Editor's note: This is the twelfth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Tennessee Volunteers.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn | As year two of the Butch Jones era in Knoxville prepares for summer, there's one thing that remains constant. There's a high energy and excitement level around the Vols despite a losing record in Jones' first year.
The biggest reason for the continued excitement, excitement that was evident by the nearly 70,000 fans that showed up for the orange and white spring game is recruiting. Jones and company welcomed in 14 newcomers in January that are part of a class that was ranked 5th nationally.
The good news for the Vols is that those 14 newcomers had a major impact on the spring. The bad news is that they along with 18 other newcomers set to arrive at month's end will have a huge impact on this team in the fall.
"I think the overall strides has been the complete overall development of our football team in terms of forming great habits, improving some positions from a competitive standpoint, our standards and our expectations. I think our offense benefited greatly with our 14 midterm signees," Jones told Volquest.com. "Twelve of them were on the offensive side of the ball. Those 12 made immediate contributions and that was extremely evident throughout the course of spring.
Also, we are still going through the realities of building a football program right now and those realities occur in the line of scrimmage. The depth in the offensive line. The depth and competitiveness in the defensive line. I do think that we will be a different team all together with the other 18 newcomers come in, in June. It's going to add competitiveness in the entire program, but really on the defensive side of the ball. What the 12 newcomers did on the offensive side of the ball, the newcomers coming in will help that much if not even more on the defensive side of the ball. So I'm very excited about that."
Excitement and questions really in almost every area of the football team makes for major unknowns about the Vols heading into 2014.
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Who's the quarterback?
Tennessee left spring or appeared to be leaving spring with senior Justin Worley, who had 1239 yards, 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions last year before a season ending thumb injury at Alabama, and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson as their top two signal callers.
However, in the spring game, Josh Dobbs, who as a true freshman last year threw for 695 yards in 5 games, said don't forget about me. Dobbs ended spring on a high note throwing for 199 yards and 3 scores.
Butch Jones has not put a timetable on a quarterback decision noting that one will be made sometime before the season opener against Utah State and has noted that the more the competition the better it is for his football team.
Biggest question answered?
Heading into spring, we knew that the questions along the defensive line and offensive line were going to be hard to answer. Offensively in the trenches, the Vols left spring pretty established at four of the five offensive line positions. In the defensive trenches, the help wanted sign is still on full display.
But what we did learn this spring is that Tennessee has improved in an area that plagued them last season. And that's speed. This is a faster football team on both sides of the ball. Offensively at receiver and at tight end, this team can run better than a season ago. The result is the increased possibility of big plays. Instead of the offense needing near perfection on an 11 play methodical scoring drive, they have the ability really to score from just about anywhere on the field.
They are also faster at cornerback, faster off the edge on the defensive line and faster at linebacker than a season ago.
The Vols had plenty of needs come out of last season with speed being the biggest. With a consistent strength program now for over a year and with a highly-touted recruiting class. The Vols have clearly upgraded their speed from a year ago.
Biggest question mark?
It's pretty simple you don't lose your starting five on the offensive line and your starting defensive line from a year ago and not have questions in the trenches. That's where Jones' program is and that's why the reality is that they are still in the developmental stages of their program.
The Vols finished spring with 4 of 5 offensive line positions pretty much set. One of those four starters is true freshman Coleman Thomas at right tackle. The spot up in the air is at left tackle where junior college transfer Dontavius Blair left spring in a battle with senior walk-on Jacob Gilliam. And there is obvious depth concerns created by the fact that two years ago, Tennessee didn't sign a single offensive lineman in their recruiting class.
On the defensive side, youth will be served. Tennessee signed 7 defensive linemen to come in and try to replace 6 departing defensive linemen who had appeared in 230 games combined in their careers.
"For us, and it's kind of again the reality of where we're at in the program, they're going to have to come in and play," Jones said. "Is it a great challenge? Absolutely it's a great challenge. You're 17 or 18 years old and playing in the most dominant college football conference in the country, which is the SEC. And it's a line of scrimmage league. And every day is going to be critical when they get here in June in developing them from classroom right into the weight room. We're going to have rely on the older players that we do have; we're going to have to rely on them to teach them the techniques and teach them the style of play that's required at that position. But they're going to have to play. We have no choice. I know we'll be youthful there, but we have some talent. But usually that is a developmental position. From the weight room to the style of play to the pad level to the use of your hands to the fundamentals, the fine details that it takes. You look at a defensive lineman, he has to run about an 11-yard arc in about 2.7 to 2.9 seconds to get a sack, and that's not even talking about coming off and beating your opponent. It doesn't talk about the fundamentals and techniques that it takes, the countermoves. There's a lot that goes into playing winning football at that position."
Biggest surprise of spring?
With the arrival of 14 newcomers there were plenty of surprises from true freshman running back Jalen Hurd to junior college transfer Von Pearson who found his way to Sportscenter with a highlight reel catch in practice during the spring. Fellow newcomer at receiver Josh Malone was dominant in the spring game and sophomore Marquez North showed great improvement. So while there were plenty of individuals who were surprises this spring, we decided instead of picking an individual, we will pick the biggest position surprise and that was the tight end position.
A year ago there were struggles at the position particularly in blocking in the run game. This spring the Vols welcomed in highly touted signees Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf and both made huge impacts. Someone in the program half joked that the tight end position was better the day those two moved in and that was months before spring practice started. Helm showed an ability to get down the field in the passing game while Wolf showed a physical presence in the run game and was a surprise in how effective he could be in the passing game.
With spring injuries to veteran Brendan Downs and sophomore A.J. Branisel, the two true freshmen got all they reps they could physically handle and showed lots of promise over the course of 15 workouts.
Just for kicks?
As we mentioned the Vols have question marks everywhere on this team and that includes in the kicking game where Jones is trying to replace all-everything and Mr. Consistent Michael Palardy. Palardy is in the Jets camp as a punter and placekicker and was arguably the best feel good story in the program a year ago.
After battling confidence issues and inconsistency, Palardy had the kind of senior season everyone wants. Palardy hit a game winning field goal and was terrific in all phases of the kicking game. He averaged 44.5 yards a punt with 43 of his 63 kicks either going inside the 20 or being fair caught. He also made 14 of 17 field goals including 8 of 9 from 40 yards and in.
Palardy's season was so impressive his head coach dubbed him the team MVP. Now it will be kicker by committee it appears with no one leaving spring holding a starting job. Throw in the fact that Tennessee is also replacing their snapper and holder, the kicking game is a question that might not draw nearly as much of an audience as the quarterbacks, but is a concern that must be answered in August.