Beginning today, the calendars of Tennessee football fans turn from post-recruiting analysis to the two most welcome words we know this time of year: spring practice.
Between now and the Orange & White Game on April 18, Lane Kiffin and his superstaff will get their first on-field look at the returning talent, and their first chance to implement the pro-style offense and the Tampa two defense in Knoxville. This is a staff that has been praised for their recruiting prowess; now it's time for their actual coaching and teaching abilities to show themselves.
We won't know the full result of those abilities until the fall, and we really won't be able to make a summary judgement about them for a couple of years at least. But it starts today. Last spring, the warning signs of a Clawfense in trouble first showed up in spring practice, even if we couldn't see it then...and the lack of confidence and lack of execution that plagued the Vols then were ready and waiting for them when fall rolled around.
This spring, Tennessee has been a hot topic only for what the new head coach has said, whether that's been calling Urban Meyer a cheater, "firing" the person responsible for him being delayed 25 minutes at the airport, or suggesting that in-state kids who play for South Carolina have a bright future in the petrol game. But now, it becomes less about words and more about what he can do with the talent he's given. These kids aren't his recruits, but they will make up the bulk of what the Vols can do in 2009.
And it's an interesting mix, as we've seen in each position preview this spring. The majority of these players know what it's like to win an Eastern Division Championship, and they know what it's like to go 5-7 and lose to Wyoming. Now, they've each been given a fresh start and an opportunity...and this spring, both the players and the coaches have to make the most of it.
So as we settle in for five weeks of pads and potential, here are the biggest questions facing the Vols this spring...
Who plays quarterback?
We know it won't be Nick Stephens, at least not right away, as he's sidelined 3-4 weeks with a fractured wrist, and more importantly, sidelined from a critical quarterback derby. That leaves Jonathan Crompton and BJ Coleman alone at the starting line. Crompton's struggles from last season are well documented, while Coleman's claim to fame is a performance in a JV game. It's been reported that Lane Kiffin told recruits that he thought Crompton - not "one of the quarterbacks", but Crompton specifically - could get the job done. The Vols desperately need one of these three guys to step up and take the reigns now, to win the job outright over the next five weeks and be the man under center that this team so desperately needs. How good or how bad all of these kids will look...well, we're about to find out. (For more: Spring Position Battles - Quarterback)
Who starts at linebacker besides Rico McCoy?
Graduation took a heavy toll on the Vols here, and outside of McCoy there's no one with real starting experience to step in. The Vols will have some talented options with incoming freshmen, but right now there are a lot of names out there that have lived in relative Vol obscurity for the last year or two. Can Monte Kiffin find the extra among the ordinary to fill a vital role in the T2? (For more: Spring Position Battles - Linebacker)
Who is the final piece of the puzzle on the offensive line?
The four pieces in place are experienced veterans: Chris Scott, Jacques McClendon, Josh McNeil and Vladimir Richard. The fifth piece - a tackle opposite Scott - is a complete mystery. Whoever fills this void will be someone that has never taken a meaningful snap at the position for the Vols. Whether it's a tight end convert or something else we haven't seen, somebody has to line up there on September 5 against Western Kentucky...who's it gonna be? (For more: Spring Position Battles - Offensive Line)
Who lines up next to Dan Williams at defensive tackle?
The Vols have plenty of options at end and a solid NFL prospect at one tackle in Williams. From there, it'll be a new option in the middle. Maybe it's a converted end, maybe it's someone who hasn't gotten their chance yet...but if the Vols are to continue to play solid defense and implement this new system, it starts up front and it'll have to start with someone stepping up here. (For more: Spring Position Battles - Defensive Line)
How good can this team be?
The most important question that we will likewise not have the answer to until the fall. But you'd better believe that answer starts today. We won't be able to see all of it, the good and the bad, right away. But as much as it's already begun in the weight room and on the recruiting trail, the most important part for the immediate future of this team begins in the next five weeks. The Vols were ranked in the triple digits in every offensive category last season. And they had the nation's 4th best defense. How much life will the new staff breathe into the offense? And how quickly can the defense adapt to losses at key spots and the new system to maintain that level of play?
When Lane Kiffin was hired, he said "It starts today." He promised us we would feel it, and so far he's been right - a better than expected recruiting class, which was the product of an all-star staff. And we've heard it in the words he's said, even if it's taken time to get used to them.
But for all the saying of the right (and wrong) things and the potential for the future, the 2009 Vols will take shape starting today. We won't know how good this team can be in five weeks, but it will be moving in one direction or another. Are we in store for another year with no vacation destination for the holidays and an accepted rebuilding project? Or is Tennessee capable of being truly better than what they showed last season, and of becoming a good football team - not in three years, but now?
It starts today. The answers are six painfully long months away. But today they begin to take shape. For Lane Kiffin, for the players and their fresh starts, for Tennessee...we're fully in this thing together now. And the foundation of this season's roller coaster will be built in the next five weeks.
So strap yourselves in, boys and girls...and let's hope we all enjoy the ride.