Scenes from the first Spring practice
Spring is nature's time for rebirth and change.
It's no different for Tennessee's football team, which holds its first spring practice this afternoon.
And it would be hard to imagine much more change that faces Tennessee, which won the SEC East and finished 10-4 last season. The Vols will be replacing a veteran quarterback, installing a new offense and solidifying its front seven on defense. Four new offensive coaches will get started in earnest today, with the first of 14 practices leading up to the Orange and White Game on April 19.
Here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on between now and then:
1. New Coaches: The on-field installation of Dave Clawson's offense begins today, but exactly how much will change? Clawson is known for getting the ball to playmakers, and identifying those players will be a key part of spring drills. Of all the story lines, this one will be the most important. And the most scrutinized.
2. Quarterback Change: Jonathan Crompton is the early favorite to become UT's starting quarterback, but his position as heir apparent to Erik Ainge is a little more wide open with the departure of former offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. Crompton has the most experience, but B.J. Coleman is a heady player with a great arm and Nick Stephens has plenty of velocity on his throws. You can bet the starter will be the player who grasps Clawson's offense the best.
3. Linebacker Shuffle: The Vols lose two proven players in middle linebacker Jerod Mayo and strongside linebacker Ryan Karl. Given John Chavis' track record of developing players at linebacker, though, finding solid replacements shouldn't be a huge concern. Ellix Wilson had six tackles in the Outback Bowl, and should be ready to take over the middle. Adam Myers-White has the inside track at Karl's old position, but watch converted safety Nevin McKenzie particularly because of the cover skills needed on the strong side.
4. Stronger Secondary: Heading into last fall, secondary was a major area of concern. Not so this year. Several first-year players - Dennis Rogan, DeAngelo Willingham, Brent Vinson and freshman All-American Eric Berry - grew up quickly. Jonathan Hefney is the only loss, but Demetrice Morley returns. His progress will be closely watched, but this unit as a whole should be a major strength for '08.
5. Crowded Backfield: New running backs coach Stan Drayton inherits a deep backfield with Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer. Mid-term enrollee Taurean Poole has created a buzz as well. Finding enough carries to go around was a problem last year, with Hardesty having the most legitimate gripe. Finding the right mix - and the right rotation - will be a priority.
6. Leadership: Finding new leaders is always a big part of spring practice, but this year's team has a huge void to fill with the loss of Ainge, Eric Young and Mayo. After a run of off-field issues, a new group of senior leaders has begun to emerge. Receiver Josh Briscoe, offensive lineman Ramon Foster and others have helped take the reins, but continued development during spring practice will be key.
7. Mr. Jones: After recovering from a hamstring injury, receiver Gerald Jones became a potent weapon late in the year, recording a touchdown catch against Kentucky and rushing twice for 39 yards against LSU in the SEC championship game and scoring a touchdown against Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl. Jones certainly appears to be the kind of playmaker Clawson wants to get the ball to, but how will his role change in this year's offense?
8. Punter Placement: Dustin Colquitt is among the nation's best punters, but he'll be serving a five-game suspension to start the season. That leaves Chad Cunningham as his likely replacement for a key stretch that includes trips to UCLA and Auburn, as well as a visit from Florida. The Vols can afford fewer yards per punt. What they can't afford is a block that results from not getting the ball away quick enough, something Cunningham has struggled with.
9. Tight Ends: Tennessee is stocked with talent, but short on experience. Chris Brown will be missed chiefly because of his versatility. Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker look to step forward in the rotation, as does David Holbert. Still, it's unclear whether tight end will remain the hybrid, multi-purpose position it was last year under Cutcliffe.
10. Tackles and Ends: Defensive tackle was a hot topic last year, but Dan Williams and Demonte' Bolden both proved they can perform at the SEC level. Now the question becomes depth behind them. Walter Fisher, Chase Nelson and Victor Thomas have plenty to prove. The Vols also lose starters Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds at end, leaving the door wide open for rising senior Robert Ayers (assuming he doesn't rotate in to the tackle spot) and dynamic players like Ben Martin, Chris Donald and Chris Walker.
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.