Spring football is in the air, and with our Spring Practice Primers the Eye On College Football Blog gets you up to speed on what to look for on campuses around the country this spring. Today we look at Tennessee.
Spring Practice Started: March 26.
Spring Game: April 21
Returning starters: 10 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 specialists. (This is tied for the second-highest number of starters in the country, per Phil Steele.)
Three Things To Look For:
1. Is there any hope for the running game? In Derek Dooley's first season, 2010, his Vols finished an awful 105th in FBS rushing, averaging just 3.48 yards per-carry. But at least things couldn't get worse in 2011, not with nearly the entire offensive line returning and Tauren Poole poised for a breakout senior season at tailback, right? Right? No, wrong. Stunningly wrong, in fact; the Vols slipped to 115th and averaged a cover-your-eyes awful 2.76 yards per-attempt, the third-worst mark in the country. With that kind of production on the ground vs. the usual brutal SEC schedule, it's almost a surprise the Vols even made it to 5-7.
And it maybe is a surprise that after those kinds of numbers, Jim Chaney was held over for another season as the Volunteers' offensive coordinator. But there's no arguing that the pieces are in place for a dramatic step forward, no matter who's calling the plays; all five starting offensive linemen return, including rising junior Ja'Wuan James and rising senior Dallas Thomas as bookend tackles, and an intriguing one-two punch at tailback in Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Assuming Tyler Bray and the impressive Vol receiving corps can stay healthy, the running game should also benefit from the stretched field that comes with one of the league's better downfield passing attacks, too. But as 2011 proved, it's one thing to talk about why the Vol ground game should succeed; it's quite another for it to actually do so.
2. Is the front seven ready for the 3-4? On the one hand, Dooley's selection of Alabama linebackers coach Sal Sunseri to replace departed defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox makes a ton of sense; the Crimson Tide are coming off one of the greatest season-long defensive performances in NCAA history, and Sunseri promises to bring to Knoxville the same scheme that made it happen. On the other, the experiences of Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa and, more recently, Todd Grantham at Georgia suggests that the kinks in the switch from the 4-3 to the more pro-style 3-4 can take a season or two to iron out. Take Maurice Couch: though at 6'2", 305 pounds, the rising junior is a near-cinch to start as the Vols' nose tackle, his 1.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles-for-loss (third on the team) in 2011 suggest Couch might have more utility as a slashing, penetrating tackle in the mold of the recently graduated Malik Jackson. No matter, though; as the nose, Couch's first, second, and third goals will be the simply tie up blockers in the trenches and let the likes of sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson do the actual tackling.
It's those kinds of adjustments that the Vols will have to prove this spring that they're making and making quickly; Mark Richt may have had the juice to ride out a disappointing season while his new defense learned the 3-4 ropes, but Dooley most assuredly does not.
3. Can everyone stay healthy? Though no one in Knoxville will want to throw it around as an excuse, facts are facts: no team in the SEC was harder hit by injuries in 2011 than the Volunteers, who saw potential all-SEC receiver Justin Hunter miss the entire conference season with a torn ACL, linebacker Herman Lathers sit out the entire year with a broken ankle, Bray miss several crucial games with a broken thumb, etc. Though the Vols have more experience and more depth than at any time of Dooley's brief tenure, the overall talent level still hasn't developed to the point where the team can sustain losses like those and still expect to compete in the SEC. Getting out of spring with the first string intact (or extremely close to it) is imperative.
To check in on the rest of the SEC and other BCS conferences, check out the Spring Practice Schedule.Keep up with the latest college football news from around the country. From the opening kick of the year all the way through the offseason, CBSSports.com has you covered with this daily newsletter. View a preview.
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