KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee football Volunteers begin spring practice Monday after a losing season and a wholesale changing of the coaching staff. It can be argued that this is one of the most important springs in program history, particularly as it helps set up Derek Dooley's third season as head coach.
1. How will the players mesh with seven new assistant coaches?
Really, there are eight new assistants when you factor in Darin Hinshaw's transition from quarterbacks to receivers. There's always the feeling-out process with coaching changes, and UT's spring is certain to be filled with plenty of it. The entire defensive staff is new, there's a new special-teams coach and there are new guys coaching running backs and offensive linemen, where the Volunteers struggled mightily last season.
2. How much of new coordinator Sal Sunseri's defense can the Vols get installed in 15 practices?
Refusing to label it, Sunseri and coach Derek Dooley simply (and repeatedly) termed UT's new defense as "multiple." If that's the case, then the Vols had better get a large of chunk of it installed by the spring game next month. Transitioning to a new defense is never a simple task, and how much progress is made in the next four weeks could determine where the Vols are in that process come August.
3. Is it open competition along the offensive line?
There's a new coach in Sam Pittman, and whatever the Vols did up front last season clearly wasn't working, especially in the running game. With six players who started last season, four-fifths of the 2011 signing class at the position and a couple of other players, the competition could get fierce. UT could have a hard time keeping sophomore Antonio "Tiny" Richardson out of the starting five, which could lead to some shuffling.
4. Who's playing where in the defensive front seven?
Every indication is UT is heading to more of a 3-4 base-defense look, which means some players might be switching positions. Former defensive ends Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon are likely destined for outside linebacker. Channing Fugate is going from fullback to linebacker and has the size to fill a spot in the middle.
UT is short on prototype 3-4 defensive ends. There's the mystery of linebacker Herman Lathers' health after that devastating ankle injury last June. Who plays the Jack linebacker spot, the all-important position in any 3-4 defense?
There's no shortage of storylines here.
5. What happens in the secondary?
With all the attention on the front seven, the back end of UT's defense must improve from last season. Safety Brent Brewer's absence as he recovers from ACL surgery could open a door for Byron Moore or redshirt freshman Geraldo Orta alongside Brian Randolph. Prentiss Waggner could be there, or he could play his more natural position at cornerback, where Izauea Lanier, Eric Gordon, Justin Coleman, Marsalis Teague and freshman Tino Thomas are factors.