KNOXVILLE – Tennessee concluded its spring practice with the Orange team topping the White squad by a final of 17-14 in the annual Orange and White Game on Saturday.
Still, there are many questions to be answered as the Vols head into summer workouts, but some positions are ahead of others moving forward. There was a noticeable emphasis on the run game all spring as evidenced by the improved rushing statistics in the two scrimmages and in Saturday’s spring game. Nooga.com breaks down how each offensive position stands heading into the offseason:
Quarterbacks: B -
Junior Tyler Bray started the spring with a rough first scrimmage (13-of-32, 142 yards, 1 interception, 1 touchdown), but rebounded for an efficient Orange and White Game (14-of-26, 157 yards, 1 touchdown). Bray drew consistent praised from teammates and coaches for his improved maturity and leadership throughout spring. Sophomore Justin Worley was sharp (17-of-26) on Saturday, but did throw one inexplicable interception that proved he still has some maturing to do. Freshman Nathan Peterman threw the ball well in practice before his spring was cut short with a dislocated finger.
Quotable: “He is a lot more patient, he’s understanding the game, he’s understanding the level of intensity it takes every day to be good,” – coach Derek Dooley on Bray
Running backs/fullbacks: B
Nobody ran away with the starting job, but three backs—Marlin Lane, Devrin Young and Rajion Neal—made a strong case they can contribute in 2012. After a slow start to the spring, Lane was the star of the Orange and White Game with nine carries for 106 yards and two touchdowns, albeit against the second-team defense. Neal and Young split carries for the starting offense Saturday and both finished with a 4.9 yards-per-carry average for the game. Neal showed breakaway speed at times, but also was fumble-prone all spring. Young had one of the best springs on the entire team. He averaged 8.6 yards per offensive touch in the first two scrimmages and followed that up with a White team-high 124 all-purpose yards on Saturday.
The fullback position wasn’t a heavy emphasis in the spring. Senior Ben Bartholomew is the man at the top of the depth chart, but all three tight ends got a crack lining up in the backfield in a hybrid-type role.
Quotable: "I know Coach Dooley has giant plans for him on special teams, there's no question about that. On the offensive side, he's played exceptionally well for us at tailback and we're pleased to have him out there.” – offensive coordinator Jim Chaney on Young
Wide receivers: B
Though he was held out Saturday as a precaution, the most positive news for this group was the return of former freshman All-SEC performer Justin Hunter from a torn ACL. Hunter wore a non-contact jersey all spring, but showed some of the athleticism and ball skills that made him a rising star before his injury. Da’Rick Rogers got the spring camp off to a rocky start when he was briefly separated from the team to handle off-the-field issues. He dealt with them well enough in Dooley’s eyes and returned to have a productive spring capped off by five catches for 74 yards Saturday. Freshman Cody Blanc and sophomore walk-on Jacob Carter were the two surprises of the bunch. Carter led all receivers with 14 catches for 182 yards in the three game situations while Blanc hauled in three catches for 38 yards Saturday. Veterans Vincent Dallas and Zach Rogers were steady though not spectacular in the spring.
Quotable: “Da’Rick had a great spring, I’m proud of him. His attitude was awesome. You know he had that one little hiccup, but other than I think his biggest improvement is just his commitment in (blocking for) the run game.” – Dooley on Rogers’ attitude.
Offensive line/tight ends: A
They’ll have to prove it in the trenches in the fall, but the offensive line showed significant progress in the spring, especially in the run game. The rebuilt left side of the line featuring Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson at tackle and Dallas Thomas at guard drew rave reviews. Alex Bullard has the center job secure for now and Ja’Wuan James is locked in at right tackle. The battle to watch moving forward will be at right guard between James Stone and Zach Fulton. Stone got the starting nod when Fulton missed the first week of spring practice with a stress fracture in his foot. Fulton returned, but never fully won the spot back. Sophomore Marcus Jackson fell down the ranks to second team after starting five games in 2011. Jackson, along with sophomore Kyler Kerbyson, Alan Posey and Mack Crowder are poised to make it the deepest unit the Vols have had in years.
Tight end Mychal Rivera had a good spring with 12 catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns in his three game opportunities. Cameron Clear is as physically impressive as anybody on the team at 6-foot-6, 280 pounds. Brendan Downs continues to be a consistent pass catcher with four grabs for 51 yards Saturday. Freshman Justin Meredith was held out all spring with a hamstring injury.
Quotable: “We talk about it every day. Any great team that you look back on at UT—the base of that team was the offensive line.” – Richardson on the line stepping up as leaders