KNOXVILLE — Tennessee has hit the halfway point of its 14 NCAA-allotted spring practice times.
With less than two weeks remaining before the Orange and White Game on April 21, Nooga.com is handing out mid-spring progress reports for each position group based on observations from practice, comments from coaches and players and statistics from Friday’s scrimmage.
The Vols’ three scholarship quarterbacks — Tyler Bray, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman — have all drawn praise from various coaches and teammates. Bray seems to be taking on an increased leadership role after admitting to being “stupid” at times in 2011. Though focus centered on the run game in Friday’s scrimmage, the quarterbacks were slightly off. They only completed 28 of 60 passes (46.7 percent) for 265 yards, one interception and one touchdown.
Quotable: “We’re just not as polished right now.” — head coach Derek Dooley on the passing game after Friday’s scrimmage.
Running backs/fullbacks: B
No individual running back has separated himself from the pack, but Dooley said Rajion Neal and Devrin Young showed some explosive ability in the scrimmage. Though he only had 8 yards in the scrimmage, Marlin Lane said early in the spring that he is back to 100-percent after dealing with a lingering knee injury. Rising senior Ben Bartholomew has the fullback job locked down and has been working some at tight end as well.
Quotable: “You just have to find ways to create a little air for them because when there's some air, they can go.” – Dooley on the backs after the scrimmage.
Wide receivers: C+
On the positive side, Justin Hunter has looked healthy as he continues his non-contact work in the midst of his recovery from a torn ACL. Da’Rick Rogers’ brief absence from the team was unsettling, but he has drawn positive reviews from coaches and teammates about his work ethic when present. Outside of Rogers, rising senior Zach Rogers is the only healthy receiver that has more than three career catches. The lack of depth was shown in the scrimmage as walk-on Jacob Carter and early-enrollee freshman Cody Blanc tied for the position lead in receptions (four). This unit certainly has a chance to be special in 2012, but it’s been a tough spring in some regards.
Quotable: “We talk about trying to be the best in the country all the time." – wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw.
Offensive line/tight ends: A-
There’s a long way to go, but some very positive signs have emerged from the offensive line this spring. Moving veteran Dallas Thomas to left guard and inserting rising sophomore left tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson at left tackle seems to have paid early dividends in the run game. Returning starter Zach Fulton (foot) should work his way back into practice this week to further bolster a group that helped the backs average 4.9 rush yards per carry in the scrimmage. Mychal Rivera has been consistent at tight end while rising sophomore Cameron Clear has great size and impressive athleticism for his 280-pound frame.
Quotable: “I think we made a good move there.” – Dooley on Thomas and Richardson.
Defensive line: B
Adjusting to a new two-gap scheme, this unit has one of the steepest learning curves. Darrington Sentimore, Maurice Couch and Marlon Walls have stood out and look ready to contribute immediately. The key moving forward is to integrate new additions and find SEC talent among the cluster of Steven Fowlkes, Trevarris Saulsberry, Jordan Williams, Trent Taylor, Greg Clark, Joseph Ayres and Allan Carson.
Quotable: “I’m not ready to champion individual guys yet, but I like the effort we’ve gotten.” – defensive line coach John Palermo.
‘Jack’ linebacker Jacques Smith and inside linebacker A.J. Johnson both seem at home in the Vols’ new defensive scheme. Curt Maggitt has been working inside along with Herman Lathers, UT’s second-leading tackler, in 2010 who is recovering from a broken ankle that held him out of 2011. Those four may be the most talented, but the Vols will need more depth than that. Greg King, Willie Bohannon, John Propst, Dontavis Sapp, Raiques Crump and potentially Brent Brewer, who had worked with linebackers and safeties, are all pushing for playing time.
Quotable: “I think in the long run it will be better for me.” – rising sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson on playing more 3-4.
The Vols have far more options and experience in the secondary. The mystery of the spring is figuring out the best combination of four or five to have on the field. Rising junior Byron Moore seems to be making an early move up the depth chart at safety. Rising senior Prentiss Waggner, despite his limited work due to a shoulder injury, is locked in at one cornerback spot. The Vols could go in a variety of directions with the second and third corner spots. Marsalis Teague, Izauea Lanier, Justin Coleman and Eric Gordon have all shown flashes in practice. Rising sophomore safety Brian Randolph continues to impress and should have his name written in pen as a starter at this point.
"We have a lot of guys that now have confidence because they are used to playing so they will not be nervous and that is a huge advantage for us.” – Randolph on the increased experience in the secondary.