With one practice remaining before Saturday's annual spring game, optimism is still in full bloom around Vol Nation. Lane Kiffin and the Super Staff have said all the right things, they've said them in new and interesting ways that many in Big Orange Country have found refreshing, and with every positive practice report the memories of 2008 move further and further into the rear view.
But on Saturday, somewhere between 20,000-80,000 of us will stop listening and start watching. It will, for the majority, be our first look at the '09 Vols...and there's nothing more powerful than a first impression.
Apperances can still be deceiving - we learned that in the '08 edition of the O&W. But it was the strength of that first impression, combined with our uncanny ability to be positive about something just because it's new, that helped fuel the legend of the Clawfense right up until kickoff of the UCLA game.
This time around, you'll see less smoke and fewer mirrors, and a more accurate representation of what the '09 Vols will actually look like (minus the impact freshmen). And we know about Eric Berry. We know, to a lesser but still fairly certain degree, about Montario Hardesty, Dan Williams and a handful of other returning starters.
But there are several Vols, both returning starters and new faces in the rotation, who we'll get a first or fresh look at on Saturday. There are position battles still up for grabs, spots on the second team still unaccounted for, and question marks that still hover over several players' heads.
So on Saturday, when we see it with our own eyes for the first time, these are the names we'll be watching most closely - the players and position battles with something to prove and something to show. If it all goes well with these guys, optimism will continue to flourish. But if there are struggles with these names on Saturday, a little doubt may creep into the raw confidence that the Kiffin Coaching Chimera has built. The Vols won't win any games that count on Saturday...but they can go a long way in either direction when it comes to confidence. Will Saturday's performance give us reasons to remember 2008? Or will it give us reasons to look forward to 2009?
The best answers will come from these ten to watch:
10. K Daniel Lincoln
I firmly believe that the two most confident guys on your football team need to be your quarterback and your kicker. As a freshman, Danny Boy appeared to have all of that and then some at the start of 2007, hitting 16 of his first 18 field goal attempts (with one of his misses being from 50+).
But Lincoln finished the '07 season just 5 of 11, including a costly miss at Kentucky, an 0-for-2 performance in the SEC Championship Game including a chip shot, and another miss in the Outback Bowl.
Last year, Lincoln started 1 of 4 in the UCLA game, erasing the goodwill from his game-tying kick that sent it to overtime by missing an easier kick that ended the game. Two of those attempts were 50+, and it was goodbye confidence from there.
He missed chippies against NIU and Mississippi State, went 1 for 3 against Alabama, and finished the year only 10 of 18.
Lincoln is the only proven commodity at kicker, and has had an up and down spring. Odds are they won't even be trying to block kicks on Saturday - though who knows with this staff - but either way, it's important for the kicker to end spring on a good note, knock home the few kicks he'll be asked to hit, and carry that confidence towards the fall.
9. DBs Art Evans, CJ Fleming, Stephaun Raines, Prentiss Wagner and Rod Wilks
Coming into spring practice, secondary was considered to be the greatest strength of the team. In recruiting, secondary was considered to be the greatest strength of the class (at least the week of signing day). So all of the names you see up there were considered by most to be non-factors for the Vols, same as they have been throughout their Tennessee careers to this point.
However, a lot has changed. Eric Berry is supposed to be a "non-contact" participant (though if #14 sneaks his way into a play or two on Saturday I wouldn't be surprised). Brent Vinson is out with shoulder surgery. And Demetrice Morley is no longer with the team.
Vinson and Berry will be back this fall, and the impact freshmen like Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, Eric Gordon and Marsalis Teague are still coming. But now, there's a window of opportunity for these guys - even if it's small - to play their way into the rotation, or at least stay in the conversation for playing time when fall gets here. Dennis Rogan was considered by many to be the penciled-in starter at the other corner spot opposite Vinson, but is his spot even safe?. These guys will get the bulk of the work with the ones on Saturday - who's going to make the most of it?
