Spring practices carrying an especially large buzz are usually married to change: new coach, new quarterback, new freshmen. But for the first time since Phillip Fulmer roamed the sideline, Tennessee will enter this spring with the white-hot hope of new expectations.
The bowl performance will stop being relevant as soon as toe meets leather on September 5, but for now consider the importance of the last image. Three years ago Tennessee entered spring practice with expectations, but they were born of desperation. It was year three for Derek Dooley, and the last image was the first lost to Kentucky and its wide receiver playing quarterback in 26 years. Justin Wilcox had left in a sub-lateral move, the defense was brand new in the hands of an untested coordinator, and an offense with NFL talent and questionable decision making was tasked with carrying the team all the way back to the top. We had expectations, but we were also worried. And, turns out, rightfully so.
This time around the coordinator is new, but the system should remain intact. This time the last image was the best we've seen of the current administration instead of a loss ranking among the program's worst. And this time all the talent isn't hanging out on only one side of the ball.
This, my friends, is a real live football team.
They will come with real live expectations. Not the playoff kind, not yet. But the "here comes a good year" kind, something we've recently only been able to define relative to turmoil and turnover. Tennessee is 40-47 in the last seven years, and both times the Vols went 7-6 in that span we felt good about it. This year there will be no celebration for bowl eligibility and no blessing of hearts when facing ranked opponents. This may not be "the year" Tennessee gets all the way to wherever back is, but it's been so long since we've seen multiple meaningful wins in a season, just continuing on Butch's natural progression is going to feel like a celebration, long-earned and well-deserved.
The questions we have about most of these players deal with their ceiling instead of their first steps. Tennessee could start 11 players on offense you've already seen, and seen perform. All the ones not playing on the offensive line already have highlights under their belt, and all the ones that are up front have an important spring and additional competition in front of them. In no place will progress be as meaningful as on the offensive line.
On defense Tennessee may face questions about depth this spring, but that's only because 21 sacks and a five star freshman won't suit up until this fall. There is a hole in the middle at linebacker but lots of athleticism and potential on either side of it. Cameron Sutton is projected by some to be a first round pick in next year's draft.
We're so used to coming into spring needing freshmen to contribute immediately, three stars to play above their rating at multiple positions, and several other ifs to come true for the Vols to get where they want to go. But this time, the questions themselves are the answers.
This spring will feature a battle to be the number two quarterback, the arrival of some help for Jalen Hurd in the backfield, some sorting out at the number two corner and, of course, the offensive line. But if these are our biggest questions this spring, it means Tennessee is finally ready to step onto the field this fall and compete for championships again with a straight face.
The month-long build to the Orange and White Game begins today, and beyond it an off-season of pure anticipation. And we'll enjoy those long summer months a little more this time, because there's so much more to look forward to this fall.
But first, we'll take our questions to spring...and continue to enjoy the answers.