There are positions that have lost more players, and there are positions with fewer question marks.
But there’s no group on Tennessee’s roster more in need of a fresh start and a clean slate than the defensive backs.
UT’s secondary was assigned much of the blame for the Vols’ woeful defense that ranked 107th nationally in 2012.
But the unit returns several veterans and promising youngster, and the secondary could be one of the most intriguing positions to watch when the Vols open spring practice Saturday morning.
First-year coach Butch Jones, new running backs coach Robert Gillespie, two coordinators and three players will meet with the media today to preview the upcoming practices.
The choice of players could provide a clue to the first question on our list — who will get the first shot at quarterback? Offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, linebacker A.J. Johnson and junior quarterback Justin Worley will represent the team today.
The Vols will practice Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday on most weeks, taking a week off for spring break beginning on March 22. The spring season finishes with the annual Orange and White Game on April 20.
“We have so much to do in a relatively short
period of time,” Jones said this week in an interview posted on UT’s website. “We’re going to focus on effort, technique, discipline — basically we’re going to focus on playing winning football.”
1. Will Worley or redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman emerge from spring as the favorite to win UT’s quarterback job?
Worley has two years of sporadic, off-the-bench experience while Peterman has yet to take a college snap. That’s reason enough to give the veteran a slight edge as of today. But Peterman will get every chance to win the job, and his athleticism and familiarity with Jones and his offensive system make this race a tough one to call.
2. Can the secondary shake off a miserable season to reach its potential?
Looking at the roster alone, it’s difficult to see how the secondary could have been so bad a year ago. There are eight defensive backs with starting experience, including five who have started at least 10 games. Additionally, sophomores LaDarrell McNeil showed flashes of talent as true freshmen thrown into a difficult situation in 2012. Are there enough athletes to make Tennessee a top SEC defense? Perhaps not. But a repeat of last year seems difficult to fathom.
3. What personnel changes will UT make to accommodate the return to a 4-3 defense.
The brief, failed experiment with the 3-4 defense in 2012 left some players in limbo between linebacker and defensive end, and the spring could provide some clarity on where defensive coordinator John Jancek plans to play them.
Redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis has already made the move from linebacker to end, and other oversized linebackers could do the same.
4. On the practice fields, how will Jones and his crew differ from Derek Dooley’s staff in coaching style and temperament?
The last few weeks of non-football workouts have convinced players that Jones has a “different side” than the smiling, slogan-quoting visage he shows the public. Jones said both coaches and players will have a different sort of intensity on the football field.
“We’re going to laugh, but when everyone steps on that football field, we flip a switch. It’s on,” Jones said.
5. Which of Tennessee’s young receiver can emerge as a much-needed playmaker?
The loss of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson would hurt any team, but the lack of immediate replacements makes Tennessee’s receiver situation more dire.
The most experienced player, Vincent Dallas, has bounced around between receiver and defensive back. Alton “Pig” Howard has only a year of experience under his belt, but he showed big-play ability as a freshman. Beyond that, receivers coach Zach Azzanni will find receivers by trial and error.
The inexperience may be daunting for fans, but it’s great news for the receivers, who have never had a better time to land a starting job.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.