Tennessee Football: Players Who Will Earn Starting Spots in Spring Game

Daniel Kock@@dannykockContributor IIIApril 19, 2012

Tennessee Football: Players Who Will Earn Starting Spots in Spring Game

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    Tennessee players have an opportunity during their spring game on Saturday to demonstrate their skills to fans, and more importantly, coaches.

    Derek Dooley enters his third season as the head coach of the Tennessee Vols, and the feeling around Knoxville is that there is increased talent on this team than in years past.

    Spring games are largely over-hyped across the country as they are glorified practices.

    However, it is an important game for players trying to distance themselves from their competition and secure a starting spot before freshman get on campus in the summer.

    Other than quarterback and wide receiver, there is open competition on all the units.

    Look for some of these players to prove why they will be starters come fall.

1. Rajion Neal

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    The running back position is arguably more wide open than any other position for the Vols.

    Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are the front-runners, while sophomore Devrin Young has had an impressive spring and three freshman running backs are not yet on campus.

    Neal seems to be the favorite; look for him to run determined during the spring game.

    Neal started at running back as a freshman before being moved to wide receiver last season due to a lack of depth at the position.

    In 2012 he has moved back to his natural position.

    Neal's biggest strength is his speed as he is considered one of the fastest players on the team by coaches and teammates.

    He separated himself after the first scrimmage by running for 100 yards on 15 carries while Lane only managed eight yards on seven carries.

    Neal followed with an average second scrimmage by rushing for 39 yards and a touchdown.

    The junior has been taking the majority of the first-team reps in practice and should position himself well for a starting spot by finishing off the spring with a good game Saturday.

2. Darrington Sentimore

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    Darrington Sentimore will be a huge key for Tennessee if they are going to be successful this season.

    Sentimore started his career as a freshman at Alabama before heading to the junior college ranks for a brief stint.

    He's now wearing bright orange and competing for the defensive end position with Marlon Walls, Jordan Williams and Steven Fowlkes.

    New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is installing a 3-4 defense and Sentimore should play a huge role in the transition from the conventional 4-3 the Vols used in 2011.

    Play in the trenches is more critical in the SEC than any other conference and is one of the reasons the Vols have struggled the last two years. There was simply no depth on either side of the line.

    Sentimore gives the Vols some much-needed quality depth and has SEC size at 6'3" and 288 pounds.

    He will be a huge factor for the Vols in 2012 and needs to be disruptive in his first game-type atmosphere for Tennessee.

3. Prentiss Waggner

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    The fifth-year senior has always been undervalued and underappreciated during his time at Tennessee.

    However, Prentiss Waggner finds ways to get on the field and make plays.

    Waggner bounced back and forth from cornerback and safety multiple times during the 2011 season.

    He is a little undersized for a safety, but was forced to play the position due to circumstances around the team. He moved back to corner when freshman Brian Randolph emerged, but was forced back to safety when the other starter, Brent Brewer, tore his ACL.

    Waggner has never complained about his role with the team, but is excited to be back at his natural spot of cornerback this season.

    However, he is not solidly starting yet. Junior Izauea Lanier played well last season and sophomore Justin Coleman has all the tools to be a great corner according to Coach Dooley.

    Expect a good performance from Waggner on Saturday.

4. Jacques Smith

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    The transition to the 3-4 defense may benefit nobody more than Jacques Smith.

    Smith was a highly touted defensive end coming out of high school, but has yet to flourish while at Tennessee.

    Smith started at defensive end as a sophomore but only registered one sack.

    In 2012, Smith will be used as a pass-rushing outside linebacker. Smith seems to have the hybrid build and wasn't quite physical enough to play defensive end in the SEC.

    Playing with his hand off the ground will allow him to get off the line of scrimmage quicker and become more disruptive.

    Smith also has a battle on his hands for the starting spot with teammates Willie Bohannon and Herman Lathers. He may also compete for playing time with safety-linebacker hybrid, Brent Brewer.

    Smith is now a junior and is running out of time to make a significant impact.

    The spring game is the perfect time for Smith to prove he has what it takes as an outside linebacker and get an edge at the starting position.