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Tennessee Spring Practice Preview: Beyond Close

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On the heels of a season that was one part breakthrough and one part what could have been, a loaded Tennessee squad prepares for spring practice dreaming the biggest dreams they've been allowed in more than a decade.

Mike Carlson/Getty Images

One week from today Team 120 will take the field for spring practice with the most anticipation for any Tennessee season in more than a decade.  Coming off their first 9+ win season and ranked finish since 2007 the Vols return 81% of their overall production, fifth best among major conference teams.  I'm sure we'll get pre-and-post-spring Top 25's galore soon enough, but Tennessee was already a consensus Top 10 team in way-too-early Top 25s.  These are the things you get excited about when you haven't had them to get excited about in a long time.

Butch Jones, king of the slogan, has led off with "25 Points" this year.

Tennessee is 13-5 since Josh Dobbs became the starter on November 1, 2014.  It has become the launching point we hoped it would be, a two touchdown comeback in the final five minutes led by a quarterback thrusting himself into the spotlight.  How high that quarterback can rise two years later will have much to say on Tennessee's ceiling, but we will not get those answers this spring.

This spring will have much to do with the other 19% of Team 120's production.  We'll get a first glimpse at Bob Shoop's defense and another glimpse at several Vols on that side of the ball looking for a new opportunity therein.  We'll look for separation in a crowded field at wide receiver.  A redshirt freshman will get a big chance at left tackle and two sophomores will look to earn their spots on the right side of the line.  And four newcomers will look to make an immediate impact.

Will they be enough to find those 25 points?

Tennessee's five losses in its last 18 games were all one possession affairs; last year's team went 9-4 but lost every game by one possession, the first Vol squad to earn that "honor" since your choice of 1996 or the undefeated 1998 National Champions.  You know the details:

  • An eight point loss to Missouri in November 2014.  The Tigers went on to win the SEC East.
  • A seven point double overtime loss to Oklahoma in September 2015.  The Sooners went on to the College Football Playoff.
  • A one point loss to Florida two weeks later.  The Vols were a 4th and 14 stop away from winning the SEC East.
  • A four point loss to Arkansas the following week.
  • A five point loss at Alabama in October 2015.  The Vols took the lead with five minutes to play.  Alabama won the National Championship.
The Vols have had their moments in these last 18 games - the comeback at South Carolina, the home win over Georgia, bowl blowouts of Iowa and #13 Northwestern - but one can argue those 25 points have been just as memorable, if not more so.  Butch Jones and his staff deserve enormous credit for the overall trajectory of the program since his arrival in December 2012.  And if that trajectory, if the natural progression continues?  It falls to Team 120 to take the next step, from back to BACK, from close to comfort, from a season of the more that could have been to a season of what can be.

Those first, important steps are just one week away.  Go Vols.