Expectations are starting to soar in Knoxville for a reason.
Butch Jones has quickly rebuilt the Tennessee depth chart with two incredibly talented recruiting classes. The results on the field were tangible as well, as the Vols got back to the postseason and were extremely impressive against quality competition like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Iowa.
However, there are major strides this program still needs to take before it can become an SEC title contender.
5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice:
1. Handle the training room
Butch Jones has implemented a unique day-on, day-off strategy for spring practice due in large part to his lack of healthy starters. There are big-time names on both sides of the ball — like Jalen Hurd, Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, for example — who will not be going through much contact this spring, if at all. With nine players off the depth chart this spring, Tennessee needs to win in the rehab room as much as it does on the field.
2. Build the D-line
Nowhere is the lack of starting bodies more obvious than along the defensive line. Barnett, Maggitt as well as Danny O’Brien and incoming star freshman Kyle Phillips are considered “out” while other D-line contributors will be limited. This leaves the Vols with five defensive linemen in spring camp — which not only hurts the much-needed development of the defensive line but also the progress the offensive line could make as well.
3. Stop opposing pass rushers
Speaking of the offensive line, the Vols allowed 43 sacks last year. That number ranks 122nd nationally and dead last in the SEC by a large margin. The good news is this unit should be improved in 2015. Jones’ offensive line returns four starters and the depth behind the starters has gotten better as well. Marcus Jackson won’t be available this spring but that may only aid in the development of younger prospects.
4. The DeBord-Dobbs marriage
Baring some unforeseen circumstances, Joshua Dobbs is the starting quarterback in Knoxville. The rising junior will now be under the tutelage of new coordinator Mike DeBord. How does DeBord’s tweaks to the offense (if any) mesh with Dobbs’ skill set? Building the young playmaker's repertoire and keeping him healthy could lead to an All-SEC type breakout season from the Vols' signal-caller. And it could put the Big Orange in contention in the East.
5. Temper expectations
Jones constantly talks about raising a football team and keeping this group grounded will be a big part of his offseason duties this year. The bowl win was almost too impressive and has led to many experts touting the Vols as a potential division front-runner. The depth chart isn’t there yet and both sides of the ball have a long way to go before an SEC crown is within reach. How this extremely talented, but extremely young roster handles rising expectations will be imperative this spring and summer.
Pre-Spring Outlook on Tennessee:
The anticipation growing in East Tennessee will only continue to boil over until Week 1 of the 2015 season. There are plenty of reasons for optimism with a depth chart getting better by the day and a playmaker finally developing under center. But issues in the trenches and on the training table should keep this group grounded and focused. If Jones and company keep grinding, this team will begin to push for SEC East supremacy. The question is whether or not it happens in '15 or ’16.