I'll skip all the "hope springs eternal" bull crap.
We've heard it all before. We've run the gamut of emotions as a fan base -- going from skeptical to concerned to hopeful to darn near excited prior to last season. How much good did all that roller-coaster of feelings do? Every grain of care/hope/emotion/excitement that we had has resulted in three consecutive losing seasons.
But Derek Dooley is gone. Thank God.
He has taken all the excuses with him. Gone is the poor-mouthing. Bye-bye to all the Dooleyisms. Peace out to Barbara getting on every radio show that will listen to her crazy blather about her Precious. Exiting with him -- or alongside him -- is a wealth of offensive talent in Cordarrelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, Tyler Bray, Zach Rogers, Mychal Rivera; players who put up big numbers but never won football games.
Did the lopsided losses leave with them? That's a question that can't be answered yet. Anybody who tells you differently is guessing. We simply cannot know.
Nobody, regardless of what they tell you, was excited about the hiring of former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones. In the months since he was hired, he has alternately excited us with:
- Picking up star recruits
- Reaching out to former Tennessee players and coaches
- Patching up some recruiting relationships Dooley had torn down and...
- Generally selling the program...
As well as worried us with:
- Losing out on a ton of the recruits he worked his butt off to get us in the picture for
- Bringing with him several Cincinnati coaches who we simply don't know whether they can recruit or coach in the SEC
- Failing to convince Tee Martin to come coach for his alma mater and...
- Having Jay Graham bolt on him for Florida State.
How many of the bad things are Jones' fault? Probably none of them. But, hey, we may as well ramp up the skepticism, right? We ARE Tennessee fans, after all. And we're jaded after the past dismal decade so ALL OF IT IS YOUR FAULT WHETHER IT IS OR NOT!
So, the questions are swirling around spring practice, but there is hope there, too. Heck, Dooley being gone is enough for me to want to tune in and read every single word that I can about what's going on on The Hill. We have no clue how our team is going to look, who our play makers are, who will emerge as dependable players or even who some key starters will be. Those answers will start becoming clearer Saturday when the Vols begin spring practice culminating with April 20's Orange & White Game.
Let's take a quick look at UT position-by-position. Today, we'll preview the offense:
I feel much about Tyler Bray's tenure at Tennessee like I do Lane Kiffin's: I spent so much time defending him and trumpeting what I believed him to be that when he left abruptly having accomplished nothing, I am left looking dumb. Bray barraged horrific defenses and failed to consistently figure out good ones. He was inconsistent, lacked leadership abilities and just generally disappointed.
He left Knoxville after his junior season having done nothing besides making most of us mad that he did nothing. Now, we're hearing about the talented California native wowing NFL scouts with his abilities in the combine and he seems destined to be one of those late-bloomers who you look back on his UT career and go, "How did we not do more when he was there?"
The bottom lines are he didn't put in enough work off the field and he didn't have a whole lot of help around him from a competent coaching standpoint, so you just move on and hope the next guy "gets it," which brings us to the big question facing this position -- and the biggest question period of the spring for the Vols:
WHO IS THE MAN AT QUARTERBACK?
The Candidates On Campus
- Justin Worley: The junior from Rock Hill, S.C., and former Gatorade National Player of the Year has played sparingly -- and, quite frankly, not particularly well, during his first two seasons in Knoxville. Known for being a student of the game, Worley definitely is a quick learner. He also worked on his arm strength last year, though he still showed a propensity to throw interceptions. He enters the spring as the favorite to win the job in many critics' minds.
- Nathan Peterman: The big, athletic redshirt freshman from Florida was recruited heavily by Jones and Mike Bajakian at Cincinnati before getting his Tennessee offer, and he is believed to be the better physical fit for the spread offense. Things came relatively slowly for Peterman as a freshman, but -- unlike the past two QBs the Vols were attempting to redshirt -- he got to watch and learn and will be better because of it.
Waiting in the Wings
The Vols have a pair of Elite 11 quarterbacks in North Carolina three-star Riley Ferguson and Georgia four-star Joshua Dobbs ready to arrive on campus this summer to compete. Though it wouldn't be completely out of the realm of possibility for either of those guys to emerge, Worley and Peterman will definitely have a leg up on them with another spring practice under their belts.
There simply still isn't a star.
But just because there isn't a definite elite player in the offensive backfield for the Vols doesn't mean the team is devoid of a threat. Three running backs who have had significant carries return to UT this season, and it will be interesting to see how Jones decides to use them.
- Rajion Neal averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season and ran for 708 yards. He'll play in the NFL someday and has the size-speed combination to be a dynamite player. Even so, Neal's junior season -- and first as a starter -- was inconsistent. Too many times, he was tackled in the hole rather than breaking a long run. When he was banged up late in the season, the Sandy Creek, Ga., product had some help.
Marlin Lane proved a worthy backup and had the better season, rushing for 658 yards and an average of 5.5 yards per carry. Only one running back -- Nebraska's Rex Burkhead -- in the nation was better than Lane on first down. Entering his junior season, I believe Lane is the most complete back on the team.
Devrin Young is still the change-of-pace back, and he will also receive some carries. But can he withstand the rigors of the rugged SEC or can he ever be effective enough to be anything other than a mop-up player?
Waiting in the Wings
South Carolina jitterbug Jabo Lee spent the majority of his senior season in high school injured, and when the Vols and former running backs coach Jay Graham struck out with players like Derrick Henry, Derrick Green and Johnathan Ford late in the process, Lee was the only runner they took in this class. He has the ability, but there are some questions surrounding him. If Lee makes it to Knoxville in the fall, it'll be interesting to see where he fits in.
There are two big questions in my mind facing this position:
IS THERE GOING TO BE A WILD CARD?
The player I have in my mind here is Alton "Pig" Howard, who seems to be the perfect fit for this spread offense. Though Howard is listed as a wide receiver -- and can certainly help there -- it is not out of the realm of possibility to see him getting a lot of carries and being a Percy Harvin-type player in this offense. I would absolutely love to see him get an extended look at running the football this spring.
There are another couple of players who wouldn't be bad options to try at running back. Last season, Justin King showed some flashes in the Wildcat package, and he is a big, 230-pound beast who would look like your typical SEC bruiser back. Will he stay at tight end/H-back/fullback? Will he move to linebacker? Could he get a long look carrying the ball? Who knows, but running back is probably a stretch. Also Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a mid-term signee who was recruited as a safety, though I think he fits better at outside linebacker or running back. He was dynamite as a running quarterback in high school (like King) and it's not out of the realm of possibility if he struggles at safety early for him to get moved around. A shoulder injury will hinder JRM's spring, however.
Alden Hill and Tom Smith haven't been heard from very much lately. Are either one of them able to step up?
HOW WILL THEY DISTRIBUTE THE CARRIES?
New running backs coach Robert Gillespie replaces Graham, who turned his back on his alma mater for Florida State. You've seen all the names above, and now the questions are will they all get carries? Who will get carries? Will there be a primary back?
During the past three seasons, Jones has essentially employed one runner who got the VAST majority of the carries. The first two seasons, it was current St. Louis Rams running back Isaiah Pead. Last year, it was George Wynn, who is expected to be drafted this season.
Gillespie had a primary runner at Oklahoma State in current San Francisco 49ers running back Kendall Hunter, and it was looking that way last year when Andrew Buie was getting most of the carries for Gillespie at West Virginia. But the Mountaineers shifted dynamite receiver Tavon Austin to tailback midway through the year, and he got a bunch of carries, too.
So, it'll be interesting if we see a lot of substitutions. I thought Dooley and Graham did far too much of that the past two seasons rather than riding the hot hand. It'll be something I'm watching with the new group.
So much production is gone with the departures of Patterson, Hunter, Rogers and Rivera. While quarterback is the overbearing question facing UT this spring, who will step up and be a play maker at wide receiver is almost close to as important. There is talent there, but there certainly isn't any experience.
WHO ARE THE PLAYMAKERS?
- Pig Howard: The sophomore speedy wrecking ball is the most dynamite playmaker on the offense. Will he play wide receiver? Will he play running back? He'll certainly play somewhere, and he'll have a lot of yards wherever that winds up being.
- Jason Croom: Considered a recruiting coup last year, Croom showed some early signs of being potentially able to contribute as a freshman, though he never cracked the rotation. Then at 6-4, 232, he entertained moving to tight end. Now that he's back at receiver, there are high hopes. The Vols desperately need him to be dependable.
- Vincent Dallas: The rising junior began his career at receiver, moved to defensive back and then came back over to offense where he was in the rotation last season. Many hopeful UT fans compared his abilities to former Vol Denarius Moore who is now with the Oakland Raiders. This was about the time in his career where D-Mo broke out. It's now or never for Dallas, who'll have every opportunity.
- Jacob Carter: "Snake" -- a former walk-on from Nashville -- began making plays during last spring and was lauded by the former regime. Then he worked his way into some playing time as a sophomore in the midst of some ridiculous talent. Now, he'll be depended on -- at least to play and maybe to start.
- Drae Bowles: The former U.S. Army All-American needs to kick it up a notch after a redshirt season. He is big, physical and a good route runner, but Bowles isn't the fastest guy out there and he has to be more consistent. I had high hopes for Drae, and so I'm interested to see what he looks like.
- Cody Blanc: The sophomore from Knoxville was recruited as a safety and moved to wide receiver last spring. He hasn't left the position yet, but he also hasn't earned much playing time.
- Paul Harris: Here is the big time wild card. The talented four-star mid-term enrollee has a ridiculous work ethic and has already wowed many players on campus. He's 6-4 and 200 pounds and silky smooth, and there is a lot of buzz about him stepping right in and playing. UT needs somebody like him with the athleticism to play right away. He's one of the three or four players I'm most excited about watching this spring.
Waiting In the Wings
The jewel of the class -- Charlotte four-star wide receiver MarQuez North -- will get here this summer, and he'll have the opportunity and ability to step right in and play immediately. Kind of a forgotten man late in the recruiting process was four-star slot receiver Ryan Jenkins -- a UT legacy who the Vols flipped from Clemson. He also arrives this summer. Everybody is excited about him, but you forget a guy like Josh Smith who is a local kid with the size and ability to play on this level as well. A lot of people believe Smith could have the potential to be a starter in the SEC, though that likely won't be in 2013. It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility to see Malik Foreman get a crack on offense, though I think (and hope) his future is at cornerback.
WHO ARE ALL THESE PEOPLE?
Brendan Downs: There is little doubt the junior from Bristol will be depended on. He drew early comparisons to Luke Stocker, and he's played a lot during his first two seasons in Knoxville. But this is his year. He will have every opportunity to shine, and UT needs him to.
Justin Meredith: The redshirt freshman from Anderson, S.C., has basically been injured for two years. Now for the first time, he's healthy and ready to step onto the field this spring. A lot of fans believe Meredith is soft, and it's a stigma he'll have to shake now that he appears over his chronic hamstring problems.
- Joseph Ayres: It doesn't seem that long ago that Ayres was starting at defensive tackle against top-five LSU as a redshirt freshman walk-on from McCallie. Now, he's entering his senior year at tight end, and he will have a chance to get in the rotation.
Waiting in the Wings
Woody Quinn was an unknown commodity from a California JUCO first recruited to UT by Dooley's staff and signed by Jones. He is a big, athletic tight end who coaches think can step right in and start immediately. Though he wasn't heavily recruited, that hasn't stopped either of the past two Vols coaches from loving him, so I guess we'll see what he's got. A.J. Branisel followed Jones from Cincinnati to Tennessee when the coach took over for Dooley. Though he probably isn't physically ready to contribute in '13, he'll be here in the summer to see.
There is only one question with this group:
HOW CAN WE SKIRT THE NCAA RULES TO GET THEM ALL ANOTHER YEAR OF ELIGIBILITY?
Seriously, though, the Vols are blessed with what should be one of the top three offensive lines in the nation. Though Dallas Thomas is gone and will be drafted, UT still boasts a bevy of NFL talent in the trenches.
The only problem is, they'll likely all be gone after 2013.
The Candidates ... Starting with the stars:
- Ja'Wuan James: The senior right tackle elected to return for his senior season rather than test the NFL waters, where he likely would have been taken in the top three rounds. He is big, physical and athletic.
- Zach Fulton: The 6-5, 324-pound guard will also be playing on Sundays after his senior season is finished. The Homewood, Ill., player has been a consistent force for UT throughout his career.
- Antonio "Tiny" Richardson: Though he's only a rising junior, everybody in the nation would be shocked if this wasn't the Nashville native's final season in Knoxville. He's one of the biggest leaders on the team and there were times last season where he totally neutralized stars such as Jadaveon Clowney. He'll be a first-round pick if he leaves.
- James Stone: After a forgettable sophomore season, Stone bounced back last season and excelled for UT at center. The 6-3, 300-pounder has now emerged as a player who is realizing his potential and should play on the next level.
- Alex Bullard: The former Notre Dame transfer will give the Vols depth anywhere across the line. He's a valuable player who is also going to be missed after this season.
When you see all that talent leaving after the 2013 season, there is one big question in flashing red lights -- even if it isn't a question for this year:
WILL ANYBODY STEP UP AS DEPENDABLE PLAYERS FOR THE FUTURE?
To me, that's something that will be interesting to see this spring. Players like rising junior Marcus Jackson and rising sophomore Kyler Kerbyson should find themselves in the mix for playing time this season, but can they be relied upon to be starters in the future?
Then, if you want to go down another level, this is the time when you really begin to see if rising sophomore center Mack Crowder, rising junior tackle Marques Pair and rising sophomore tackle Alan Posey are going to be viable options in 2014.
Tennessee will welcome Austin Sanders, Brett Kendrick and Dylan Wiesman into the fold this summer, but that isn't nearly enough bodies. UT will almost certainly beat the JUCO bushes for offensive line help and try to sign at least six OLs, but some of the guys on campus need to step up starting now.
We'll take a look at the defensive side of the ball in the next couple days.