'd be a weight off my shoulders to go in the first round with the best players. It'd be a dream come true."
The Vols had just one player (defensive lineman Malik Jackson in the fifth round) taken in last year's NFL draft, and tight end Luke Stocker (fourth) and receiver Denarius Moore (fifth) waited until Saturday before they were taken in 2011.
Tennessee's last first-round picks came in 2010, when Kansas City took safety Eric Berry sixth overall and Arizona selected defensive tackle Dan Williams with the 26th pick.
Though the questions about his route-running and mental intangibles have increased in volume and number, Patterson should hear his name called tonight. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder set Tennessee's single-season all-purpose yardage record (1,858), scored touchdowns running, catching and returning kickoffs and punts and compiled a long highlight reel of dazzling cuts, spins and jukes in his lone season with the Vols.
He's raw as a prospect, however, which made NFL.com draft analyst Josh Norris drop him to the 47th pick in his seven-round draft and may scare away some teams.
Hunter, who caught 73 passes for 1,083 yards and nine touchdowns a year removed from tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, is also among many draft analysts' respective rankings at receiver, though West Virginia's Tavon Austin is certain to be the first wideout picked.
"He fits that mold of somebody that can come right in and play," ESPN analyst Mel Kiper said earlier this month of the 5-foot-8, 174-pound Austin. "Patterson's a juco kid, didn't set the world on fire this past year and had his inconsistencies. [He's] got a freakish talent, but he's still going to be a guy that's a work in progress.
"A kid who's interesting is Justin Hunter from Tennessee, because he's not as raw, and he's going to be two years removed from the knee injury. This year he was only a year removed, which meant he was going to have some issues and not necessarily play as well as he will this coming season."
Southern California's Robert Woods, California's Keenan Allen, Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins, Oregon State's Markus Wheaton and Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton are possible foils to Patterson and Hunter being first-round selections.
The Vols still should have a busy weekend, with seven potential draft picks, including receiver Da'Rick Rogers and defensive tackle Montori Hughes, who ended their college careers elsewhere.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said during Wednesday's Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference that there's no new developments in tailback Marlin Lane's situation.
"He still remains suspended from all activities, but we've given him and provided him certain criteria that he has to meet for reinstatement," Jones said. "Is he on that path of doing that? Absolutely. We're just taking it one day at a time with Marlin.
"He knows what he has to do to be reinstated at this time."
Support staff movement
Jones announced the hiring of Bob Welton, a nine-year college scout in the Cleveland Browns' organization, as his director of player personnel on Tuesday.
The departures of NFL coordinator Bill Baker; J.R. Sandlin, who was hired from Alabama and held a position as the director of recruiting at both programs; and recruiting assistant Keith Pantling created openings on Tennessee's support staff.
"Bob brings a wealth of experience to our program and will be a great resource for our current players," Jones said in the program's release. "He will play a vital role in aiding and overseeing our recruiting efforts to attract the highest caliber student-athletes to Tennessee. The experience he gained in his nine years in the National Football League and his time as a head high school football coach will serve our program well."
Houston Fancher, Tennessee's director of basketball operations, took an assistant position on the staff at UNC-Wilmington under former Vols coach Buzz Peterson. The two coached together at Appalachian State for four seasons (1996-2000), and Fancher coached the Mountaineers for the next nine seasons when Peterson took the Tulsa job in 2000.
Fancher, 47, spent four years at Tennessee and was retained during the coaching transition from Bruce Pearl to Cuonzo Martin.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.