KNOXVILLE -- Derek Dooley has had one month to learn as much as he can about his University of Tennessee football team.
How well those evaluations translate Saturday night when the Volunteers begin the season against Montana under the bright lights of Neyland Stadium, the coach just doesn't know.
"I think we've learned a lot about their talent level, and we know about their makeup, especially the upperclassmen," Dooley said last week. "What we don't know is all the guys who didn't start last year -- which is pretty much everybody on the team -- for 12 games is how they'll handle being a starting player in this league and can they manage for 12 games.
"Everybody out there, can they go 12 games and compete at the level that they're capable of? I don't know. Time will tell."
The Vols have felt good about their personnel packages for nearly two weeks now, though the secondary was shaken up by star safety Janzen Jackson's dismissal last week. Those assessments likely will change, however, once the Vols have game video to evaluate.
With the roster loaded with freshmen and sophomores, Dooley and his staff are going to have more questions than real answers for a couple of games. UT has upgraded the talent and added depth in some spots, but the youth and inexperience will lead to plenty of mistakes to go with the flashes of raw ability and potential.
Dooley spoke entering August about the uncertainty accompanying the excitement with the Vols' newcomers. More than a dozen of them will play significant roles right from the start, which certainly will test the coaches' patience.
"What you feel good about is their abilities, the skill sets that they have, the size, the speed, the athleticism," Dooley said. "They're engaged, they want to do well, so that gives you a hope and a confidence that they're going to be fine in time. But you also know they're going to go out there and make a ton of mistakes. They made them out there [in Wednesday night's mock game], a lot of the freshmen.
"Simple things, because you get in the lights and it's different. I'm going to have to be a patient coach to keep encouraging them and to keep them to develop and get them to play their best. That's what we're going to have to do."
As the calendar flips from August to September and the preseason becomes the season, Dooley still has much to learn.
WHAT WE LEARNED THIS MONTH
1. The Vols again will rely on a handful of true freshmen at key spots.
Tailback Marlin Lane and outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson have created buzz from the moment they arrived on UT's campus in March, and they have continued that feeling this month. They're just three of the true freshmen UT will rely on heavily, and the Vols need them and others to be really good really soon.
Maggitt and Johnson have been the stories of camp with their size and playmaking ability, and Maggitt could be a force in UT's pass rush as a rushing defensive end during certain situations. Just about every coach on UT's staff has had difficulty containing his excitement when those two's names are brought up.
"Picking [the defense] up as quick as they have has been impressive, and [linebacker coach] Pete Sirmon's done an awesome job working with those guys," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "When they step out on the field, they don't act like freshmen, which is a good thing because when you go and play the teams we're going to play, they could care less if you're a freshman or a senior."
In Lane, the Vols have a complementary back to Tauren Poole who adds a dimension to the offense that was missing last season.
"I think Marlin has a calm about him that most freshmen don't have," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said.
2. The offense is still very much a work in progress, and that starts with quarterback Tyler Bray.
As has been a typical progression, UT's offense bounced back from a poor first-scrimmage performance with better play in the second scrimmage. Chaney said last week his offense had made the normal progress as he expected, and with eight sophomores in starting roles, forward strides come with maturity.
Bray is an example. He initiated a conversation with Chaney after one particularly poor practice. Chaney didn't consider the subject particularly substantial, but the meeting was a positive sign, especially as Bray improved his command and management of the offense throughout camp.
"The quarterback needs to play well; then everybody else plays a little bit better," Chaney said. "I think he accepts coaching a little bit better; I think he understands the role of being a quarterback a little bit better. All the normal growth from that position, not so much when you say, 'Set, hut,' but all the stuff that takes place prior to that."
Beyond Bray, the Vols need to develop a consistent running game. After earning a reputation as a big-play offense during the latter half of last season, the Vols were unusually efficient this month, showing the ability to sustain longer drives.
3. Despite adding bodies, the secondary will look much different without Janzen Jackson.
The dismissal of the star junior safety was a big blow late in camp for the Vols, who were experimenting with Jackson as a nickel back with the added depth and versatility.
Now Prentiss Waggner slides back to safety, where he played half of last year and during spring practice, and junior Marsalis Teague and freshman Justin Coleman get the first shots at locking down cornerback spots with big-hitting Brent Brewer locked in at strong safety.
"Prentiss is a very instinctual guy," Wilcox said. "He's smart; he understands how offenses work; he understands how route distribution works; he knows what we're trying to do. He uses all that. He's got good length. He's not the biggest, heaviest guy in the world, but he just knows that he's got good instincts for the game."
The Vols didn't have enough healthy bodies at times last year to play five- or six-defensive-back sets, and though that's not a problem this year, Jackson will be hard to replace.
"It hurts us back there, there's no mistaking that," head coach Derek Dooley said. "We'll see if they can hold up, and if they can't we'll try to do something else."
4. What's behind receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera is a concern.
Oft-injured Zach Rogers and freshmen Vincent Dallas and DeAnthony Arnett are the Vols' receiving options behind the talented sophomore duo of Hunter and Calhoun's Rogers. Zach Rogers was having a solid camp and had taken hold of the third receiver spot, but a deep triceps bruise has put him on the shelf the last two weeks.
The Vols moved Anthony Anderson and Naz Oliver to receiver from cornerback, and Anderson could help. Arnett has slid into that spot as UT's slot receiver, and though the Vols like those two freshmen, Dooley said there's a "big dropoff" behind Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers.
"I always worry about that," Chaney said. "It depends on how often you've got to put three or four wideouts in a game at one time. If you have to do that a lot, I'm concerned. If we play in a pro-style offense all the time, then we're probably all right."
It's more precarious behind Rivera. Freshmen Brendan Downs and Cameron Clear have struggled to grasp UT's complex tight end position.
"It's very encouraging in what they can do, their skill sets, how they've been able to sustain here in camp, but they've got a long way to go," Dooley said. "They make a million mental errors, and it's not their fault, really. It's just hard."
5. There's continuity on the offensive line, but the defensive-line rotation could go eight or nine deep.
Alex Bullard locked down the starting left guard spot after UT shifted him there following the first scrimmage, and the other four spots on a promising offensive line were set before camp started. The versatility of Bullard, experience of left tackle Dallas Thomas and talent of sophomores Ja'Wuan James, Zach Fulton and James Stone have created plenty of optimism with that group.
"I see a lot of improvement in the offensive line as a whole," Poole said. "I'm just excited to run behind the whole offensive line. I wish you [reporters] could see how much they've improved, how much they've matured -- it's a great thing for me to see. I know the coaches love it as well."
It's a different story up front defensively, where the substitution patterns will be interesting to watch. Malik Jackson and Jacques Smith likely won't leave the field much, but the personnel packages change depending on the situation. The Vols have different guys who can play the run and others who are better pass-rushers.
"It's hard to go through a game with four D-linemen," Wilcox said. "It's just unheard of anymore. You've got to have guys to rotate. We're still probably not going to be the biggest D-line out there, and that's OK. We've got to play very technical, and we've got to know exactly what we're doing. If we do that, we've got a shot."
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 ...
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