KNOXVILLE -- The volatile Volunteers of Tennessee just finished their third spring practice under a third head coach in three years, and a month that began with several questions provided several answers. Some were positive, others were negative, but many questions remain unanswered.
Here are some of the Vols' biggest questions heading into the offseason.
1. Who is their quarterback?
Though offensive line uncertainly isn't too far behind, there is no more pressing question for the Vols than who will take snaps.
Nick Stephens' midspring departure only slightly decreased the questions, leaving junior college transfer Matt Simms and January enrollee Tyler Bray as the only two real candidates to replace Jonathan Crompton.
Simms seemed the more reliable candidate for most of the spring -- even when Stephens was still there -- but Bray performed much better in the Orange and White game. Bray completed 18 of 40 passes for 200 yards, one touchdown and on interceptions, while Simms completed 12 of 26 passes for 125 yards, one touchdowns and three interception.
Simms, son of NFL legend Phil Simms and brother of Tennessee Titans quarterback Chris Simms, downplayed his Orange and White performance. Bray, like all UT freshmen under new coach Derek Dooley, was not made available for comment.
"I think we've got two talented guys who could help our team in different ways," Dooley said. "We'll see where it goes from here, but both of them showed us some good things this spring."
2. Is immediate help on the way?
Some of UT's eight midterm enrollees -- especially Bray, wide receiver Matt Milton and defensive ends Jacques Smith of Ooltewah and Corey Miller -- had spring moments to remember. The rest of the Vols' top-10 recruiting class will arrive this summer, and many will be expected to provide immediate help in key areas.
Defensive tackle signee John Brown, assuming he qualifies academically, should immediately provide help in the main rotation. The Vols probably won't have much choice there.
Though the 6-foot-6 Milton showed plenty of promise this spring, prep All-American Da'Rick Rogers from Calhoun, Ga., will be given an opportunity to add a dynamic target to an already solid pass-catching corps.
Offensive guard Zach Fulton from the Chicago area showed up at the Orange and White game looking better physically than many linemen already with the Vols. His 6-5, 318-pound frame looked fit and ready to put on pads and help that day, but that certainly doesn't mean he'll simply show up and start this season.
Some summer arrivals, especially All-America kicker Michael Palardy, offensive lineman James Stone and big tailback Rajion Neal, could provide immediate help at positions that need it. But it's difficult at this point to say any player not already on campus will bring such a big boost.
3. Is Nick Reveiz solidly a starter?
Reveiz, UT's defensive captain, is an undersized but intangible-heavy middle linebacker who former coordinator Monte Kiffin said was playing at an All-SEC level before tearing an ACL in last September's win over Ohio.
Coaches like to say players don't lose their starting positions with injuries, but the play of converted fullback Austin Johnson -- a close friend of Reveiz -- raised many eyebrows this spring. Johnson got the spring's biggest defensive surprise award, and he's much bigger and more skilled than Reveiz.
This might be classified as a "good problem," especially considering the Mike linebacker's crucial role in any defense, but it still will be something to watch in preseason.
4. Will the special teams be special?
No coach publicly downplays the importance of special teams, but many of those coaches don't back up those words with hours and hours of commitment to the game's third facet.
"Everybody says they're going to focus on special teams," Dooley said. "It's one thing to say you're going to be good on special teams, but it's another to actually commit yourself and your time to making that a reality. It doesn't just happen. You've got to work at it all the time to really be special."
Dooley has a solid track record as a special teams head coach, as does new special teams assistant Erik Russell from Texas Tech.
UT return specialist David Oku liked what he saw this spring.
"We spent two or three or sometimes even four periods (per day) on it," Oku said. "That's a lot for special teams ... but I'm not complaining. I love it, actually."
5. Can they do more with less?
Much of the groundwork Dooley laid this spring was for a team built on doing more with less.
Premiums were put on special teams and discipline. Fifteen-yard penalties in practice were handled immediately and sternly. Basic fundamentals had to be installed and proven before the Vols moved onto other matters, even for incredibly inexperienced spots like the offensive line.
Editor's note: Today ends a three-part spring-practice analysis from University of Tennessee beat writer Wes Rucker. Part three focuses on the unanswered questions heading into summer conditioning drills.
Even Dooley's coordinator hirings have proven capable of doing more with less. He retained Jim Chaney, whose spread offenses at traditionally mediocre Purdue tore up the Big Ten. He brought in Justin Wilcox, who went 49-4 with two undefeated seasons and two BCS game wins as defensive coordinator at Boise State.
Dooley eventually wants UT to rejoin the nation's elite by compiling elite recruiting classes and overpowering opponents, like the Vols did for much of the 1990s. But that's not possible right now, so they've got to find a scrappier formula for immediate success. And that seems like precisely what Dooley is trying to do.
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