KNOXVILLE – It was certainly a spring full of change for Tennessee’s offense.
A unit comprised of playmakers in 2012 was depleted by departures to the NFL and the 15 spring practice sessions over the past month were the first steps in rebuilding that group.
There are still plenty of questions. There’s no official starting quarterback. A lot of key players missed time with injuries. Several potential contributors won’t be on campus until the summer. There’s still a lot of work to do.
“The growth that a football team can make from May to the end of July can be monumental, if they buy in and work exceptionally hard,” coach Butch Jones said on Saturday.
With that in mind, here’s a detailed, player-by-player look at what we did learn about the offense this spring.
Justin Worley: Leaves spring as the de facto starter, even though Jones hasn’t officially named one. Worked with the first unit all spring, made some good throws and showed more athleticism than some realized he had.
Nathan Peterman: Led an injury-depleted second offense for much of the spring. Made a few big plays in practices/scrimmages and proved to be a potential factor in the quarterback race.
Rajion Neal: Stills needs to be a more physical runner, but, as of now, remains the starter in the backfield. Could be in line for a lot of carries in 2013 with depth issues behind him.
Marlin Lane: Was enjoying a solid start to spring before missing the last two weeks for unspecified disciplinary issues. Jones left the door open for him to return at some point, but there’s no official word on that yet.
Alden Hill: One of the pleasant surprises of the spring, the redshirt freshman ran for over 100 yards in the Orange and White game. Nobody is confusing him for an elite SEC runner at this point, but he could develop into a solid backup, especially if Lane doesn’t return.
Tom Smith: Was virtually a non-factor despite depth issues at his position.
Jacob Carter: Was running with the starters before an ankle injury ended his spring prematurely. The staff seemed to like his consistency before he went down. Jones mentioned him as a possibility at punt returner as well.
Jason Croom: He’s a little raw, but showed potential to emerge as a big-time receiver if he continues his improvement. At 6-5, 230 pounds, he looks like a tight end, but runs like a receiver.
Cody Blanc: A long touchdown reception in the Orange and White game capped a great overall effort from the sophomore this spring. He should be a major factor in the fall.
Drae Bowles: Despite plenty of opportunities, the former four-star recruit never stepped up and showed that he can be a potential starter this spring. He’s got the size and athleticism to be a contributor, he just needs to continue his development.
Paul Harris: The true freshman showed promise early before going down with a hamstring issue. The coaches made him wear No. 91 instead of his traditional No. 1 for a few days to encourage him to play faster, but the good-hearted ribbing from the staff is a sign that he has potential.
Vincent Dallas: Had a solid, though not spectacular, spring. Has good hands and is one of the more polished receivers on the roster right now. He’s in good position to earn playing time in the fall.
Pig Howard: Proved to be a versatile slot receiver who can also take a handoff and help in the return game. The slot receiver spot is crucial in Jones’ offense and Howard should get plenty of touches.
Devrin Young: He’s a tiny target (generously listed at 5-8), but the converted running back came a long way this spring. He’s not going to go out and win many jump balls, but Jones and Bajakian will find ways to get him the ball. Also remains the favorite to start at punt returner.
Sam Cranford: Receivers coach Zach Azzanni praised Cranford, a walk-on, as the most consistent receiver on the roster currently. The return of injured players, along with the arrival of some talented freshmen, could push him down the depth chart, but he clearly had a great spring.
Brendan Downs: Worked as the starter before missing the final week with an injury. The most experienced returner at the position will see the field a lot if he can stay healthy.
Justin Meredith: He just can’t stay healthy. After missing all of his freshman season with a hamstring issue, he sat out a vast majority of spring as well. It’s hard to get a feel for what he can do with him rarely on the field.
Justin King: He’s the wild card of the group. He’s played everything from linebacker to fullback to wildcat quarterback in Knoxville and now is working at tight end. He’s got the athleticism to be a potential matchup problem for defenses.
Joseph Ayres: Another position journeyman, Ayres will spend his final season in Knoxville as a blocking tight end. He got some chances this spring with Downs and Meredith out.
Alex Ellis: He has a crowded position group to battle with, but the walk-on tight end had a good spring. He’ll have a chance to contribute on special teams next season.
Ja’Wuan James: Emerged as a leader on the offensive line and showed some versatility, playing both left and right tackle. Has a chance to be among the nation’s best tackles next year.
Zach Fulton: Had a solid spring playing mostly guard, but could be a tackle in an emergency situation. He’s another NFL prospect on the offensive line.
James Stone: The senior was pushed by Mack Crowder, but will likely retain his spot as the starting center. He worked some at guard as well.
Alex Bullard: Bullard again proved to be the most versatile on the line. He can play all five spots, but worked mostly at left guard and left tackle this spring. He’s the odds-on favorite to start at left guard at this point.
Tiny Richardson: The junior did not participate after an offseason shoulder surgery. That shouldn’t affect his status as the starting left tackle.
Marcus Jackson: He’ll battle for the starting left guard position. If Bullard beats him out, he’ll be the sixth man – an important role for an offensive line.
Mack Crowder: Had one of the best springs on the entire offense. The redshirt sophomore emerged as somebody who could fill in in case of injury and is now penciled in as a likely starter in 2014.
Kyler Kerbyson: Continued his development and leaves spring as a solid backup option. Can also play all five spots. He’ll be an important reserve in 2013 and a likely starter beyond that.
Alan Posey: A lack of depth made him an automatic second-teamer, but coach Don Mahoney said he has a “ways to go.” The Vols will need him in 2014, so he needs to progress quickly.
Marques Pair: The redshirt junior got some work at left tackle in Richardson’s spot. Mahoney also said he’s not quite in position to contribute now, but he’s running out of time to get to that point.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga