Staff photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press - UT head football coach Derek Dooley talks to the Orange team during the annual Orange and White game in Neyland Stadium.
Editor's note: Today is the first in a three-part, spring practice analysis from University of Tennessee beat writer Wes Rucker. Today's focus is on the answers that surfaced this spring, and the next two days will focus on the problems the team still faces and lingering questions going forward.
KNOXVILLE -- The Volatile Volunteers of Tennessee just finished their third spring practice session in three years under a third head coach, and a month that started with several questions hasn't yielded many answers.
Some players and positions rose above the fray, though, and gave coaches, teammates and fans something to look forward to this season.
Here are some of those positive answers.
1. They bought in.
Beyond the daily grind of installing yet another playbook full of offensive, defensive and special teams sets, the most important thing Derek Dooley and his staff needed from their new team was a unified belief.
For the most part, that happened, according to the Vols still with the program.
The highly-publicized departures of tailback Bryce Brown, budding offensive tackle star Aaron Douglas and rising senior quarterback Nick Stephens certainly stood out in a bad way, but the veterans still on the roster claim everyone still with the team is ready to move forward under the new battle captain.
"I'm not concerned about our leadership," Dooley said. "I've been extremely pleased with our guys in that area ... and it's only going to get better over time."
Linebacker LaMarcus Thompson said it was "very easy" for the most of the Vols to buy into the Dooley way.
"It was very easy, because Dooley had that type of personality," Thompson said. "It was easy to buy into what he was saying, and we bought into his program and trusted him, because he was trying to do the right thing. He was trying to bring more discipline into what's going on here."
Thompson and several players said they were impressed with Dooley asking for their respect, rather than demanding it from the start.
"It was nice to hear that, and it made you want to respect him from the jump," Thompson said. "He wasn't coming in here just telling us what's up. He told us he knew what we'd been through, and he just asked us to open ourselves up to trusting him.
"We all liked that about him from the start."
Added defensive end Chris Walker: "Obviously some guys didn't want to stay here for whatever reason, but I really think the guys still here are on board and ready to roll. I really think we believe in the coaches and players that are still here. There's a bunch of good people here, and we all want the same thing. We want to do the right things on and off the field and win games."
2. Mike check, 1-2-3.
UT opened spring practice with one proven-but-injured middle linebacker in Nick Reveiz, a talented-but-unproven backup in Herman Lathers and converted fullback Austin Johnson on the depth chart.
After Reveiz returned to practice, Johnson was named spring's most surprising defensive player and Lathers led all tacklers in the Orange and White game with nine stops, coaches and players feel great about their depth and ability at that spot heading into the summer.
"Me and Nick are really good friends on and off the field, and he's helped me so much since I moved over to the defense," Johnson said. "He knows this defense better than anybody but the coaches, and he's pushed me as much as anybody to get to this point. I couldn't ask for a better role model and person to look up to and follow than Nick, and I'm glad he's getting back out there with us on the field."
The 5-foot-10, 224-pound Reveiz said he never hesitated to help Johnson, despite having less natural ability than his 6-2, 231-pound teammate.
"Austin is very instinctive, and he makes a lot of plays," Reveiz said. "Sometimes he's not necessarily where he should be, but he makes (plays), anyway. He's a smart kid, and he's been picking it up really, really fast. And he's a really quick player.
"I try to teach him everything I know. I don't look at it like, 'He's coming up on me,' or anything like that. I just want the team to get better, and any way I can help Austin, I'm going to do that."
3. Deep D-ends.
There aren't many spots on UT's team deeper than middle linebacker, but defensive end is one of them. The Vols entered spring camp with a proven star in Chris Walker, a proven veteran in Gerald Williams and a promising youngster in Willie Bohannon.
January enrollees Jacquez Smith from Ooltewah and Corey Miller added themselves into the mix with better-than-expected performances all month. Smith on Saturday was named of spring's three most consistently physical players.
"It doesn't matter who is out there; each and every time, we'll have two guys out there that can make big plays," Williams said. "It's always a good thing to have a scenario where you have too many guys that can play at a spot, instead of too (few) guys. That's a good thing we've got going on."
4. Poole party.
Buried on the depth chart the past three seasons, rising fourth-year junior tailback Tauren Poole rarely disappointed in his first spring atop the depth chart.
Poole, as he'd done several times earlier in his career, made big plays when the Vols went through 11-on-11 situations. The sturdy, shifty, 5-11 runner accounted for more than 100 all-purpose yards and was again the best offensive player on the field Saturday.
"All Tauren's ever needed was a chance," center Cody Pope said. "We all know he's a great player, and he's going to have a huge year."
5. Pass catchers a plenty.
Questions abound throughout UT's offensive line and quarterback depth chart. But if the Vols solve those problems, gaining yardage in the passing game shouldn't be a problem.
Veterans Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones had solid springs, as did No. 3 receiver Marsalis Teague. January enrollees Ted Meline and 6-6 Matt Milton also showed SEC-level athleticism, though, and rising sophomore Zach Rogers showed signs of becoming a reliable target.
Tight end Luke Stocker didn't play Saturday with a minor shoulder injury, but coaches expect the proven, 6-6 pass-catcher and future NFL player to be a focal point of the passing attack.
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