Derek Dooley couldn’t escape the post-Orange and White game press conference without at least one question that had nothing to do with the previous two hours.
Hey, when a coach vanishes into obscurity months at a time, reporters have to work ahead on future projects.
The question wasn’t a new one, but it provided some fresh context.
Let me paraphrase it: How awesome is it to have freshmen who enroll early?
The answer, paraphrased: Really awesome.
“I wish all 26 guys would have come in mid-year,” Dooley said. “That would have really helped us. But it does, it gives them eight weeks of running and lifting with the team. It gives them four weeks of spring practice. And then two more weeks of lifting ... That’s 14 weeks of training that they’re ahead of the class they’re in.”
Dooley wants early enrollees at every position, but it was most beneficial to have them in places where the Vols needed them most this spring.
“It’s huge,” Dooley said.
With that in mind, now’s as good of a time as ever to rank the six early enrollees according to who will benefit most in 2011 because of their decision to ditch high school for college before the majority of their peers.
1. OL Marcus Jackson
Within the team’s first few practices, Jackson, who is massive, was already working with the first-team at left guard. After the first scrimmage, he was back with the second team, but quickly reclaimed his spot over JerQuari Schofield in time for the Orange and White game. Odds are he’ll be starting when UT opens the season against Montana.
“I knew he could play. It’s just a matter of time,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “The old days you used to take guys and redshirt them and sit a year to learn then play for two or three years. Not here. You come in and you’re a high school senior and you are playing with the first team.
“The progression for him has to get sped up. He has a lot of work to do in the fundamentals but he’s out there playing.”
2. TE Brendan Downs
- Downs didn’t have much hype when he came to UT, but he had a strong spring and will likely benefit from a depleted depth chart. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney loves to use multiple tight ends, and he won’t let inexperience at the No. 2 spot stop him from doing that. Cameron Clear arrives this summer and is probably the long-term answer at the position, but Downs has the clear edge going into this particular season.
“He has that (physicality),” Chaney said. “The interesting part about it, usually they struggle learning how to play physical football. He has that part, which is the best part. Now he’s got to learn the plays and that’s what takes time. He’s a tough, hard-nosed kid that is doing as good as he possibly can.”
3. CB Justin Coleman
- Coleman spent most of the spring humming under the radar, but he broke out in a big way during the Orange and White game. Coleman showed little fear matching up with Justin Hunter, as he deflected two consecutive passes to keep the dynamic playmaker out of the end zone. According to the post-spring depth chart, Coleman is a co-starter on the right side with senior Anthony Anderson. That’s a good place to be with seven new defensive backs arriving this summer.
“I think Justin is going to be a good solid player,” Dooley said. “He’s tough, he’s physical. He’s still light right now, and he doesn’t know the difference between Cover-2 and Cover-3, but that’s OK. He’ll get that.
“He’s got the right kind of intangibles and he’s instinctive. He’s an instinctive player.”
4. WR Vincent Dallas
- Dallas is athletic enough to play all over the field, but UT’s coaches figured he would make the most impact at wide receiver. Dallas was impressive throughout the spring and occasionally was a first-team option when the Vols went three-wide. With DeAnthony Arnett, who is seemingly a perfect fit as a slot receiver, set to arrive in the summer, Dallas got a much-needed head start on the battle for early playing time. He’s also in the mix to return punts.
“The one thing Vincent brings is he’s got a willingness to play well and to do well,” Dooley said. “He’s polished, he was in a good system and he plays with a lot of toughness. Those little intangible qualities give him a leg up early in spring and it’s helped him.”
5. QB Justin Worley
- It can be argued that no one needed this extra set of 15 practices more than Worley, who is learning a completely different style of offense and just a completely different way of doing things. He’s not the star anymore. That’s a tough lesson for some players to learn, but Worley’s got a good head on his shoulders and has been receptive to the criticism levied against him from Dooley and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw. He’s in a safe spot as the team’s third-string quarterback and shouldn’t be considered a threat to Matt Simms for the backup role to Tyler Bray.
“I still feel the same way about Justin as I did when we signed him,” Dooley said. “I think he’s got a great future here. He did some nice things. He’s incredibly intelligent and has a good investment in getting better. He’s gotten a little bit better every day, but he’s got a long way to go to really grasp what we’re doing offensively.
“But he certainly has all the skills you’re looking for to be a good quarterback, and only time will tell.”
6. C Mack Crowder
It doesn’t appear Crowder is in position for much playing time this year, but crazier things have happened. Crowder, who isn’t listed on UT’s post-spring depth chart, looks much bigger than when he arrived and received plenty of snaps in the Orange and White game. He’s apparently done enough to prompt UT’s coaches into moving Darin Gooch out of center and over to right guard, but he’s not quite ready enough to see the field if James Stone goes down with an injury. That’s why Alex Bullard is listed as the backup. But Bullard isn’t guaranteed a hardship waiver from the NCAA, so Crowder could be in better shape than we think.
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble