SEC spring practice preview: Tennessee
2009: 7-6 (4-4)
Many Tennessee Volunteers fans believed the opening of spring practice this year would feature Lane Kiffin building on the foundation he laid in 2009. And, of course, the brash head coach taking another shot at the Florida Gators. But Kiffin pulled a Nick Saban and bolted to USC after just one season in Knoxville, leaving the Vols program in the hands of new head coach Derek Dooley.
So UT’s third head coach in as many seasons oversaw the beginning of spring practice last Thursday, and the spring will serve as an introductory period for Dooley as he gets to know the returning players, as well as his recruits. The timing of his hire — shortly before national signing day — actually led Dooley to acquaint himself with his recruits more so than his inherited Vols. The next few weeks will now revolve around coming together as one unit.
One player who will no longer be part of the team, however, is running back Bryce Brown, who did not show up for the first day of practice. According to Dooley, the former No. 1 recruit in the nation is dealing with personal and family problems. And while he has not been kicked off the team and will reportedly remain at the school through the semester, Dooley said the focus will remain on the 85 players on the roster.
The Vols still have plenty of talented running backs, including junior Tauren Poole — who took the first handoff to open practice — sophomore David Oku and redshirt freshman Toney Williams. Plus, talented signee Rajion Neal will arrive in the fall. And while none arrived on campus with as much hype, Brown did struggle with injuries in ’09 and was a complementary piece to Montario Hardesty anyway. Dooley’s main concern is team chemistry, and certainly distractions of any kind are unwanted. Also, keep in mind that Poole was one of the Vols’ most productive backs in spring practice and early in preseason camp last year. For one reason or another, however, he was forgotten after the emergence of Brown.
The race to replace Jonathan Crompton as starting quarterback could, in fact, end up a marathon, with senior Nick Stephens, junior-college transfer Matt Simms, true freshman Tyler Bray and sophomore Nick Lamaison in the mix. Simms is healthy after having surgery to repair a broken bone in his throwing hand, while Stephens would seem to have an edge on everyone because of his experience — he also received the first snap of the spring. Bray would benefit from work in the weight room and an education from the sideline. According to Dooley, it’s likely that this will be a hotly contested battle that remains unsettled until August.
“I can tell you this, the quarterback position will not be settled by the end of spring,” Dooley said during his pre-spring press conference last Wednesday. “This is a body of work over time. Once we get to a decision with who we go with, sometimes it's still not settled until we get out there and see if we can move the chains and score points.”
Whoever is under center will have talent around him in Jim Chaney’s offense, as UT returns its top three receivers — including senior Gerald Jones — along with the aforementioned backfield that should be productive. But how will the Vols’ rebuilt — and thin — offensive line fare in the fall? William Brimfield left the program, while freshman All-America left tackle Aaron Douglas is dealing with personal issues and has taken a temporary leave of absence. Dooley, in recognizing the lack of experience up front, has said he won't hesitate to tinker with the unit in the coming months.
On the defensive side of the ball, there are some standouts in the front seven for new coordinator Justin Wilcox, but the Vols will need to find some playmakers in the secondary besides talented sophomore safety Janzen Jackson, along with building depth on the front line — specifically at the defensive tackle spot. In addition, who emerges on a unit that loses Eric Berry, Dan Williams and Rico McCoy? All three were not only playmakers — but leaders. Watch out for sophomore safety Darren Myles Jr., who could emerge as a star for the Vols.
In addition to Brown’s departure from the backfield, Dooley has dealt with adversity on the injury front already this spring, as injuries likely will keep cornerback Art Evans and linebackers Savion Frazier and Nick Reveiz from participating in the 15 practice sessions. Senior defensive ends Ben Martin and Chris Walker and linebackers Herman Lathers and Greg King — all of whom dealt with injuries last fall — were limited at different times during the opening practice. However, none of the maladies are expected to affect the players in the fall. To add depth to a thin unit at linebacker, though, junior Austin Johnson has moved over from fullback to provide a boost.
With NCAA rules limiting the Vols to helmets and shorts during their first two days of practice, full pads will be used on Tuesday with the team scheduled to practice three times this week. The transition period from the old regime to the new one will continue, as Dooley continues to acquaint himself with his team on and off the field.
Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave