Greeson: Any Vols progress likely cannot be gauged today

Greeson: Any Vols progress likely cannot be gauged today

October 1st, 2011 by Jay Greeson in Sports - Columns

A month into the season, how would you describe this University of Tennessee football team?

Good or mediocre? Underachieving or as expected? Confident or uneasy?

It's a tough question, no doubt, especially since every assessment has to be cautioned with the Volunteers' exterme youth.

Tennessee has but one senior starter on offense -- running back Tauren Poole -- and four total. Half of the Vols starters are sophomores or freshmen. Even the most pessimistic Vols fan would admit the team's youth is a hurdle this morning but a harbinger for brighter days. That youth comes with puzzling decisions and decided potential.

"What we want to see is how did you play the first three and then how you go out and look in game four with an open date," second-year coach Derek Dooley said. "Obviously we want to see improvement."

Two weeks ago, that youth was consumed by the speed and the moment in the Swamp. Before heading to Florida, sophomore offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James dubbed that game as the young Vols' "commercial," as a testament to where the program is and more importantly where it's headed.

The Gators' 33-23 win was less advertisement and more cautionary tale, a story that left Tennessee without its best player -- receiver Justin Hunter, who tore an ACL -- and with a string of unknowns.

Can Da'Rick Rogers fill Hunter's shoes as a big-time, No. 1 wideout? He has the persona of a playmaker, but is he ready to make plays to match his over-the-top persona?

Can Marlin Lane shorten the learning curve of pass protection and ball security that challenges every freshman running back? When will he be ready to provide the Vols with a home-run threat in the backfield that they have sorely lacked for the better part of the last decade?

Can the much-ballyhooed offensive line create running lanes and protect Tyler Bray against a defense that is its equal athletically?

Few of those questions can be affirmatively answered today, regardless of production. If Tennessee overpowers Buffalo, well, that's how it should be. A dominant performance this afternoon is more about the talent gap than the maturation process.

The only answer that could be deciphered today is whether Bray and Rogers have the same chemistry and feel that Bray and Hunter did.

Coming off their open date, the Vols spent most of the last 10 days assuredly looking for a replacement for Hunter and more than likely looking toward the gauntlet that lies ahead.

"We're doing a lot of work on our future opponents as coaches -- not as much for the team," Dooley said. "We're really focused more on just getting better, improving fundamentally in what we do and our blocking, tackling and running, and improving in the understanding of our schemes going against each other."

Getting better starts today. Getting well on lesser foes ends today, however. At least it ends for the rest of the month.

Today is the last mulligan for Dooley and Co. Starting in a week, the schedule grows fangs. The four following Saturdays after this morning, Georgia visits, LSU visits and Alabama and South Carolina await. It's a brutal stretch to be sure, but, hey, it's the SEC and brutal stretches are part of the deal.

Whether these youthful Vols are ready for that monthlong challenge is anybody's guess. And it likely will be even after today.