With the start of the football season still several months away, spring practice is often better for raising questions than answering them.
Tennessee’s spring was no exception.
The Vols’ six-week, 15-practice season ended Saturday in front of an announced crowd of 61,076 at the Orange and White Game (replay 9 p.m. Monday, ESPNU) that left first-year coach Butch Jones feeling pleased about the program’s direction.
“This football team is as eager and as willing as any football team that I have ever coached,” he said.
While that doesn’t mean the Vols are ready for the season opener on Aug. 31, “I think we’re right on schedule,” Jones said.
Six weeks ago, we looked at five pressing questions for UT heading into spring ball. Some have been answered, but as is often the case, most are unresolved.
1. Will junior Justin Worley or redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman emerge from spring as the favorite to win UT’s quarterback job?
It’s safe to say Worley will enter the summer as No. 1 on the unofficial depth chart, but it’s far too early to call him a lock — or even a heavy favorite — to win the job outright in August.
The spring game demonstrated some of the limitations Peterman contended with this spring — a lackluster receiving corps and tackling restrictions on quarterbacks didn’t allow him to demonstrate his running ability. Worley appeared to make fewer mistakes and was more in command of the offense. The good news is the two competitors appear to get along and are committed to being co-leaders of the offense this summer.
2. Can the secondary shake off a miserable season to reach its potential?
The answer to this question won’t be known until well into the season, but there were encouraging signs this spring. The health and growth of Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman were promising. LaDarrell McNeil followed up a nice freshman year with a solid spring. Junior college newcomer Riyahd Jones must be more consistent, but he’s laid a foundation to win a starting job in August.
3. What personnel changes will UT make to accommodate the return to a 4-3 defense?
Early in camp, coaches moved Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen down to the “Leo” end, while safety Brent Brewer shifted to linebacker. The final question could be answered when Curt Maggitt is back to full health and coaches decide whether to place him at linebacker or end. A case could be made for both positions. UT’s line and linebacking corps both have surprising depth for a unit that struggled as much as it did in 2012.
4. On the practice fields, how will Jones and his crew differ from Derek Dooley’s staff in coaching style and temperament?
The media — and former players who stopped by practice — saw more of practice in the spring than at any time in the Dooley era. It’s not a stretch to say that Jones might have one of the most generous viewing policies in the SEC.
The openness showcased a fun, up-tempo style that utilized music and occasional sound effects. Jones’ commentary from the microphone — sometimes critical, sometimes humorous — was a constant presence in practice.
5. Which of Tennessee’s young receivers can emerge as a much-needed playmaker?
Coaches asked this question throughout the spring and never came up with a satisfactory answer. The closest might be redshirt freshman Jason Croom, although his spring ended prematurely with a hamstring injury. Alton “Pig” Howard remains an option if he can clean up some drops and mental mistakes. Converted running back Devrin Young shouldn’t be counted out, either. The transition to receiver hasn’t always been smooth, but he’s a hard worker and a quick learner with tremendous speed.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.