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March 10, 2009

Kiffin brings big buzz but must fix Vols offense

Tennessee underachieved last season, finishing 5-7, and coach Phil Fulmer was sent packing.

An awful offense was the culprit; the Vols scored 14 of fewer points in a game seven times.

Enter Lane Kiffin, who if nothing else has fired up the fans and miffed a lot of the Vols' rivals. Job No. 1 for Kiffin and his staff is to improve the offense.

Here's a look at the Vols as they prepare to open spring drills.

TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE
Eric Berry is Tennessee's best player and leads a strong secondary.
THE BASICS
Coach: Lane Kiffin
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 SEC
Spring dates: March 10-April 18
RETURNING STARTERS
Offense (5): FB Kevin Cooper, WR Gerald Jones, C Josh McNeil, T Chris Scott, TE Luke Stocker.
Defense (6): SS Eric Berry, E Wes Brown, LB Rico McCoy, FS Demetrice Morley, CB Dennis Rogan, T Dan Williams.
Special teams (1): K Daniel Lincoln.
Positions of strength

Eric Berry is the best in the nation at his position. A case could be made that he's the best player in the nation, period. The Vols return three starters from a secondary that allowed just eight touchdown passes and grabbed 14 interceptions without help from a powerful pass rush. But no other position could be considered an area of strength.

Help is needed

Take your pick. Two starting linebackers must be replaced. The offensive line was average at best. No receiver had more than 30 catches. The kicking game struggled in '08. But the area in most dire need of assistance is quarterback. Jonathan Crompton about half his passes and Nick Stephens didn't fare that well. Neither managed 1,000 passing yards. B.J. Coleman attempted just eight passes as a redshirt freshman. There are also reports that Stephens could miss significant time this spring with a hand injury. One of the QBs must dramatically raise his performance level in a new offense. The Volunteers' '09 recruiting class did not include a quarterback.

Keep an eye on

TB Lennon Creer: One of the most common questions of '08 centered on the use of Creer as in, why isn't Creer getting the ball more? He averaged 5.3 yards on 73 attempts. This spring, he'll have opportunity to prove he deserves more chances.

TE Aaron Douglas: He arrived in Knoxville last season as a four-star tight end. But the offensive line is so thin that he has been moved to tackle. It's a real possibility that he could earn a starting assignment there.

DE Ben Martin: He played a backup role in '08 as a sophomore, and was making a solid contribution by midseason. He'll likely take over for the underappreciated Robert Ayers, who completed his eligibility.

His time is now

Picking a quarterback would be too easy. The Vols need players to step up at other positions, too. Brandon Warren was welcomed with open arms and great expectations after transferring from Florida State. But the former five-star tight end only managed 10 receptions. He'll be moved to wide receiver this spring in hopes of utilizing him better.

The buzz

Since Kiffin was named Fulmer's successor, the Southeast has been buzzing. The expensive coaching staff Kiffin assembled created a buzz. The verbal jabs he took at several other SEC coaches created a buzz. His actions on the recruiting trail created a buzz. He hopes there is a buzz this spring about the new coaches breathing life into a comatose offense.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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