KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee hasn’t had this many questions heading into spring football practice in nearly two full decades.
Young, fiery, polarizing head coach Lane Kiffin has loudly ushered in his regime change, and the official practices start Tuesday. The only seeming certainty about the team this year is that All-America Eric Berry will start in the secondary as a junior, but he will miss the spring drills following shoulder surgery.
Kiffin didn’t mince words with the team’s healthy veterans. They better produce, starting this week.
“We better,” Kiffin said. “We need to have a better idea going into (preseason camp), because the beginning of fall is most important for our new guys, because our new guys are going to get in front of those lines. We’ve got to see which of these new guys coming in can be championship players for us right away. We don’t go the old-school, ‘fourth team and work your way up,’ because you won’t find them fast enough that way.
“We need to find which of these guys can help us win right away, and so our returning guys need to know that spring is so important. They need to establish who they are and how they fit into our system, because they’re not going to get as many opportunities in the fall as the newcomers.”
Many returning players won’t fit Kiffin’s style — on and off the field — as former coach Phillip Fulmer’s. Offensive lineman Darius Myers and promising, young wide receiver E.J. Abrams-Ward were dismissed from the program, and offensive lineman Preston Bailey willingly left the team. Tight ends Brandon Warren (wide receiver) and Aaron Douglass (offensive tackle) have at least temporarily moved positions, and several others are likely to change spots.
Here are five of the biggest questions facing UT this spring:
1. How will the players respond to change?
The Vols have had weeks to familiarize themselves with Kiffin and his assistants, but Tuesday will be different. The players who adapt quickly will give coaches good first impressions and gain a leg up for playing time, while stubborn holdovers from the Fulmer era could be buried on the depth chart. Kiffin hasn’t been shy about stating a desire to do things his way, and most in the program don’t consider that an empty promise. Things will be drastically different for a program so previously reluctant to change — for good or bad.
2. Who is the quarterback?
A coaching change was one of the few possible scenarios that would have taken top billing over this vital question. Rising senior Jonathan Crompton, rising junior Nick Stephens and rising sophomore B.J. Coleman from Chattanooga are all in the mix, according to Kiffin, who would like to see one of those three emerge as the main man. Quite simply, the Vols must get better quarterback play to compete to return to Southeastern Conference relevancy.
3. Who starts at right tackle?
UT’s offensive line doesn’t hurt for talent, but depth issues could become a major problem, especially with Myers and Bailey gone. The middle of the line has three proven players in rising seniors Josh McNeil, Vladimir Richard and Jacques McClendon from Cleveland (Baylor School), and senior-to-be Chris Scott is a capable left tackle. Right tackle — where Fulmer liked Bailey — is another issue. Moving Aaron Douglass there should help, but will he be ready to contribute right away? Will mammoth rising sophomore William Brimfield ever be healthy long enough to help? Could youngsters Jarrod Shaw, Cody Pope and Dallas Thomas compete for the top spot?
4. Rico, then what?
Rising All-SEC senior Rico McCoy is a rock, but the Vols don’t have any other known commodities at linebacker. Big, talented, junior-to-be Gerald Williams has moved back from defensive end, and he’s expected to battle a bevy of unproven players (including Savion Frazier, Nick Reveiz, LaMarcus Thompson, Herman Lathers and January enrollee Nigel Mitchell-Thornton) for the other two starting spots. Lathers has consistently impressed coaches and teammates since arriving in Knoxville last year, and he might have played as a true freshman if not for a midseason tonsillectomy.
5. Can the offense jell?
The track records of UT’s new defensive coaches — led by legendary NFL coordinator Monte Kiffin — combined with some top-shelf returning talent suggest that the Vols shouldn’t struggle much on defense. It’s difficult to find such optimism on the offense, though. A large group of unproven players must learn their third system in three years and come together in mere months, or UT could find itself in the same place with new faces. Lost in all of last season’s monumental disappointments was a defense that statistically stacked up with any in the nation.