KNOXVILLE — Several key positions will be up for grabs when Tennessee opens fall camp on Friday. The Vols start 2012 with as much depth as they have had in the three years coach Derek Dooley has been around, but that depth also creates competition at some positions.
Dooley gave some clues after spring practice as to which positions he would be evaluating the most in the fall.
"Well, it's hard to say,” Dooley said when asked if anybody helped themselves in the position battles during the spring. “The corner position, you know we've had four guys kind of battling it out at corner, so they were covering different guys. I think you look at we're rolling a lot of corners, we're rolling a lot of running backs, we're rolling a lot of defensive lineman; those are probably the three areas where you got a lot of bodies just competing for production time."
The addition of 14 newcomers over the summer further complicates some of the battles for playing time.
With that in mind, here are five positions where the battle for playing time will be the most intriguing:
1. Running back
The key characters: Rajion Neal, Marlin Lane, Devrin Young
Others to watch: Davante Bourque, Alden Hill, Quenshaun Watson
The Vols have to run the ball better than they did in 2011. They finished No. 116 in the nation, averaging just more than 90 yards rushing per game. Dooley will hope that Neal, Lane, Young or some combination of those three and other newcomers will help solve that problem in 2012.
Neal, a junior, has the most experience of the group with 700 all-purpose yards in his two seasons at UT. He played a hybrid running back/wide receiver role in 2011 but will focus only on tailback in 2012. Lane is the leading returning rusher from 2011 with 280 yards, and Young was an ace in the return game last season, but will probably play a larger role on offense in 2012.
The key characters: Prentiss Waggner, Justin Coleman, Marsalis Teague, Eric Gordon
Others to watch: Deion Bonner, Tino Thomas, Vincent Dallas
Waggner should be the starter on one side, but the other spot is open for competition, especially with incumbent starter Izauea Lanier ineligible for the season.
Sophomore Justin Coleman, who started four games in 2011, will probably get the first chance to show what he can do. He will be pushed by Teague, Gordon and newcomers to the position such as Deion Bonner and Tino Thomas.
Vincent Dallas is a wildcard at this spot after playing wide receiver in 2011.
3. Right guard and center
The key characters: Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton
Others to watch: Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson, Marcus Jackson
Bullard and Stone are set to battle for the starting center job, but Crowder isn’t too far behind the two veterans. Stone could also be an option at right guard if playing center doesn’t work out. Fulton enters camp with 17 starts under his belt at right guard.
There’s plenty of experience in this group, but the key will be finding the best five. Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is projected to start at left tackle, Dallas Thomas should get the nod at left guard and veteran Ja’Wuan James is at right tackle. That leaves these two spots as the battles to watch up front.
4. Kicking game
The key characters: Michael Palardy, Matt Darr
Others to watch: George Bullock, Derrick Brodus
Palardy and Darr are the returning starters at kicker and punter respectively, but neither will have a guaranteed job in 2012. Palardy will be pushed at kicker by walk-on Derrick Brodus and true freshman George Bullock.
Bullock could also be a factor in the competition at punter and kickoff specialist. The Vols are in dire need of consistency at these positions after finishing last in punting average and second-to-last in field-goal percentage in the SEC in 2011.
5. Defensive tackle
The key characters: Maurice Couch, Daniel Hood, Daniel McCullers
Others to watch: Allan Carson, Danny O’Brien, Greg Clark
The Vols will run multiple defensive schemes in 2012, but finding consistent play on the defensive interior will be crucial whether they are in a three-man front or a four-man front. Couch and Hood have the most experience with a combined 12 starts in 2012.
Massive newcomer Daniel McCullers will have a chance to contribute if he proves to be in good shape after playing at as much as 400 pounds at Georgia Military College. Carson and Clark have limited experience, but both could provide needed depth.