UT coach Derek Dooley walks among players during the Orange and White game Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press
KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley watched his football team take some steps in the desired direction over the course of Tennessee’s four-week spring practice.
And though the Volunteers’ second-year coach shared the same general good feeling as a number of his fellow coaches do this time of the year, he knows there’s still plenty of progress to make between now and next season.
“Improved, but a long way to go,” Dooley said after Saturday’s annual Orange and White Game concluded the Vols 15 spring practices. “There’s some areas where we feel like we’ve got good enough players to continue to develop, and there’s other areas where we’re going to need some help. That’s when June comes around.”
June means the arrival of possibly 20 reinforcements, a handful of which will have to provide depth and fill key contributing roles for the Vols next fall. But spring practice is about the current players, who share the same sentiments as their coach.
“I think we made a big leap this whole entire spring by playing fast [and] playing together,” senior tailback Tauren Poole said. “There’s a sense of urgency for this team because we want to win, and we want to win fast. I see it, I know the coaches see it but we have to take it into summer and continue to work. [We’re] definitely not where we want to be.”
In Dooley’s eyes, the Vols aren’t where he or they want to be in any phase or at any position.
“Everything. We’re not good enough anywhere right now,” he said. “When you say compete for an [Southeastern Conference] championship, which is what we need to be doing here in this program, it’s hard to say there’s one position that is ready to compete for an SEC championship. It’s everything — there is no one area.”
The Times Free Press takes a look back at the five questions asked before the start of spring practice and examine how the Vols progressed in answering those questions.
1. Who takes the leadership reins?
The Vols lost their emotional leader and leading tackler in Nick Reveiz, and as difficult as it will to replace his production, filling the leadership void left by the linebacker may prove to be just as hard. That process likely won’t be completed until the fall, and it won’t be a single player, either.
“Nobody’s really stepped up to take [that] role,” senior defensive end Malik Jackson said. “Everybody’s still trying to figure out who they are. After this spring ball, we’ll figure out who the leaders are.”
Offensively the Vols have just three upperclassmen projected as starters, making the task of finding that voice of influence more difficult. Soft-spoken quarterback Tyler Bray, though just a sophomore, said he feels it’s his offense.
“Quarterback always has to be the leader,” he said. “Tauren’s a veteran guy, [tackle] Dallas [Thomas] — they chime in whenever they need to.”
2. Who’s going to catch all of Tyler Bray’s passes?
Receivers Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore and tight end Luke Stocker did most of the damage in UT’s passing game a season ago, and the Vols found some answers to how they’re going to replace that chunk production.
Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers ascended to the top two receiver spots, while Mychal Rivera has a firm grasp on the tight end spot. Hunter’s lengthy frame and raw athleticism was enough to make him a key big-play threat for the Vols a season ago, while Rogers had to improve his routes.
“Probably Da’Rick has made the most progress from where he was at the end of the season to where he is now,” Dooley said. “Justin, where he’s got to improve is strength-wise. That’s a serious part of his game that’s got to get better so he doesn’t get pushed around out there.”
Finding consistent third and fourth receivers, though, figures to be a process that will continue. Zach Rogers, early enrollee Vincent Dallas and freshman DeAnthony Arnett could battle in the slot, and Matt Milton still has progress to make.
3. Can the running game get better?
Dooley said both Poole and sophomore Rajion Neal had good springs after he called out his tailbacks before spring started. The coach was even more excited about the growth of his young offensive line.
Yet for Poole, it’s about being a more decisive runner who consistently gets whatever yards he can, even when they may not be there. A year as the starter under his belt should help.
“I’m able to read defenses better, able to slow down a little bit and not be so excited,” he said. “It’s just great because I see everything now as opposed to just running through everything. I definitely got a lot ways to go, but I’m definitely going to take coaching.”
Neal emerged as a competent complement to Poole, though the Vols will be looking for another back between now and next season.
4. How will the back line look?
Outside of strong safety, where Brent Brewer had an excellent spring, and free safety, where Janzen Jackson will start if he’s able overcome his personal issues and return to UT, the secondary competition will be the hottest through the summer and into fall.
UT signed eight defensive backs in this class, including junior college players Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier and impressive early enrollee Justin Coleman. Prentiss Waggner has the versatility to play anywhere in the secondary and Marsalis Teague has been solid at cornerback, but even their spots aren’t safe.
“To win like we want to win and like we need to win, obviously we’ve got to play better,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said. “To play better, sometimes you’ve got to get better players or the players you’ve got got to play better. That’s what it all boils down to, and I think the guys here have no hard feelings about us recruiting or signing guys, or at least they hadn’t told me. I think everybody realized the better we are as a group, the better the team is on Saturdays.”
5. What about the D-line?
Even after flourishing the latter half of last year, Malik Jackson took another step in becoming UT’s clear-cut best lineman. Former Ooltewah High School star Jacques Smith was also having a fantastic spring before breaking a bone in his foot late in spring, an injury that will sideline him until at least June.
But the story of the spring is 300-pound converted offensive lineman Daniel Hood, who had claimed a starting spot on the defensive side by spring’s end. At end, Willie Bohannon rediscovered his 2009 form and turned it into a starting role, and Marlon Walls demonstrated he’s 100 percent healthy from an Achilles tendon injury that erased his 2010 season.
“The obvious is the obvious in this game,” defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. “I think this summer’s going to be huge for us in terms of what we do in the weight room and the conditioning part, but also on those guys working on their own watching film.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...