KNOXVILLE — After a long, eight-month wait, Tennessee officially begins practice for its 2012 season on Friday. The Vols have a lot to improve on after a 5-7 season in 2011, but they also have a lot of optimism because of players returning from injury, the arrival of some key newcomers and improved depth and experience.
Here’s a look at the who, where, when and what to look for as the Vols prepare to start camp:
Who: Pretty much the entire team is expected to report at close to 100-percent health. Linebacker Christian Harris won’t be participating after tearing his ACL in spring practice. Cornerback Izauea Lanier is still with the team but is ineligible for 2012. Defensive lineman Corey Miller is expected to re-join the team after missing the spring due to academic concerns.
All 14 of the newcomers who enrolled over the summer should be cleared to practice.
Wide receiver Justin Hunter, defensive tackle Daniel Hood, safety Brent Brewer and quarterback Nathan Peterman are among the players who were limited in the spring but should be fine this fall.
Where: The Vols are splitting fall camp between their practice facility in Knoxville and Milligan College, located in Johnson City, Tenn.
• Thursday, Aug. 2: Preseason press conference at 5:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 3: Practices at 2:15 and 7:45 p.m.
• Saturday, Aug. 4: Practices at 2:15 and 7:45 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 5: Practices at 2:15 & 7:45 p.m.
• Monday, Aug. 6: Practice at 2:45 p.m.
• Tuesday, Aug. 7: Practice at 2:45 p.m.
• Wednesday, Aug. 8: Practices at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
• Thursday, Aug. 9: Practice at 2:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 10: Practice at 2:30 p.m.
• Saturday, Aug. 11: Scrimmage at 3:30 p.m.
• Monday, Aug. 13: Practice at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
• Tuesday, Aug. 14: Practice at 2:30 p.m.
• Wednesday, Aug. 15: Practices at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
(return to Knoxville)
• Thursday, Aug. 16: Practice at 6:30 p.m.
• Friday, Aug. 17: Scrimmage at 6:00 p.m.
• Saturday, Aug. 18: Team photo/media day at 4:00 p.m.
• Sunday, Aug. 19: Practice at 2:30 p.m.
• Monday, Aug. 20: Practice at 2:30 p.m.
What to look for: All practices and scrimmages are closed to the public, but here are some of the main storylines to follow via interviews and media coverage of camp:
1. The Vols’ explosive potential on offense
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was the architect at Purdue when the Boilermakers had Drew Brees at quarterback in 1999. Chaney would spread the field with three or four receivers on almost every play. Brees ended the season with almost 4,000 yards passing and 25 touchdown passes.
The Vols will look to be a little more balanced, but that’s the type of explosiveness they are capable of in 2012. They have two of the top receivers in the league in Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Quarterback Tyler Bray hasn’t played a full season yet, but he’s shown great potential at times.
Add in an explosive junior college receiver in Cordarrelle Patterson, an experienced tight end in Mychal Rivera and a maturing offensive line, and the Vols have a chance to have their most explosive offense in years.
2. The new-look defense
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri joins the Vols after spending three years as the associate head coach/linebackers coach at Alabama. He brings with him a new-look defense that will incorporate multiple fronts, including the 3-4, the 4-3 and a lot of nickel (4-2-5). Dooley and Sunseri have also vowed to have a more aggressive and physical approach in 2012. The defense wasn’t too bad in 2011 — it actually finished in the top30 nationally statistically speaking.
The problem was that it wilted late in games and struggled to match up to the most physical teams such as Alabama, LSU and South Carolina. Many of the principal players are back on defense, but it will be interesting to see how quickly they master the new system.
3. Offensive line/the run game
The Vols return eight lettermen on the offensive line, seven of whom have starting experience. Nobody is questioning the experience of this bunch. The question is if they can improve their run blocking as a group. It wasn’t pretty in 2011. The Vols finished No. 116 in the nation in rushing yards per game (90.1), and even finished two games (Florida and Georgia) with negative rushing yardage.
The line will also have a new primary back to block for. Tauren Poole has moved on after a disappointing senior season, and there are three primary candidates to replace him. Junior Rajion Neal is making the move back to full-time running back after splitting time between running back and receiver last season. Sophomore Marlin Lane is the team’s leading returning rusher coming off 75 carries for 280 yards in 2011.
The small, but shifty, sophomore Devrin Young, mostly known for his work as a return specialist, will also get a look in the backfield. Finding at least some success in the running game will be essential for the Vols’ offense to live up to its total potential in 2012.