The Tennessee Volunteers will host a spring game this weekend and it will take place on April 21. It is a chance for every player to prove themselves in a game-like atmosphere.
The Volunteers return a total of 19 starters and could become one of the surprise teams in the SEC if everything goes well.
Here are 10 things to expect for the Tennessee Volunteers spring game.
Nobody needs to tell the Volunteers they have a defense that was ranked seventh in the SEC last season. Or that they haven't won a bowl game since 2007. They know, and with the talent they have returning, they look to be a lot more physical and begin turning the page.
"You don’t win a game if you don’t know how to hit somebody. We’ve made it a point of emphasis as a coaching staff from the beginning of the spring to now. You get what you emphasize. Let’s make sure we’re emphasizing the key things, the physicality of the game, the team-takeoff periods and playing the way you’re supposed to play the game of football," Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said via Volunteer TV.
I expect to see a lot of young guys out on that football field with something to prove. They're willing to lay somebody out if given the opportunity. It's time to step up to the plate.
Many fans will have their eyes on the running game during the spring game, but if quarterback Tyler Bray doesn't take that next step, this team will once again struggle.
Bray hasn't exactly been lighting it up in spring practice, but Dooley isn't worried about it and says there are reasons for his stats being the way they are.
“He just didn’t throw it as well as he can, and not having Justin (Hunter) sometimes hurt,” Dooley said according to the Daily News Journal. “We have a lot of guys out there at receiver probably trying to do too much. I’m not that concerned about it because he’s working really hard to get better.”
Bray isn't a bad quarterback at all and as he enters his junior season, you have to believe he'll take that next step in his career. It should start with a strong showing in the spring game.
There won't be too many seniors lined up on the defensive side of the ball this season for Tennessee, but safety Prentiss Waggner is one of the few. This means that he has to become a leader on the field and help guide the younger players.
It also means that he will play different positions and try to improve this secondary.
"I'm pretty happy at the corner," Waggner said according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I'm working in at the nickel position also, so it's been pretty fun."
Last season, he had a very productive season, racking up 48 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and breaking up seven passes. This season, he'll be asked to do even more and a lot of that has nothing to do with statistics.
Tennessee has a solid tight end in Mychal Rivera; he showed flashes of greatness last season and still has room to grow. He caught 29 passes last season for 344 yards and enters his senior season as a big part of the offense.
The coaching staff is going to be moving him around the field. You may see him at wide receiver, tight end or even in the backfield.
"That is something new and different," Rivera said according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press "Moving me around, that's one thing I'm really happy about. That's one thing that I'd love to do -- play fullback, play tight end"
Rivera has the size (6'3", 254 pounds) to play pretty much any position they want him to. This should be one of the more interesting things to keep an eye on throughout the spring game and heading into the regular season.
The Volunteers secondary was ranked sixth in the SEC last season. With them returning nine starters on the defensive side of the ball, including the entire secondary, you can imagine why they would like to be even better in that department. So far throughout the spring, they are playing much more aggressively and they're making plays they didn't last season.
"We have got to do a better job of stopping the run, but we're playing a lot more aggressively, playing more physical and denying the ball in the back end a little bit better. As long as you're playing with that kind of aggressiveness and toughness, all the other stuff will come." – Derek Dooley via ESPN.
Maybe it's the new defensive coordinator or maybe it was another year under the youngsters' belts. Whatever it was, I'm sure Volunteer fans will take it and be happy.
Tennessee was an extremely young team last season and that's why they're fortunate enough to return 19 starters. But with youth comes immaturity and that doesn't help a football team at all as they try to improve.
Head coach Derek Dooley says he's seeing the team grow and there isn't as much pouting going on as there was last season.
“Tyler’s not in the tank because his stats aren’t great. Da’Rick’s not in the tank because he didn’t catch a ball today. They’re working on their game and improving for the team, and that’s a real sign of maturity." – Dooley via Chattanooga Times Free Press.
He also went on to say that it may not last, but it's nice to see in practice. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it will last, as these talented players are going to put winning over stats, as Tennessee begins the journey of climbing back into the SEC title picture.
Sophomore running back Devrin Young did a little bit of everything last year as a freshman. He returned punts and kickoffs, he ran the ball six times and caught a few passes as well. He's improved him game a bit throughout the spring to where you can expect him to have an even bigger role in this offense.
"He's really blossomed a little bit at the running back position, so we're going to use him a little more there," head coach Derek Dooley said via CBS Sports. "He can do some things that a lot of guys can't. He's got a lot of quickness and instincts and has a lot of burst."
Young may be small at 5'8", but he is extremely quick and can provide the Volunteers with a much-needed playmaker on the offensive side of the ball. Expect to see him to continue to move up the depth chart in the spring game and in the fall.
Justin Wilcox out, Sal Sunseri in at defensive coordinator, which means a new 3-4 defense, which also means a lot of adjusting for the several players on the squad that are returning. Don't expect everybody to have picked it up in only a few weeks.
"Once you get in this system and you hear it ... when we get to fall camp, it's going to make a lot more sense to a lot of the guys," Sunseri said via Chattanooga Times Free Press. "I'm pleased with all these kids. Their effort is outstanding, and they've just got to keep giving it."
You heard it from the man himself: By the fall, everybody should be a lot more comfortable. Until then, the transition remains a learning process for everybody involved.
Jacques Smith had an up-and-down sophomore season as he got off to a very hot start, but finished the year with only 35 tackles and 0.5 sacks. He played the defensive end position, but this season he'll end up playing linebacker in the new 3-4 defense.
“Honestly, it's not that much different except for me standing up,” Smith said, according to Nooga.com. “That's the thing about the 3-4 is there is that stand-up backer off the edge, but it's the same thing as the rush end in the 4-3. Standing up has been great, I love the way I can attack the ball and I love that I'm just flying to the ball. It's just letting me be a football player.”
There are very few defensive players that Sunseri has been harder on than Smith during spring practices, because of the importance of the linebacker position. He'll be ready and shouldn't have any problem making the switch.
This is a very important spring game for the Volunteers because they're so young and talented. This is a team that's returning a total of 19 starters and has the chance to surprise some people within the SEC if they can answer a few questions. The defense has to quickly adjust and the running game certainly has to pick up.
Overall, I see this being a very beneficial spring game for the Volunteers and a game-like atmosphere should provide a lot of answers for this young team moving forward.