Derek Dooley is entering his third season as Tennessee's coach. He took over a program in turmoil, but that's not going to help him keep his job if the Vols struggle this season.
This is a big spring for Dooley, who has seven new assistants. One of those new guys is defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, who was hired away from SEC rival Alabama and is set to install a 3-4 defense this spring.
The Vols have lost 27 games in the past four seasons, and they have lost at least three games in every season but one since they won the national title in 1998.
Tennessee needs QB Tyler Bray to stay healthy and have a big season in 2012.
Coach: Derek Dooley (3rd season)
The final two seasons of the Phil Fulmer era saw Tennessee lose a combined 11 games. Then came Lane Kiffin, who guided the Vols to a 7-6 record in his lone season in 2009. Dooley led the Vols to a 6-7 mark in '10, and the Vols were 5-7 last season, including an embarrassing last-game loss to Kentucky. The setback – to a UK team that used a wide receiver at quarterback – kept Tennessee out of the postseason.
Dooley took over a team that lacked depth, and, to an extent, that remains a problem. But the Vols' starting 22 looks good. There are nine full-time starters back on both sides of the ball, and a key this spring is for all those returning players to get used to all the new assistants.
One offensive priority has to be amping up the rushing attack. The Vols were last in the league and 116th nationally in rush offense, and you're not going to win games in any league, much less the SEC, with a pathetic rushing attack. Finding a new tailback obviously will be important this spring.
Defensively, finding out who can play where in the front seven is going to be important. The secondary has potential and should be solid. But are there enough linebackers on hand, and do the linemen currently on the roster have what it takes to play the 3-4?
The biggest problem: Staff overhaul. It's hard to pinpoint one area. Still, getting seven new coaches on the same page is going to be important. While Dooley maintained some stability at the top, he lost or parted company with seven assistants. The staff turnover is a major reason Tennessee is among the last teams nationally to open spring camp; the Vols needed time to get all those coaches working together in the meeting rooms and devising their practice plans before hitting the field. On the field, UT will need to adjust to Sunseri's 3-4 scheme; Sunseri replaces Justin Wilcox, a 4-3 proponent who departed for Washington. Tennessee must see how its returning starters and several newcomers fit into Sunseri's scheme. Look for Darrington Sentimore, Maurice Couch and Marlon Walls to be potential key cogs up front. Offensively, the Vols will have a depleted wide receivers corps this spring. Justin Hunter will be limited in camp and reportedly is ahead of schedule in his return from surgery to repair a torn ACL. Zach Rogers and Vincent Dallas will get plenty of reps this spring at wide receiver. WR Da'Rick Rogers was an All-SEC performer last season, but he was suspended from team activities and workouts for portions of the offseason conditioning program. Tennessee also must find some semblance of a running game; the Vols' anemic ground efforts a year ago doomed them time and again.
On the spot: QB Tyler Bray. He is squarely in the spotlight for the Vols. There's been considerable buzz about him, and deservedly so. Coaches, players and scouts alike have marveled at Bray's ability to make any throw on the field. And Bray doesn't lack for confidence, either. For all the hype, Bray has yet to start an entire season and hasn't yet faced Alabama or LSU as a starter. Tennessee needs him healthy and productive this season for all 12 games, and it begins this spring.
On the verge: DL Darrington Sentimore and LB Curt Maggitt. Sentimore is the only Vol familiar with Sunseri on the field; Sentimore began his career at Alabama, where Sunseri was an assistant, before transferring and signing with the Vols out of junior college. He has been the most consistently impressive performer in offseason workouts for the defense, and Sentimore effectively will be a starter from day one. Maggitt played extensively last season and was a freshman All-SEC pick. His ceiling is high and there's a belief the 3-4 will further augment his considerable athletic talents.
General overview: Three major things must happen for Tennessee during spring drills: The players must learn how to work with those seven new assistants, the Vols must adapt as quickly as possible to Sunseri's new scheme and they absolutely have to establish a consistent running game. Tennessee returns all of its starters along the offensive line and expects to get sophomore Antonio Richardson, who might be the most talented lineman, into that mix. The battle to be Bray's backup could be intense between sophomore Justin Worley and true freshman Nathan Peterman, who enrolled in January. The contest at tailback between Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal is worth watching. In addition, K Michael Palardy and P Matt Darr must become more consistent.
For in-depth coverage of Tennessee athletics, go to VolQuest.com
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