KNOXVILLE – Coming off a 5-7 campaign and needing to replace several key pieces, Tennessee begins spring practice on Friday.
Nooga.com will have regular practice updates and other stories throughout the duration of spring practice, and to preview, we’ll take a look at both sides of the ball this week, starting with the offense.
Returning: Justin Worley (SR); Josh Dobbs (SO); Nathan Peterman (RS SO); Riley Ferguson (RS FR)
Spring arrivals: None
Storylines: Much like last year, QB might be the biggest storyline of not only the spring, but possibly the summer and the fall. Can UT find its guy? Worley clearly had his ups and downs in 2013, but the Vols also played their best football of the season with him at the helm against Georgia and South Carolina. Dobbs tookover after a season-ending injury to Worley and also was inconsistent, though he did show some leadership skills and athleticism that coach Butch Jones loves at the position. Ferguson, limited by a leg injury during stretches of ’13, never got his chance on the field, but he might have the best pure arm talent of the group, so he’ll be one of the ones watch.
Depth chart prediction: Jones says this is truly an open competition and that’s hard to disagree with. Peterman is probably a few steps behind the other three, but there are arguments for Worley, Dobbs or Ferguson being the best option at this point. Like last year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Vols break for the summer without a starter named.
Returning: Marlin Lane (SR); Alden Hill (RS SO); Deanthonie Summerhill (RS SR); Justus Pickett (RS JR)
Spring arrivals: Jalen Hurd (FR)
Storylines: Hurd is the huge story. He’s coming off shoulder surgery in the fall, but should be able to get some work in this spring. The 5-star recruit is considered by many to be UT’s running back of the future. The Vols need plenty of help in the present as well. He’ll begin his competition for playing time with Lane, the team’s leading returning rusher, this spring and should get a jump on the other newcomers arriving this summer. It alsocould be somewhat of a final chance for players such as Hill, Pickett and Summerhill to show that they can contribute before all the freshmen arrive. Pickett, in particular, is one to keep an eye on. He sat out 2013 after transferring from Maryland and will be eligible to play this year.
Depth chart prediction: Lane is the presumptive starter unless he’s knocked off, in all likelihood, by one of the freshmen. If he’s 1A right now, pencil Hurd in as 1B this spring. The others will be battling for those third and fourth spots for now.
Returning: Marquez North (SO); Pig Howard (JR); Jason Croom (RS SO); Devrin Young (SR); Johnathon Johnson (JR); Jacob Carter (RS SR); Cody Blanc (JR); Josh Smith (SO); Drae Bowles (RS SO); Ryan Jenkins (RS FR)
Spring arrivals: Josh Malone (FR); Von Pearson (RS JR); Neiko Creamer* (FR) *May try multiple positions this spring
Storylines: Arguably the weakest spot on the team in 2013 has a chance to become a strength in 2014 and beyond. That’s in part due to improvement by the players already on the roster and also thanks to the influx of talent at the position, most notably Pearson and Malone. North is an emerging go-to threat who could be amongthe best in the SEC next year. Who will join him on the field? Howard was a dependable option last year and Croom, Young, Johnson and Smith all had at least a couple big plays in 2013. All eyes will be on the newcomers, however. Malone and Pearson were among the top WRs from high school and junior college, respectively, and both could push for a starting job next season.
Depth chart prediction: It’s hard to nail down a starting three or four at this point. North will be one. Howard, Croom, Malone and Pearson are all reasonable guesses for some of the other spots. Expect the spring to be more about building depth and developing a rotation of around eight players instead of figuring out exactly who the starters are.
Returning: Brendan Downs (SR); A.J. Branisel (SO); Woody Quinn (SR); Alex Ellis (RS JR); (FB/TE) Joe Stocstill (RS SO)
Spring arrivals: Ethan Wolf (FR); Daniel Helm (FR)
Storylines: Branisel is out for the spring after tearing his ACL late last season. That leaves Downs as the only experienced TE returning and, though he has starting experience, the Vols need an upgrade at this spot. The spotlight will be on the two freshmen, Wolf and Helm, who come in highly touted and could push for immediate playing time. Ellis is somewhat of a wildcard in this group. The walk-on was pushing for playing time in last year’s fall camp before missing the season with an injury. He’ll get another shot this spring.
Depth chart prediction: Downs is the de facto starter going into spring. But Helm, a natural pass catcher, and Wolf, an accomplished blocker, both bring skillsets that can provide instant help. Those three have the best shot at playing time for now.
Returning: Marcus Jackson (RS JR); Mack Crowder (RS JR); Kyler Kerbyson (RS JR); Marques Pair (RS SR); Dylan Wiesman (SO); Austin Sanders (RS FR); Brett Kendrick (RS FR); Jacob Gilliam (RS SR)
Spring arrivals: Dontavius Blair (JR); Ray Raulerson (FR); Coleman Thomas (FR)
Storylines: Behind quarterback, this might be the unit with the most eyes on it. The Vols must replace all five starters from 2013 with a small number of scholarship players who are short on experience. A few patient veterans such as Kerbyson and Crowder should finally get their shot. Underclassmen such as Wiesman, Sandersand Kendrick will also be tested. And the newcomers, particularly Blair and Thomas, will be thrown right into the battle for starting roles as well.
Depth chart prediction: Going from left to right: Blair, Jackson, Crowder, Wiesman and Kerbyson is the best guess for a starting five. Kerbyson is one of several players with position versatility, however, and he could get a look at guard, possibly opening up a spot for Thomas or Pair. There will be a lot of movement and a lot of different looks for this unit as the Vols look for the right balance of chemistry and talent up front.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga