One week from today, the moving-on process in Knoxville and in the hearts of Vols fans everywhere can really get a healthy kick forward. That's when Tennessee puts last year's 5-7 football debacle squarely in the rear view and finally gets onto the football field for spring practice.
The offseason on the Hill has been wild, wacky and -- quite frankly -- not always the most confidence-inspiring [see near-entire upheaval of coaching staff] but the early reviews on the new faces around the football complex have been positive. There's reason to hope that this new rendition of UT's coaching staff can have a better rapport and, in turn, better results in leading a team that should be more talented than any UT has trotted onto the field since 2007.
Gone are Justin Wilcox, Peter Sirmon, Terry Joseph, Lance Thompson, Eric Russell, Charlie Baggett and Harry Hiestand -- a couple by necessity, most by choice.
In their place are new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley, safeties coach Josh Conklin, special teams/tight ends coach Charlie Coiner, defensive line coach John Palermo, running backs coach Jay Graham and offensive line coach Sam Pittman. The only holdovers on the staff are Darin Hinshaw [who moved from coaching quarterbacks to wide receivers] and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
So, basically, it's a fresh start, which -- though not the biggest vote of confidence for Derek Dooley -- isn't necessarily a bad thing after such a dismal first couple seasons.
We've gotten encouraging news on injury updates of key players such as Justin Hunter, Herman Lathers and even forgotten man Greg King. We've read about more roller-coaster stories about mercurial wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers and his apparent disdain for the strength and conditioning staff. We've prepared for the influx of several early enrollees from this year's top 20-ranked recruiting class. We've endured whispers of potential academic casualties.
But, mostly, we've waited [im]patiently for the page to turn from last year's forgettable chapter of Tennessee history. And now, as spring most always does, we'll be given a dose of hope that hopefully doesn't ring false -- again.
Over the course of the next week, we'll try to get you ready for the spring with a quick-hit look at each position, the faces you'll recognize, maybe a few you won't and the storylines that need to play out in order for the Vols to be successful. Today, we'll start -- as always -- with quarterbacks.
THE DIRECTOR: Third-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
It's been a mixed bag for Chaney in his first two years as the Vols' offensive coordinator, but that hasn't always been his fault. Both seasons witnessed him make quarterback changes, he's been dealt crushing injuries and he's had to balance more youth than any coordinator should have to. But he's also admittedly struggled to get into the rhythm calling plays within the flow of games and has struggled to develop any consistency in the running game. This is a key season for Chaney -- who should have all the weapons at his disposal -- and this spring needs to be about finding a better offensive balance. That's on his shoulders, and there are no more excuses. That all starts with developing his quarterback to better manage the offense; and he'll be solely responsible for that as he takes over coaching that position from Hinshaw.
THE CAST: 6-6, 215 Jr. Tyler Bray; 6-4, 200 So. Justin Worley; 6-2 220 Fr. Nathan Peterman
All eyes will be on Bray this spring as the Vols prepare him for The Next Big Step in his overall development. Blessed with all the talent in the world, Bray is healthy and hopefully more focused than he has been his first two seasons. Worley is back after being thrust into action far too early last season, and he'll have all he can handle in the battle to back up Bray by Peterman, an early enrollee from Florida who has impressed everybody so far in workouts. Gone are two-year sometimes-starter Matt Simms and also sophomore Nash Nance, who transferred to Harvard.
OFFSEASON BUZZ: It seems this time of year always brings with it positive quarterback news, and this year was no different with whispers and reports that Bray has re-dedicated himself to the film room and to better learning the offense. There also has been positive news about his leadership improvements in workouts, and all we can do is hope it isn't all lip service. There hasn't been much spoken about Worley, who was nervous and clearly not ready to be thrust into action last year. This is clearly a big spring for his UT career. As for Peterman, he is reportedly a workhorse in the weight room and has bulked up nearly 15 pounds and is making all the throws. That should be a fun battle.
THE PLOT THICKENS [THREE SPRING STORYLINES]:
- Bray's Development. There's no bigger need for the Vols' success unless it's a clear starting running back emerging. Bray's ability to get a better grasp on the offense and get UT in better running situation with check-downs is key to offensive success.
- The Backup Battle. The coaches absolutely love Peterman, and Worley didn't exactly wow anybody last year. They're both very heady quarterbacks with big potential. Worley's a little bigger, but Peterman has the physical attributes like arm strength and mobility. This should be fun.
Managing Offensive Speed. This has to do with managing the run game, staying on the same page with Justin Hunter [who'll be limited] and Rogers as well as just simply doing everything better and more efficiently. Bray has been in Chaney's system for three offseasons now. This is Worley's second spring. Peterman has gotten a crash-course since arriving in December. There shouldn't be much "playbook installation" this spring. It should be honing skills. Hopefully, that will lead to a better on-field product.
CLOSING CREDITS: The bottom line is this is Bray's team. It's time for him to grow up a bit and lead. He certainly has all the ability in the world, and this position is loaded with more talent than UT has had under center since Erik Ainge and Jonathan Crompton were the battling blue-chippers. With all the talent -- and the diversity of physical attributes on display at the position -- there is no reason why UT shouldn't be very good at the position. Bray and his backups should be a major strength. But that next step has to be taken, and this is a pivotal spring for the Vols and their quarterbacks.