TENNESSEE SPRING PREVIEW
With Tennessee less than a week from starting spring practice, Times Free Press staff writer Patrick Brown takes a position-by-position look at the Vols heading into Butch Jones' second spring as the Vols' coach.
• Friday: Quarterbacks
• Saturday: Running backs
• Sunday: Receivers and tight ends
• Monday: Offensive line
• Tuesday: Defensive line/linebackers
• Wednesday: Secondary
• Today: Five questions
KNOXVILLE — This time a year ago in Tennessee's football program, just about everything was new.
The coaching staff, training center, quarterback, practice setup and way of life for the Volunteers were all different just months after a coaching change.
This time around, most of the new actually will be wearing helmets and shoulder pads.
Entering the second spring practice under head coach Butch Jones and his staff, there are more storylines to watch and questions to answers than proven commodities, and that should make for an intriguing month in Knoxville.
"We're going to have a lot of new individuals playing," Jones told the Times Free Press last week, "and a lot of them playing for the first time."
Offensively, Tennessee is hoping to make some progress in identifying its starting quarterback, getting a first look at a handful of newcomers who should add to the arsenal and starting to replace a veteran offensive line.
On defense, the Vols are revamping their defensive line after losing six seniors, welcoming back leader and playmaker Curt Maggitt from a yearlong injury layoff and hoping competition breeds more improvement in the secondary.
"We only have 13 seniors, so we're extremely youthful," Jones said. "The characteristics and qualities that great teams have -- it's continuing to build and elevate just because of the inordinate amount of young players we have in the program. But also, it's invigorating. It's exciting to come to work every day."
1. Do any of the quarterbacks emerge from the pack?
Head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian would prefer that one of their four quarterbacks -- Justin Worley, Josh Dobbs, Riley Ferguson or Nathan Peterman -- stake an obvious claim to the starting position, but it didn't happen last August. While an ongoing competition can keep each of the four candidates sharp and working hard, the Vols wouldn't mind a quick answer to their offseason's biggest question. Worley and Dobbs played the most last season, so both enter this spring as the favorites by default. Tennessee played its best with Worley under center last season, Dobbs showed some nice flashes amid some freshman struggles late last season and Ferguson is the wild card. Do any of them jump up and say, "I'm the starter"?
2. How will the Vols replace Michael Palardy in the kicking game?
In Palardy, Tennessee has lost one player it must replace three times. An up-and-down career ended with a flourish for Palardy, who averaged 44.5 yards on 62 punts and often swung field positions -- placing 33 kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line -- hit 14 of 17 field-goal tries and booted 19 kickoffs for touchbacks. Former walk-on and onetime starting kicker Derrick Brodus and rising redshirt sophomore George Bullock figure to battle for place-kicking duties, but the biggest concern for the Vols is at punter. Matt Darr, now a fifth-year senior, was a highly rated punter out of California, but he's punted just 16 times since 2011. He was wildly inconsistent and not one of Jones's favorites in practice in 2013. Freshman Aaron Medley won't join the mix until the summer.
3. What will Jalen Hurd show in his debut?
The five-star tailback's arrival has long been anticipated, probably since the moment he called Jones during a spring practice and committed to the Vols nearly a year ago. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Hurd is coming off shoulder surgery that ended his 12th-grade season after just one game, but there appear to be no serious concerns about his health. The expectations for Hurd will be through the roof, but that won't keep running backs coach Robert Gillespie from working him hard. As for those expectations, here's this note: Of the 10 running backs named to the SEC's All-Freshman teams in the past five seasons, eight ran for at least 750 yards and five -- Alex Collins (Arkansas) in 2013, Todd Gurley (Georgia) and T.J. Yeldon (Alabama) in 2012, Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) and Michael Dyer (Auburn) in 2010 -- had 1,000-yard freshman seasons. It should help Hurd for Marlin Lane, who's had a solid offseason, to help shoulder the load and provide a veteran presence.
4. What impact do Tennessee's newcomers on offense have?
Hurd is far from the only January enrollee to watch on the offensive side of Haslam Field through the next month. New arrivals at receiver, tight end and offensive line will do more than add competition, since most of them will be needed to start or contribute immediately when the season arrives. At receiver, Josh Malone and Von Pearson figure to get even more opportunities in Pig Howard's absence. Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf already have turned heads at tight end, and the two should be immediate upgrades to a position that was sorely lacking for the Vols last season. Tennessee's first-team tackles come April very well could be junior college transfer Dontavius Blair and freshman Coleman Thomas. The Vols' offense will be younger than it was last season, but will it be better?
5. Who distinguishes themselves on the defensive line?
Tennessee lost every starter on both its offensive and defensive lines, but the bigger question mark is defensively. That's why the Vols signed eight defensive linemen in the 2014 class, but all but two of them won't be on campus until the summer, so it's a crucial time for the returning players. Defensive ends Corey Vereen and Jordan Williams are "leading the pack," line coach Steve Stripling noted on signing day, and it'll be interesting to see what, if anything, 2013 signees Kendal Vickers, Jaylen Miller and Malik Brown show this spring. At tackle, Danny O'Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry have shown flashes and now step into bigger roles, and the Vols didn't add juco transfer Owen Williams for him not to play early. Rising sophomore Jason Carr, a former four-star prospect, is another one to watch.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...