Tennessee's spring practice really took a big hit this week.
Leading receiver Gerald Jones was out of practice with an undisclosed injury, and good old Texas boy Nick Stephens decided to ride the sunset out of Knoxville. However, freshman WR Matt Milton scored two touchdowns in the last scrimmage providing a glimmer of hope for the future.
These questions have been haunting my mind throughout the season. They range from offense to defense to special teams. This spring game will be very important because Tennessee will debut a new coach Derek Dooley, who will hopefully inject a dash of Southern pride into the fading Tennessee program.
1. Who will be the quarterback?
I wish I could type this question in all capitals with Vegas lights around it. Since the graduation of Casey Clausen in '03, Tennessee hasn't had an experienced quarterback going into the season.
Instead of big armed Jon Crompton, who showed poise against South Carolina and Georgia, we're left with an inexperienced junior college transfer who's on his third football program and a skinny freshman from California.
Matt Simms has the bloodlines to be a great SEC QB (Phil Simms' son; Chris Simms' brother), but he couldn't cut it at Louisville and had to go to junior college. In junior college, he threw for 2,200 yards and 17 TDs, but juco QBs usually don't do well in the SEC (see Brent Schaeffer).
Tyler Bray was recruited by USC, and he has great size at 6'7". However, he needs to drink some Muscle Milk and bulk up, so he can take hits from the huge linemen at Florida and Alabama.
This season, Bray and Simms will probably split snaps. Simms has the better arm, and if his receivers can catch his long balls, he could surprise the SEC.
2. Who will be the kicker?
Daniel Lincoln really cost the Vols some games last year, missing three field goals in a two point loss to future national champs Alabama. Will Dooley have the confidence to just hand him the starting job? Chad Cunningham developed as a punter last season, but his coverage team was horrible, and kicking field goals would lead to fatigue.
But Dooley brought in a new weapon this year: Michael Palardy from perennial power house Thomas Aquinas. He couldn't miss in the Army All American Bowl, whose alum include Tim Tebow. Palardy was the No. 2 kicker in the class of 2010, and he could push Lincoln if he gets injured or struggles.
3. Who will replace Eric Berry as defensive playmaker?
All signs point to Janzen Jackson. Jackson was suspended for parts of last year, but he made many bone jarring hits and has good ball skills (two int). New Tennessee DC Justin Wilcox also has a history of developing great safeties, like Kyle Wilson at Boise State, who will probably be a late first round pick.
In the spring game, I will definitely be watching to see if Jackson takes on more of a leadership role. Watch out for Darren Myles, who saw playing time when Jackson was suspended and has great speed, playing on the special teams unit.
4. Which players will provide depth on the defensive line?
Tennessee has two studs at defensive end. Ben Martin (three sacks) and Chris Walker (6.5 sacks) are great pass rushers who are living up to their prep potential. But the Vols don't have anyone at nose tackle to replace future NFL first day pick Dan Williams.
However, depth on the line might not be an issue because Wilcox is tinkering with the 3-4 with Montori Hughes as a pass rushing nose tackle and defensive end.
Hughes didn't play much behind Williams and Wes Brown last year, but he got in opposing backfields (two tackles for loss). Newly enrolled Greg Clark, who was named "Best Defensive Lineman" on the Georgia 5A state champion Northside, could add depth with his great size (300 lbs).
5. How will the Vols replace five starters on the offensive line?
Losing sophomore tight end/guard hybrid Aaron Douglas might have been worse for Tennessee than losing former five star recruit Bryce Brown. The only player who has any kind of game experience is fifth year senior Jarrod Shaw, who has only appeared in five games. However, he has NFL guard size at 6'4" 322 lbs.
In the press, Coach Dooley has praised the play of sophomore left tackle Dallas Thomas, who backed up Chris Scott last year. If he adds weight to his 268 lb frame, Thomas could be a stalwart on the line.
Tennessee also brings in a couple four star linemen, including Jawuan James, who they plucked straight from Georgia's backyard.
Dooley must teach the lineman how to call signals or penalties will be a problem this year. Reports from spring practice say that tight end Luke Stocker will call the signals until the linemen mature, which could shorten their learning curve.
Feel free to add more questions or answer these differently. Hope to see y'all at Neyland Stadium at 2 PM for the Dish Network Orange and White Game.