Tennessee Football 2011: The 11 Best Position Battles Heading into Spring Ball
It seems like only yesterday when we watched nearly 70,000 dejected big orange-clad souls walk out of LP Field after the Vols lost a heart breaker to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.
Now, the Vols and their thousands of passionate fans are ready to embark upon the first official journey of the 2011 football year as spring practice begins in Knoxville on March 22.
Here are some of the more hotly contested position battles that are certain to captivate Volniacs for a few weeks this spring.
Arguably the most talented player on the Vols roster last season was safety Janzen Jackson. The hard-hitting safety caught five interceptions a year ago and left his mark on just about every opponent who was unfortunate enough to get hit by him.
The Vols football team was hit, however, when Jackson decided to withdraw from school for the spring semester to focus on personal issues back home in Louisiana. Two weeks later, Brent Brewer, another speedy safety, was suspended indefinitely for his role in a domestic dispute.
So, obviously, the Vols coaching staff will have get creative at the position this spring. Prentiss Waggner has played the position and figures to have one of the safety spots locked down. The other safety spot will be up for grabs.
Cornerback will not be settled at all during the spring. Eric Gordon figures to have a spot reserved, but Marsalis Teague, Art Evans and others will be sure to throw their few cents in as well.
This position should be interesting, as should the entire defensive backfield, once fall practice heats up. The Vols will receive an influx of experienced talent in the form of two solid junior college transfers, Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier.
As a true freshman in 2010, Rajion Neal rushed for 197 yards on 46 carries as Tauren Poole's backup. Neal figures to play a much bigger part in the Tennessee offense in 2011. Toney Williams could push Neal a bit this spring.
Poole should have the starting spot wrapped up based on his 1000-yard season in 2010.
Replacing a leader like Nick Reveiz will no doubt be a difficult chore for these Vols.
Herman Lathers has some experience at middle linebacker having played there two seasons ago after Reveiz and Savion Frazier tore their ACL's.
Greg King, who spent much of 2010 injured, will also factor into the discussion along with Raicques Crump and potentially outside linebacker Austin Johnson.
Tennessee's return game was putrid a season ago. No one wanted the ball. There were muffed punts, fumbles during the return, and overall lack of ability at that position all season long.
Defensive back Eric Gordon was one of the culprits that Tennessee could not count on to hold on to the ball, but it's hard to imagine the speedy corner not getting at least one more shot back there.
Da'Rick Rogers nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Kentucky, so he could be used as a returner as well.
In all, the Vols coaching staff will try a number of combinations during the spring considering the awfulness that this position brought last season.
Malik Jackson and Montori Hughes probably have this position nailed down as far as starters are concerned. But lately at Tennessee on the defensive line, it's all about depth. Finding three to four good substitutes will be key to the Vols defensive hopes in 2011.
Some of the help wont get to Knoxville until fall practice, but Joseph Ayers and Stephen Fowlkes should provide at least some depth during the spring.
Go-to Wide Receiver
Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore will definitely be missed. Jones had become the go-to guy in short yardage while Moore was counted on to stretch the field in 2010.
Out last year's incredible recruiting class the Vols staked a claim to returning Wide Receiver U back to its past glory.
With freaks like 6-foot-4, high jumper Justin Hunter and speedy options like Zach and Da'Rick Rogers (no relation), there is no lack for athleticism at wideout. Whether or not there's reliability in addition to that athleticism should be determined in the spring.
This job belongs to Michael Palardy, the lefty who struggled at times with two missed field goals and a missed extra point as a freshman. The sophomore-to-be has incredible leg strength but his progression will be closely monitored throughout the spring.
Palardy is a former rivals.com No. one kicker.
Speaking of highly touted special teams players, punter Matt Darr fits that description just fine.
Darr was a USC commit until Pete Carroll decided to split. Darr then signed a letter of intent with Fresno State before being released after his position coach left for USC.
Darr is the rare athletically gifted punter. As a track and field star, linebacker, and top rated punter, Darr was a finalist for MaxPreps National Athlete of the Year in his senior year of high school.
The job is all his after Chad Cunningham's departure.
Once again, a starting five should not be hard to determine for this group that really grew as the season went along last season. The big question here is depth.
JuWuan James, Dallas Thomas, a healthy Jerquari Schofield, Zach Fulton, and James Stone should be better after a good year of learning the position.
Marques Pair, Carson Anderson, Daniel Hood, and Darin Gooch will get plenty of opportunity to backup the starters. Marcus Jackson, who enrolled early, from Vero Beach, Florida should get some valuable experience during the spring as well.
There will be no competition for the starting job in 2011. That job belongs to sophomore Tyler Bray.
But since everyone is clamoring over Gatorade Player of the Year and Parade All-American, Justin Worley this position needs to be mentioned.
Worley enrolled early to get a jump start on the playbook for 2011. The South Carolina native is going to be fun to watch one day, but he'll likely get third string snaps as Tyler Bray and Matt Simms have the top two spots locked up.