Five questions for Tennessee's preseason practice

Five questions for Tennessee's preseason practice

July 31st, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Tennessee is just a couple of days away from starting its second season under coach Butch Jones. As the Volunteers get set to open preseason practice on Friday night, here are five questions they must answer ahead of the 2014 season opener against Utah State in 31 days.

1. How many newcomers will the Vols need to play significant roles, and how many of them can work themselves into that position?

When Tennessee finished spring practice, nearly all 14 of the January enrollees from the touted 2014 recruiting class were in positions to either start or contribute, and that was before the rest of the bunch arrived on campus. The Vols could have first-year players at both offensive tackles spots and multiple freshmen popping up in the skill spots on offense. Newcomers will add to the competition on the defensive line and start in the secondary.

"Everybody knows what they have to do," freshman linebacker Dillon Bates said. "Everybody knows that they have to go every day and go as hard as we can, stick late in meetings, stick late in the weight room. A bunch of us guys in the freshman class, we all kind of stick together and we all kind of push each other."

2. Which quarterback seizes control of the competition to be Tennessee's starter?

Justin Worley appears to be the guy to beat heading into August, but the senior will have to go out and prove it to fend off sophomore Josh Dobbs and win the job.

Even after being benched, reclaiming his job and throwing three interceptions against South Alabama early last season, Worley quarterbacked the Vols to a near upset of Georgia and an upset of South Carolina before injury derailed his season.

He performed well at the Manning Passing Academy this summer and should benefit from a more talented, although young, group at the skill positions.

3. What options emerge as the Vols try to find difference-makers to shore up the defensive line?

In 2013, Tennessee finished last in the SEC in sacks for the second consecutive season and was only one of two teams in the conference to allow more than 200 rushing yards per game.

Now the Vols are breaking in new players up front in what could be the team's biggest concern.

Corey Vereen and Curt Maggitt figure to be the starting defensive ends in the majority of Tennessee's defensive packages, but everything else up front appears to be up for grabs, particularly at defensive tackle. Converted end Jordan Williams, Danny O'Brien and Trevarris Saulsberry have experience, but now step into bigger roles.

Junior college transfer Owen Williams and former Nebraska signee Dimarya Mixon had their moments in spring practice and will enter August in the mix at tackle.

Which of Tennessee's freshman linemen can make an immediate impact at a spot where it's perhaps the most difficult to do so? Derek Barnett, Dewayne Hendrix and Michael Sawyers top the list of candidates.

4. How soon does Tennessee's revamped offensive line become a cohesive group, and will there be a dropoff from last season's unit?

Tennessee also is replacing its entire offensive line from last season, but there appears to be fewer question marks in terms of who's playing where on offense than defense.

The interior trio of center Mack Crowder and guards Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson are fourth-year players who have waited their turn behind the now-departed predecessors. Crowder was the line's sixth man last year, Jackson played significant snaps in 2011 and 2012 and Kerbyson emerged to nab a first-string spot from promising sophomore Dylan Wiesman.

The question marks come at both tackle spots -- where the Vols will start a freshman Coleman Thomas on the right side and either JuCo transfer Dontavius Blair or former walk-on Jacob Gilliam -- and depth beyond the top seven.

5. What do the Vols do to solidify their special teams?

Michael Palardy masterfully handled all three of Tennessee's kicking duties in 2013 to the point that coach Butch Jones dubbed him the team's MVP. With him gone, the Vols are revamping at those overlooked positions, too.

Matt Darr must demonstrate his leg strength more consistently than he has in the past to fend off freshman Troy Waites, a preferred walk-on the Vols plucked from Mississippi, while some combination of redshirt sophomore George Bullock, freshman Aaron Medley and Derrick Brodus will battle for the placekicking jobs.

Devrin Young, now a senior, remains a fixture for the Vols' return game, but he'll have some new competition from some freshmen as Tennessee looks to add a spark in the return game.