8. RB Tauren Poole
Montario Hardesty's carries have been limited thus far in scrimmages, simply because the coaching staff feels very comfortable with him as the #1 option. Bryce Brown and David Oku are coming.
But with Lennon Creer off the team, Tauren Poole has made the most of his opportunity with the bulk of the carries and the productivity this spring. Can Poole play himself into the #2 role for this fall? I think there's a lot of assumption that those extra carries are just going to be given to the number one all-purpose back and the number one overall player in recruiting once they get here. But if Poole gets the bulk of the carries again on Saturday, can he continue to show that he might be deserving of backup duty once the real games begin?
7. LB Nick Reveiz
On paper, everything about Reveiz' situation suggested that he was going to fall into obscurity with the new administration and only be heard from again on special teams. But in spite of his size, and the way I and several others referred to him as a "Fulmer-type player" who would no longer be rewarded for loyalty...guess who's atop the depth chart at middle linebacker?
Again, this is a kid I want to see. I know what I've read and I know he continues to say the right things...I want to see it. This kid is a great story and I've love for him to win the starting job in the middle, because I think this is one we could all really get behind if he continues to play well. Can he continue to take advantage of what's been great defensive line play/offensive line exploitation and turn in a good performance on Saturday, to further cement himself as the best option at MLB this fall?
6. DE Chris Walker
This one isn't a question of playing time or even necessarily an unproven commodity, though Walker never started under Fulmer. But when the coaching staff repeatedly calls him "unblockable", and Bruce Feldman today used the words "explosive" and "dominant" in describing him...if Walker is to become the next great Tennessee defensive lineman, I'd love to see it on Saturday.
Even if we don't, I'm still gonna trust the coaches on this one and assume that he's going to be great, because his praises this spring have been that good thus far...but I'd love to see this kid turn in a couple of sacks and TFLs just to throw some extra validity on my dreams of him chasing down Tim Tebow.
5. Cs Josh McNeil & Cody Sullins
One of the most interesting position battles this spring was an unexpected one. McNeil has been a starter throughout his entire Tennessee career, and was expected to provide senior leadership, consistency, etc. Instead, as the offensive line has continued to struggle to pass protect, McNeil has found himself in a battle with Cody Sullins for the starting role.
Sullins actually started over McNeil in both of the Vols' previous scrimmages this spring, though whether that's been for motivational purposes or an actual talent and play differential is still unclear. This is a battle I expect to continue into the fall, but both of them have an opportunity to impress on Saturday. At center, that'll start with no mishandled snaps to any of the quarterbacks. And going up against Dan Williams, I'm sure it's been no picnic all spring. But this battle is a testament to Kiffin's plan to put the best players on the field, even if it may come at the expense of a three year starter.
4. WRs Quintin Hancock, Denarius Moore, Austin Rogers & Brandon Warren
Gerald Jones is really the only proven playmaker for the Vols at wide receiver, and even that's somewhat of a stretch. We know Nu'Keese Richardson is coming in this fall, but Tennessee is still going to need one of these returning players to step up.
They do different things, really. Moore was the deep threat last season, with four catches of 40+ yards, and could play that role again this season, with no one else really blowing anyone away with their speed. Hancock has been the most consistent this spring, earning the starting spot next to Jones in the last scrimmage. Austin Rogers may have been considered by some to be one of those guys, like Nick Reveiz, that we would never hear from again on a meaningful down. But he impressed, especially early, this spring. All three caught three passes in the last scrimmage.
And then there's Brandon Warren, who moved from tight end and struggled with all facets of the adjustment, apparently. But he's come on in the last week, continues to receive praise for his potential at the position from the coaches, and could be that big, tall threat this passing offense really lacks.
The struggles in pass protection have limited the numbers this spring, and should do so again on Saturday - don't expect anybody to turn in 7 catches for 110 yards. But if all of these guys continue to find their niche in this offense - and especially if one of them could separate from the other three and become that go-to second option behind Jones - both the quarterbacks and the offensive line would benefit from it. Who will impress us the most on Saturday?
