Vols Set to Launch New Era
By Matt Smith
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There was no shortage of disharmony inside the Tennessee program last season, so this spring gives the coaches an opportunity to reunite the team.
While most of the country “springs forward” on Saturday night, earlier in the day, the Tennessee football program will also look to move forward from a forgettable five-year period in which the Volunteers went just 28-34.
New head coach Butch Jones has attempted to calm the waters for a frustrated fanbase since being named to the position on Dec. 6 by appearing in public forums throughout the state which shares a nickname with the university. With Vanderbilt’s resurgence in the mid-state and Ole Miss beginning to build a proverbial fence around Memphis, it was imperative for Jones to win back some of the lost goodwill in the state.
Of course, actions speak louder than words. On Saturday, those actions begin to take place on the practice fields in Knoxville. Jones kicked off the spring season on Friday, offering some perspective on what needs to be settled this spring leading up to the team’s annual Orange and White Game in Neyland Stadium on Apr. 20.
“The big thing for spring practice is developing our overall standard for how we want to play,” Jones said. “We're looking for individuals to consistently compete at a championship level. By the end of practice 15, I want to know what we own in all three phases.”
The Vols’ biggest losses come on offense, where quarterback Tyler Bray and the team’s four leading receivers must be replaced. Junior Justin Worley, who made three starts in 2011 while Bray was injured, is the incumbent. Redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman will be given a chance to compete for the job as well. 2013 signees Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson do not arrive until the summer.
“I've been encouraged by everything I've seen out of our quarterback position so far,” Jones said. “Our quarterback battle will be an ongoing process through the summer months. We'll end spring with a depth chart. But all that does is tell us who lines up first when fall camp arrives.”
A strong offensive line can be a new coach’s best friend. Jones has that luxury, led by a pair of future NFL tackles in Ja’Wuan James and Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. However, Jones reserved judgment until after spring practice.
"Everyone wants to crown our offensive line. We haven't seen anything yet ... We've seen them run around in shorts. The thing I’m concerned about is depth. Who’s No. 6 and No. 7?”
With the shift from a pro-style offense to a spread and from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, there will be some players in new positions this spring. The speedy Devrin Young shifts to slot wide receiver from running back, with Justin King also vacating the backfield as he moves to tight end from fullback. Defensively, Jacques Smith moves back to defensive end after a year at linebacker in the 3-4, and Brent Brewer moves closer to the line of scrimmage from strong safety to linebacker.
Although the offense will be young at the skill positions, Tennessee does return nine starters on defense. While the numbers weren’t pretty last year in the failed shift to the 3-4, the Vols are lacking neither experience nor talent defensively.
“I'll tell you this,” Jones said, “It's very comforting knowing we have a lot of individuals that have played good football for us in the past.”
One of those nine starters back, junior linebacker Curt Maggitt, will miss the spring while continuing his recovery from a torn ACL suffered last November in a game against Missouri. No other key players are expected to miss the spring.
“[Maggitt] will get mental reps,” Jones said. “He needs to continue to develop his body.”
In a conference which places a premium on the ground game, Tennessee needs to improve its rushing offense, which failed to reach 100 yards in three of eight SEC games during last year’s 5-7 season. Jones feels the combination of senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane, who ran for 708 and 658 yards respectively in 2012, can spark a revitalization of the Vols running game.
“Their games complement each other and I've been encouraged by what I've seen from those two,” Jones said.
With a schedule that includes consecutive games at Oregon and at Florida before the end of September, there will be no easing into the Jones era. Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, all projected top 10 teams in the preseason, are on the October slate, before things ease up a bit in November. The Volunteers likely won’t contend for the SEC East this year, but Jones hopes to establish a mentality that championships are the expectation each and every season.
“We talk about being a champion. It's how you represent yourself. It's how you think. It's a thought process."
Despite not facing an opponent for almost six more months, Tennessee’s long road back begins on Saturday. There was no shortage of disharmony inside the program last season, so this spring gives the coaches an opportunity to reunite the team.
“When the whistle blows and we step out on the green I want them to compete,” Jones said, “but when practice ends, we are still one team.”