published Friday, April 18th, 2014

Updates on Tennessee Vols' five questions

Jalen Hurd manages to escape Geraldo Orta during the the spring Orange and White game Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Jalen Hurd manages to escape Geraldo Orta during the the spring Orange and White game Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

REVIEWING TENNESSEE'S SPRING PRACTICE

The Times Free Press takes a look back at the five questions from the start of Vols' spring practice.

1. Do any of the quarterbacks emerge from the pack?

Tennessee didn't leave spring practice with a starter or even a pecking order, but it became clear toward the end of the spring that Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson had separated themselves from Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman.

The steady Worley, who quarterbacked the Vols in a near-upset of Georgia and an upset of South Carolina last season, was 11-of-13 for 151 yards and a score with a 49-yard run in the spring game, while Ferguson struggled with an interception, a couple of three-and-outs and three sacks.

Dobbs had his best practice in the spring game, when he threw for 199 yards and three scores and ran 59 yards for another, and it's hard to say the sophomore didn't help himself with that performance.

Ferguson may have the best arm of the group, but the redshirt freshman is also the most inexperienced, and he and Worley bring different strengths to the position.

"We're just focusing on being consistent in our performance," Worley said. "We're focusing on what we can control and what we need to work on as individuals. It's just taking ownership of the offense, leading the offensive line, getting receivers lined up, doing the little things that come with being the quarterback -- and that goes for each and every one of us."

2. How will the Vols replace Michael Palardy in the kicking game?

At kicker, George Bullock enters the summer penciled in as the starter on field goals and kickoffs, but incoming freshman Aaron Medley will get his chance at the job. Bullock, a rising redshirt sophomore, hit a 41-yard field goal in the spring game to finish an up-and-down spring. The Knoxville native struggled at the start of spring before improving his consistency.

The spring game was a microcosm of sorts for Matt Darr. The former highly rated high school punter had three punts of at least 50 yards and a 36-yarder. The rising senior certainly has a strong leg, but he's prone to inconsistency. The job is likely his to lose.

3. What will Jalen Hurd show in his debut?

The five-star recruit turned freshman tailback flashed both his talent and his youth throughout the spring. The 6-foot-3, 221-pounder showed he could pick up the tough yards and had a nice burst and elusiveness beyond the line of scrimmage. He also fumbled in a couple of practices.

Following Hurd's 93-yard performance in the spring game, Jones said he would be a "special player" for the Vols.

"Jalen continues to progress," the coach said. "I thought he had some hard-earned yards today. I thought he dropped his pad level, but again, it's him understanding, too, that football rewards those who are in great shape. Our running backs have to be able to carry the ball three, four, five, six, seven times in a row.

"Can you have a 30-yard gain, be the first up with the first-up mentality [we have] and then have another 30-yard gain? I thought there was a couple times he didn't pick his heels up and he went down on a shoe tackle, and in this conference you can't have that."

4. What impact do Tennessee's newcomers on offense have?

It became clear very early on it would be a big impact.

At receiver, junior college transfer Von Pearson flashed his talent early, and freshman Josh Malone had a big game last Saturday. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said freshman tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm surprised even him, and the Vols long have been high on the duo. Coleman Thomas took every first-team repetition at right tackle.

"It's impressive," Worley said. "Speaking for myself, I know I enrolled early, and my first spring was a struggle. It's hard to get adjusted to what the coaches are asking you and the rigorous schedule you're put through. Having [Hurd and Malone] show out like they've done on top of Coleman Thomas and some of these other guys, it's impressive to see how they've adjusted."

5. Who distinguishes themselves on the defensive line?

The Vols moved Curt Maggitt into more of a defensive end role, and end Corey Vereen earned Tennessee's "most improved" award. Junior college transfer defensive tackle Owen Williams showed up a few times, and conditioning remains his biggest obstacle. Coaches are content with Jordan Williams, who can play end and tackle, and Danny O'Brien.

Freshman Dimarya Mixon, who sat out last season after failing to qualify at Nebraska, got plenty of work, and as spring wore on he popped up on enough plays to catch defensive line coach Steve Stripling's attention.

"I'm really excited about Mixon's future," he said. "Right now he's playing inside -- he's probably a little bit undersized -- but he's going to get really big. He's one of those kids that just jumps out. Mixon's got great athletic ability. He's just got to grow up."

Still, Jones made it clear the Vols will need some of the freshman linemen arriving this summer to be ready to contribute immediately, and he's made that message clear to those incoming players.

"If they don't understand that message, then they're not listening," Jones said. "They hear it all the time, not only from me, but our players. They've come around to a lot of practices, and most of them we're at the spring game today. I know they understand and I know they're looking forward to it."

KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee football program finished its second spring practice under Butch Jones last weekend, and the Volunteers now move into the next phase of the offseason.

For players, it's finishing the spring semester, reviewing practices and preparing for the summer program.

For the assistant coaches, it began with the spring recruiting evaluation period this week, which features plenty of travel.

Once the summer months -- and the rest of Tennessee's touted 2014 recruiting class -- arrive, the Vols will start what Jones called a "critical" phase of development for this season's team.

"This is where I really believe teams are born, in the summer months, with your leadership," the coach said after last Saturday's Orange and White Game. "It becomes a player-led football team.

"However, there is a different dynamic this year in the landscape of college football relative to the new rule of two hours a week that you're able to spend with your players in a classroom setting, but it's deducted from the weight room. That will be a little different dynamic.

"This has to be the best summer program we have ever had as a coaching staff together," he added, "and [strength coaches] Dave Lawson and Mike Szerszen and our entire strength staff will do a great job. We have to get a lot of youngsters ready to compete to play winning football come August."

Jones and his staff spent most of spring doing that, too.

Many of the 14 early enrollees made impacts for Tennessee's offense, and newcomers have the Vols believing they've upgraded at receiver and tight end.

Yet Tennessee leaves spring with questions about its entirely new offensive line, and Jones conceded his biggest concern was up front with a defensive line breaking in new starters and still searching for playmakers. The quarterback situation is only slightly clearer. Tennessee's secondary looked shaky in the spring game.

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com

about Patrick Brown...

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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