It's a make-or-break year for Tennessee, and the journey back to SEC relevance starts on Monday. The Vols hit the practice field with more questions than answers, and those questions need to be addressed quickly, otherwise the coaching staff will be looking for work in 2013.
Important Dates—Tennessee starts spring practice on Monday, March 26. The spring game will be held on April 21.
Biggest Question Marks
How many wins will Tennessee finish with in 2012?
With Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers on the outside, the Vols are stacked at wide receiver. But that doesn't matter without a good running game, which was a sore spot last season. The Vols finished last in the SEC in rushing offense a year ago, when they averaged just 90.1 yards per game on the ground—24 yards per game shy of Kentucky, its nearest competitor.
New running backs coach Jay Graham was brought in to fix things, and he has some weapons. Sophomore Marlin Lane is the leading returning rusher for the Vols, but he only rushed for 280 yards last season. That doesn't exactly instill confidence that he can be an every-down back. Lane and junior Rajion Neal will get the lion's share of the carries this spring, but don't be surprised to see sophomore Dervin Young lining up in multiple positions and catching passes out of the backfield.
What will the defense look like?
New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri will bring multiple looks to Knoxville. He primarily uses a 3-4 scheme, which is a departure from the 4-3 that Tennessee fans became familiar with under former defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.
Helping with that transition will be junior college transfer Darrington Sentimore. Sentimore played in 11 games for Alabama in 2010, but was dismissed before the 2011 season which forced a move to Gulf Coast Community College in Mississippi. The 3-4 defense needs monsters up front to clog up the middle, and at 6'2", 290, Sentimore is certainly capable of clogging up the middle.
The transition to the 3-4 also brings the need for linebacker depth. The Vols get veteran Herman Lathers back after the senior missed all of last season with a broken ankle. Junior Jacques Smith can play linebacker or defensive line, Brewer can play linebacker or safety, and Willie Bohannon and Steven Fowlkes should be able to adjust from the defensive line quite well. Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson are back after solid 2011 campaigns, and should benefit from the switch to the 3-4 as well.
Can the Vols handle the pressure?
Derek Dooley probably has to win eight games to save his job, and even then, it might depend on which eight teams those games are against. The Vols face N.C. State in the Friday night edition of the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff, Florida at home and Georgia in Athens in three of their first five games. If they go 2-3 heading into the bye week, that could spell the end for Dooley.
Early Prediction for 2012
The Vols will drop games to N.C. State, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and Missouri; and the never-ending drama in Knoxville continues this offseason with another coaching search.