3. OTs Aaron Douglas, Jarrod Shaw & Dallas Thomas
We think Chris Scott will continue to lock down one tackle position, but the ongoing battle to find that second starter, combined with the shoddy pass protection the line as a whole has provided this spring, makes this the most important position battle of the spring (and likely the fall, when JerQuari Schofield joins the mix).
Douglas probably still has the most potential, but is still learning the position after his transition from tight end. Shaw has seen action with the ones as well, but no one has fully separated themselves yet. The names are completely inexperienced, yet this battle isn't for backup duty - one of these guys will almost certainly be the starter opposite Scott against Western Kentucky, and if not, it'll be a true freshman stepping in there. Continued progression with the zone blocking scheme on run plays, as well as any improvement with pass protection, will be a welcome sight from this group on Saturday.
2. DT Montori Hughes
With Wes Brown still learning tackle and now sidelined with a knee injury, it's becoming more likely by the day that Hughes will be the starter against WKU on September 5. We know Dan Williams is going to cause problems next to him, we know about Walker and Ben Martin off the edge, and we know Tennessee's offensive line struggles have all helped Hughes this spring. But this is everyone's first real look at the kid; I'd love to see something great from him on Saturday.
Hughes is the best example of a name that was completely off the radar six weeks ago now stepping up into a potential spotlight. That's both to the credit of the Fulmer administration for signing the kid that many others didn't want and clearly undervalued, and to the Kiffin Chimera for coaching him up and getting him in position to succeed. If what we've heard of Hughes thus far is right...Tennessee's defensive line in 2009 could be downright frightening. Saturday will be our first chance to see it in action, and to see Hughes specifically.
1. QB Jonathan Crompton
Fan confidence still starts and ends with the quarterback, and our relationshp with this guy has been rocky at best. When spring began, many pulled for the BJ Coleman story to turn out well, and many (including myself) thought that Nick Stephens would be the one to ultimately win the job (before his wrist injury).
But Crompton appears firmly entrenched as the man as spring draws to a close. And it's a good thing to have a firm starter at QB going into the summer and fall, that'll certainly help the receivers.
Crompton's '08 struggles need not be further documented. His performance this spring hasn't been one of overly impressive numbers, but simple survival: QBs took eight sacks in the last scrimmage, but there's apparently no time like the present for Crompton to learn greater pocket presence and how to deal with pressure. His interception numbers have decreased since practice began, the coaching staff speaks of his command of the huddle, and we'd all like to believe that there is still some talent that resides underneath that #8 jersey.
Look, Crompton isn't going to throw for 300 yards on Saturday. If he does, I'd be alarmed. What I'm looking for is more from the Casey Clausen/Val Kilmer School of Quarterbacking: ice cold, no mistakes. He's going to be pressured, and he's going to get hit. Can he maintain poise? Can he throw it away when he needs to? How much are we going to see of the dumps to the backs and tight ends on Saturday, or will we see the receivers get involved?
Crompton doesn't need to play great. He just needs to not be awful. It sounds weird, but really, it's true.
If #8 comes out and fires four interceptions and takes a bunch of sacks - and really, that's not an impossible or even improbable outcome - we're going to get more than nervous. If that happens, how many boos do you think you'll hear? And that's not good for anyone at this stage of the game with a new coaching staff and a new offense.
But if Crompton just runs the offense, plays relatively mistake-free, and makes just a handful of good plays - just enough to keep us interested - we're going to feel a lot better about all of this.
And of course, ultimately how the fans feel is meaningless to wins and losses. I think Crompton's confidence has been as rebuilt as it can be without having played a real game. I think he knows he's the man for this year. And I think even if he throws four picks, he'll still be the man on September 5, and the coaches will continue to work with him.
Remember, we didn't fully believe in Erik Ainge again after the 2006 Orange & White Game. But it only took two and a half quarters against Cal to make us forget all about 2005.
Crompton can't win the crowd on Saturday. But he can keep making progress. And in spring practice, that's what matters most.
What about you? Which of these players are you most looking forward to seeing, and did we leave anyone out? What are you most excited about for Saturday?