KNOXVILLE — For the first time since wrapping up their preparation for Kentucky on Nov. 24, 2011, the Vols will be back on the practice field as spring practice begins Monday morning.
Head coach Derek Dooley, along with a staff that includes seven new assistant coaches, will be looking to improve on 2011's 5-7 record as spring drills begin in 2012.
Here’s a complete overview at of Tennessee’s upcoming spring practice schedule, along with some new faces to watch for and three questions the Vols must answer in the coming weeks.
Sun., March 25: Derek Dooley’s pre-spring practice press conference – 2:00 p.m.
1. Mon., March, 26 – 9:00 a.m.
2. Tues., March 27 – 9:00 a.m.
3. Thurs., March 29 – 9:00 a.m.
4. Sat., March 31 – Time TBA
5. Mon., April 2 – 9:00 a.m.
6. Wed., April 4 – 9:00 a.m.
7. Fri., April 6 – 9:00 a.m.
8. Tues., April 10 – 9:00 a.m.
9. Wed., April 11 – 9:00 a.m.
10.Fri., April 13 – 9:00 a.m.
11. Sat., April 14 – Time TBA
12. Tues., April 17 – 9:00 a.m.
13. Wed., April 18 – 9:00 a.m.
14. Thurs., April 19 – 9:00 a.m.
Sat., April 25: Dish Network Orange & White Game — 2:30 p.m
LOCATION AND ACCESS
Practices are scheduled to take place on Haslam Field. In the case of inclement weather, the team will move inside to the indoor practice field located inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center.
All practices are closed to the general public. Media members will be allowed to view a limited portion of each practice. The Dish Network Orange & White Game will be open to the general public. Ticket prices have yet to be announced.
FIVE KEY NEW FACES
1. Defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri
Sunseri joins the Vols’ staff after a three-year stint as Alabama's assistant head coach and linebackers coach. He replaces former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox who now holds the same position at Washington. Sunseri brings extensive knowledge of the SEC and of the 3-4 defensive front to Knoxville.
2. Defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore
Sentimore (6-2, 275) enrolled at Tennessee in January after playing at Gulf Coast Community College in 2011 and Alabama in 2010. The rising redshirt junior brings immediate SEC experience as he appeared in 11 games for the Crimson Tide. His size, experience and familiarity with the 3-4 defense make him an important newcomer for the Vols.
3. Running backs coach Jay Graham
Graham knows a thing or two about running the football for the Vols as he finished his career (1993-1996) No. 6 on the team’s all-time rushing list with 2,609 career yards. He now joins the Vols’ staff after three years of coaching running backs at South Carolina. He will have the challenge of helping fix a run game that finished No. 116 in the nation in 2011.
4. Quarterback Nathan Peterman
Barring injury or some other major setback, the starting quarterback position belongs to rising junior Tyler Bray. That won’t stop freshman Nathan Peterman (6-3, 210), an early enrollee from Fruit Cove, Fla., from taking a stab at the No. 2 spot. Peterman comes in rated as a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and is fresh off a 12-2 senior campaign where he threw for 2,932 yards and 36 touchdowns. He will compete with rising sophomore Justin Worley. Worley had mixed results in his three starts in 2011 as he was 48 of 87 passing for 604 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
5. Offensive line coach Sam Pittman
The former North Carolina associate head coach and offensive line coach takes over the Vols’ offensive line in 2012. Pittman will have the task of fixing glaring struggles in the run game seen in 2011. Though pass protection was solid, the 2011 unit struggled to open holes for the backs as the team finished near the bottom of the country with only 90.1 rushing yards per game.
THREE QUESTIONS THAT NEED TO BE ANSWERED
1. What does the defense look like?
Dooley has called the new defense “multiple," but spring practice will give the first visible clues of what kind of schemes Sunseri will primarily use. His experience with the 3-4 is an indication that the Vols may use that front as their primary look. If that’s the case, it will be interesting to see how personnel is shifted from 2011 to 2012 as the Vols used mainly the 4-3 look under Wilcox.
Though the schemes may be different, many of the faces are the same as Tennessee returns nine of 11 starters from a 2011 unit that finished No. 28 in the nation in total defense.
2. Can they run the ball?
“No” was the answer to that question for much of 2011. There are, however, some reasons for optimism in 2012. The Vols return eight offensive linemen that have started at least one game in their career. Additionally, all three tight ends return along with starting fullback Ben Bartholomew. The challenge will be to turn all that returning experience into better results.
The Vols will have to find improvements in the backfield with a new primary running back as Tauren Poole graduated after rushing for 736 yards on 187 carries in 2011. Rising sophomore Marlin Lane, the team’s leading returning rusher, will likely get the first crack at No. 1 after carrying 75 times for 305 yards in 2011. He will be pushed in the spring by Rajion Neal, Tom Smith, Alden Hill and Devrin Young as freshmen Davonte Bourque and Quenshaun Watson will join the competition in the summer.
3. How is team chemistry?
Frustrations were high and some fingers were pointed as a turbulent 2011 campaign came to an unexpected end with a 10-7 loss at Kentucky in the season finale. Four months and seven new assistant coaches later, spring practice will be a big step for the Vols in rebuilding a team and a program that needs to make significant progress in 2012.
The return of Bray, All-SEC wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers and former freshman All-SEC receiver Justin Hunter gives the Vols a chance to be special offensively in 2012. That talent provides optimism, but there are still questions that must be answered.
How will they deal with a mostly new coaching staff? Who will step up and take a leadership role? How will they respond to disappointments of 2011?
These are the type questions Dooley will hope to have a better answer for by the end of April.