Tennessee enters spring practice with its fourth different head coach since the 2008 season. Needless to say, it's impossible to compete for championships in Conference USA without stability on the sidelines much less the SEC. Erasing the Derek Dooley era from Volunteers' fans memories is now the job tasked to Butch Jones. He has a better roster of talent than UT's 2-14 conference record the last two seasons seems to indicate. Obviously, however, Jones has his work cut out for him in Knoxville.
Tennessee Volunteers 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 5-7 (1-7)
Spring practice dates: March 9-April 20
Returning Starters: Offense – 5, Defense – 7
Passing: Justin Worley, 15 of 23, 134 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs
Rushing: Rajion Neal, 156 car., 708 yards, 5 TDs
Receiving: Marlin Lane, 29 rec., 228 yards, 0 TDs
Tackles: A.J. Johnson, 138
Sacks: Three tied with 2.0
Interceptions: Byron Moore, 5
Redshirts to Watch: DE LaTroy Lewis, WR Jason Croom, WR Drae Bowles, TE Justin Meredith, QB Nathan Peterman, DL Danny O'Brien
JUCO Transfers to Watch: DB Riyahd Jones, TE Woody Quinn
Aug. 31 Austin Peay
Sept. 7 Western Kentucky
Sept. 14 at Oregon
Sept. 21 at Florida
Sept. 28 South Alabama
Oct. 5 Georgia
Oct. 10 Bye Week
Oct. 19 South Carolina
Oct. 26 at Alabama
Nov. 1 at Missouri
Nov. 9 Auburn
Nov. 16 Bye Week
Nov. 23 Vanderbilt
Nov. 30 at Kentucky
Offensive Strength: Offensive line. And more specifically, the running game. Four starters are back from one of the best O-lines in the SEC a year ago and both tailbacks — Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane — return as well.
Offensive Weakness: The passing game. Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera are all gone. That's the starting quarterback and the Vols' top four pass catchers from last season if you're scoring at home.
Defensive Strength: Linebackers. When healthy, this is a talented collection of hard hitters. A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt, Channing Fugate and Jacques Smith have loads of experience.
Defensive Weakness: The secondary. This unit was thrashed a season ago by opposing quarterbacks. There are plenty of bodies and even some upside (LaDarrell McNeil, for example) but improving the 111th-rated pass defense in the nation won't be easy.
Spring Storylines Facing the Vols:
1. Establish the process. The sideline in Neyland Stadium will welcome its fourth different head coach since the 2008 season when Jones debuts on August 31 against Austin Peay. The previous regime must be given credit for rebuilding the roster after it had eroded under Phil Fulmer. However, Dooley's staff did little to develop talent and even less in the way of motivation. If Jones wants to get the Vols back to the postseason, he needs to set the tone in spring practice. He needs to install his "process" and instill an attitude that's been lacking in Big Orange nation for years.
2. Who will replace Tyler Bray? Bray drove Vols fans insane during his time in Knoxville. He had all the talent in the world to be an All-SEC passer but couldn't get out of his own way — both on and off the field. Jones undoubtedly will be looking for a leader who can command a huddle and inspire those around him to play hard. His system has been QB-friendly at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati but it remains to be seen if UT's personnel fits his principles. Justin Worley will get the first crack with Nathan Peterman, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson competing for reps as well. Worley has the experience and will likely start out of the gate but Dobbs will be the wildcard come summer as his combination of skills fits what Jones wants to do on offense. Obviously, he is the only signal caller on the roster that was recruited exclusively by the new coaching staff.
3. Find some pass-catchers. No team in the nation lost more in its receiving corps than the Vols. Hunter and Patterson were special talents and Rogers overachieved regularly. Rivera was also an underrated player as well. No player returns to the roster with more than 13 receptions, but there is some intriguing talent to choose from. Alton Howard, Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter will battle with two elite redshirt freshmen recruits in Drae Bowles and Jason Croom for starting spots this spring. Both Bowles and Croom were highly rated prospects and both should press for reps with the starters. Tight ends Brandan Downs and Justin Meredith will compete to replace Rivera, as will JUCO transfer Woody Quinn. Look for a lot of bodies to get into the rotation as Jones looks for ways to replace a star-studded receiving class.
4. Work on fundamentals on defense. Most spring practices across the nation are intended to help develop young players by teaching fundamentals and technique. Schemes and formations are usually saved for the summer months. This couldn't be more true than in Knoxville. There are a lot of talented pieces but this defense was so horrendous a year ago that simplifying the approach this spring would be intelligent. Form tackling, coverage drops, hand placement and recognition skills should be the focus for a team that allowed at least 37 points in all but one SEC game. This team was dead last in the SEC in total and scoring defense so there is only way way to go — up.
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