- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: Tennessee begins spring practice Monday and concludes with the Orange and White Game on April 21.
What's new: There was a lot of movement on coach Derek Dooley's staff this offseason. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville this spring. Sal Sunseri arrives as the Vols' new defensive coordinator after serving as Alabama's linebackers coach the previous three seasons. After being a defensive assistant at Alabama from 2010-11 and the defensive backs coach at Central Florida for a couple months, Derrick Ansley joined Tennessee's staff to coach the Vols' cornerbacks. Charlie Coiner is Tennessee's new special teams/tight ends coach. Josh Conklin left The Citadel to coach Tennessee's safeties, and Jay Graham left South Carolina to return to his alma mater to coach running backs. John Palermo and Sam Pittman round out Tennessee's new hires. Palermo will coach the Vols' defensive line, and Pittman will coach the offensive line. Tennessee also welcomed seven early enrollees -- Cody Blanc (wide receiver), Alden Hill (running back), Justin Meredith (tight end), Nathan Peterman (quarterback), Darrington Sentimore and Trent Taylor (defensive line), and Tino Thomas (defensive back).
On the mend: Wide receiver Justin Hunter and defensive back/linebacker Brent Brewer are both coming off of ACL injuries from last fall and will be limited during the spring. Linebacker Curt Maggitt, nose guard Daniel Hood and defensive back Prentiss Waggner all had offseason shoulder surgery and will be non-contact this spring. Offensive lineman Zach Fulton will be limited this spring as he tries to recover from a stress fracture suffered a couple of weeks ago during offseason workouts. Offensive lineman JerQuari Schofield and defensive lineman Corey Miller will not be practicing for academic reasons.
On the move: Dooley plans to move a few players around this spring. With Tennessee moving to a 3-4 defense, the team is adding to its linebacker depth. Brewer (defensive back), Channing Fugate (fullback), Jacques Smith (defensive lineman), and Willie Bohannon (defensive lineman) are all working at linebacker this spring. Smith and Bohannon will compete at the Jack linebacker spot. Maggitt is also moving to inside linebacker. Rajion Neal is moving exclusively to running back after playing both wide receiver and running back last season. Waggner is moving back to cornerback after playing safety last season. James Stone, a center last season, will play some guard and tackle this spring.
Questions: The Vols return a lot of bodies on defense, but with a new coordinator, new scheme, and several position changes, there will be starting jobs available. With the 3-4 coming in, Tennessee will be in search of a reliable nose guard. Maurice Couch played there more as last season progressed, but Tennessee's staff thinks very highly of incoming junior college noseguard Daniel McCullers, who will be on campus this summer. Having Hood limited also means depth is an issue there this spring. There is still a little uncertainty in Tennessee's secondary. Waggner moving to cornerback will help with boundary play, but it takes a solid player out of the safety spot. Redshirt senior Rod Wilks takes over at free safey, but has no career starts. The running back position also enters the spring with questions surrounding it. The Vols were last in the SEC in rushing last season, and lose starter Tauren Poole. Only three lettermen return, and none are proven. Neal and Marlin Lane will start spring getting the majority of reps, but they combined for just 414 rushing yards on 102 carries last season.
Key battle: Injuries to Hunter and quarterback Tyler Bray certainly hurt Tennessee's offense last season, but being unable to run the ball effectively really kept the Vols from overcoming their struggles in the passing game. There is no question that Tennessee's run game, which ranked 116th nationally (90.1) last season, needs a major upgrade. Lane and Neal will get the first shots at earning the job this spring, but having Hill on campus early will definitely add some depth, and he should push both this spring. Sophomore Devrin Young, who rushed for 25 yards last season, will also compete for time this spring. Tennessee can't go another season without having much of a running game to speak of if it wants to take a step forward and compete for an SEC East title.
Don't forget about: Tennessee will get back a familiar face on defense this spring when linebacker Herman Lathers returns. After fracturing his ankle last June, Lathers missed all of the 2011 season, but will be full go this spring. Tennessee needs more linebackers, and adding a veteran like Lathers will help. Tennessee's staff is also excited about what Sentimore can bring to the defensive end spot. He played one season at Alabama before going the JUCO route in 2011. He's on campus now, and is listed on the Vols' two-deep at one of the end spots. Sentimore has a good shot at earning a starting spot this spring.
Breaking out: The staff has high expectations for offensive lineman Antonio Richardson. The sophomore spent 2011 playing on special teams, but after being such a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, the coaches are expecting him to compete for playing time even though the Vols return all five starters. With Fulton limited this spring, Richardson will get his chance to impress. Also, Lane is a player who has the physical tools to make a big jump this spring. He was a top high school prospect, and now has a chance to claim the running back spot for himself. He's a big body with pretty good speed, but Lane needs to work on his consistency.
All eyes on: Bray has yet to play a full season at Tennessee. A thumb injury kept him out for half of the 2011 season, but he appears to be back to full health. He wasn't great when he returned at the end of last season, but rust will do that to a quarterback. Now is a chance for Bray to get back into the swing of things and get more comfortable after his injury. It's also time for him to improve his leadership skills. Those have been called into question during his two years in Knoxville, but now that he's officially a veteran, it's time for him to take hold of this team. He has weapons around him to help his passing numbers, but Bray should look to improve this team as a whole by leading by both example and with his words.
6hDavid Ching and Edward Aschoff
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