5 concerns for the University of Tennessee football team

5 concerns for the University of Tennessee football team

August 2nd, 2011 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley talks about the upcoming season during a media luncheon Monday at Neyland Stadium. The Vols' first fall practice is Tuesday and the team opens the season Sept. 3 against Montana. Photo by Paul Efird/News Sentinel

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KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee football team begins preseason camp today. Here are five key questions facing the Volunteers in their second season under coach Derek Dooley.

1. What's the limit on sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray's potential?

Bray showed late last season that he has a big arm, the ability to make explosive plays and moxie in the pocket. Now that his secret is out, he'll have to be more cerebral to handle the better defenses he'll face, and he also will have to shoulder part of the leadership load on the Vols' sophomore-heavy offense.

"You earn the respect to be a leader, to me, based on your level of commitment to the program," Dooley said Monday. "People have a hard time respecting somebody if they don't see them committed to doing everything they can do to help us win. I think he's proving that to our team. It's a work in progress."

Ultimately, though, whether the Vols' offense will be just good or become great largely rests on Bray's brain, eyes and right arm.

2. How much help will the backs, receivers and line give Bray?

The Vols need a consistent running game that defenses must respect. There's no shortage of optimism with the offensive line, which has gone from major weakness to a strength in a year, and returning 1,000-yard tailback Tauren Poole backed up by Rajion Neal and freshmen Marlin Lane and Tom Smith.

The bigger question might be at receiver. Bray trusted Denarius Moore and Gerald Jones and tight end Luke Stocker would make plays for him last year and admitted the senior trio made him look really good at times. Talented sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers step into Jones' and Moore's roles and Mychal Rivera fills Stocker's shoes, but behind them, someone -- perhaps DeAnthony Arnett or fellow freshman Vincent Dallas -- has to step up as a reliable target.

3. How good are Maurice Couch, Byron Moore and A.J. Johnson?

The junior college transfer duo of Couch, a defensive tackle, and Moore, a former Southern Cal safety who will play cornerback at UT, bring with them plenty of expectations to contribute immediately. Johnson, a freshman linebacker, was one of the Vols' most touted signees. Together, the trio is a talent upgrade at each level of UT's defense. How quickly they are ready to become significant contributors remains to be seen, however.

4. What returning players step up on defense?

The list of sure things on the Vols' defense is short: Jackson and safeties Brent Brewer and Janzen Jackson, the Vols' most talented defender who was away from football for five months for personal reasons. Cornerbacks Marsalis Teague and Prentiss Waggner were solid last season, and end Jacques Smith is talented enough. Every other spot, though, could be up for grabs during camp between inexperienced players, and the front seven is a major concern.

Said Dooley: "This is going to be a very important training camp to evaluate our personnel across the board."

5. How will defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox handle what he has to work with?

Given the Vols' front-seven concerns and the wealth of bodies in the secondary -- UT signed seven defensive backs in February to add to a group that returned intact from last year -- the Vols might make heavy use of their nickel package with five defensive backs.

"About 50 percent of the game is nickel now," Dooley said. "That helps you when you're deep in the secondary. The question is can we play nickel more on regular downs? I don't know. Time's going to tell."

The coaching staff used spring to cross-train players at both line and all three linebacker positions as much as possible in hopes of creating more versatility in a group lacking quality depth.