Tennessee Vols Orange and White Spring Game: 10 Questions That Must Be Answered
The two best teams in Tennessee.
It's here! It's here!
That's right Vol fans. It's spring, and that means we get a sneak preview of the improved Volunteers at the annual Orange and White game—and we get to catch a few glimpses of those new Dooley recruits.
There are many indications that this could be the year when the offense comes out swinging, but as history has a nasty way of repeating itself, we could still see the defense deliver the expected knockout blows.
There are questions in abundance, but which ones will be answered?
Can Linebackers Coach Peter Sirmon Improve the Defense?
Is Peter Sirmon a blessing for Wilcox?
The new hiring acquisition from Oregon is in many respects already justified just from his more-than-adequate performance with Oregon and Central Washington. The rumor mill has quickly provided speculation that his hiring was more about Chuck Smith and Justin Wilcox not being able to get along than playing musical coaches.
Sirmon knows Wilcox's swarm-to-the-ball philosophy and knows how to use it after spending six years with the Tennessee Titans as starting linebacker. His experience on and off the field will help foster the mindset Dooley is looking for and his professionalism from play will help chisel away poor scrimmage habits that go along with spring.
He has big shoes to fill as Lance Thompson has stepped aside to handle the defensive line.
Expect to see linebackers with a brand new fire and just a tiny bit crispier keying in on assignments.
Who Will Be Tauren Poole's Successor?
Will Neal step up to the plate.
By all accounts, this should be a stellar year for Tauren Poole, who will have the benefit of an improved line to open holes for him and improved cohesion from a consistently starting QB. Barring any injuries, a 1500-yard season isn't out of the question for the Tyrone, GA native.
So who will step up to the plate when Poole is gone? Rajion Neal is the obvious choice because there hasn't been another out of depth. This year, depth is still a question because of youth, but you need two RBs to make your running game work.
The interesting matchup will be between incoming recruits, Marlin Lane (who is rumored to have returned to pre-injury speed), Devrin Young (who is seriously lacking in size) and Apopka, FL native Tom Smith (who has supposedly been training really, really hard pre-spring). The good news is a higher level of competition for the ground game.
An early indication on Saturday is more than necessary.
Can Ron McKeefery Do for Tennessee What He Did for South Florida?
There was somewhat of a gasp when strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie departed for the Longhorns. It was unexpected but not a shock when he returned to Texas, where he had previously helped Texas Tech improve their squad into consistent bowl contenders.
And just when the Vols started to hang their heads, a new hero emerged.
Fans of college football now know what the South Florida Bulls are and Ron McKeefery played a big part in that. Showing up on the South Florida campus in 2000, McKeefery set up shop for the next 10 years and polished the Bulls strength until they became Big East contenders—not bad for Division I-AA. He then decided to help a little group of soldiers called the Green Berets—that is, until Coach Dooley lured him away.
The amount of conditioning soldiers receive in the Special Forces is second to none. If he instills a fraction of that into Volunteer players, they'll never break a sweat. While Bennie Wylie was a huge loss, I have to believe CDD when he said the program had just improved with McKeefery's hiring.
Saturday will provide negative results if Vols are winded early.
Who Will Lead the Defense?
Can he fill the defensive void?
There is no doubt that Nick Reveiz was the heart of the defense last season, and Eric Berry before that. So who will fill the void in their absence?
I think most Vols were actually downright giddy when DE Malik Jackson jumped ship at USC, leaving Ed Orgeron shouting after him, as he fled for the Smoky Mountains.
Jackson has been selfless, filling whatever role is asked of him and for any coach, it speaks volumes of your character. LB Shane Reveiz should be an obvious choice, but even with great scrimmages, he has yet to display the same level of talent as his brother Nick.
The incoming recruits will need a battle-tested veteran like Jackson who can direct on-field operations, and if it isn't Jackson, the only other man in my opinion is Raiques Crump. He may not be the best LB but he is great at running a defense—and he was an Eagle Scout. Ya gotta love that.
I predict Jackson's draft stock goes through the roof by November regardless of position.
Who Is the Weakest Link?
He's a linebacker too?
This isn't fair but you have to point the finger somewhere.
Matt Darr is by all accounts a very good punter or he wouldn't have been rated No. 1 at his position. The cool thing about Darr is he is also a decent track-and-field athlete having qualified for state competition in shot put and discus. He's an above-average linebacker which means those speedy returners won't have an easy time getting past him like other punters.
So why is he the weakest link? Simply, he's unproven. Well so is half the team, you argue? If Palardy ends up taking most of the reps Saturday, it will be a clear indication that a chink exists in Darr's armor.
Like I said, you have to point the finger somewhere.
Will Michael Palardy Remember He Can Kick?
Can he toe the line?
Michael, Michael, Michael—settle down.
Last season was really lackluster when you consider the missed opportunities—no pun intended. However, this season you will be out of Daniel Lincoln's shadow, and you have no choice but to shine.
The thing that Michael Palardy will have to remember is that Lane Kiffin recruited him for his accuracy and consistency and so far, all we have really seen is a few PATs and decent kickoffs. Points are what make a good kicker; nothing fancy—just put it between the uprights and have a seat. Palardy is on the money inside the 40, going 5-5.
Unfortunately, his long game needs work after that. This season should wisen up those talented toes.
Remember: Laces out and know your sweets spots for windage. Just for a little inspiration, watch this:
Hey, I know it sucks but this is what is expected of you—or rather, your foot. Nothing less than 100 percent will be acceptable for scrimmage play.
Will Special Teams Finally Be Special?
Special team coach Eric Russel stands watch.
This year, special teams coach Eric Russell has plenty to prove.
The Frank Broyles Award nominee has been hailed as the best at what he does. Special teams coaches are usually the first staff members to feel the sting of downsizing due to performance, but Dooley will keep this man under lock and key for as long as Russell wants. During his tenure at Louisiana Tech from 2007-2008, he developed the nation's No. 1 special teams unit, leading in every stat except for points accumulated. In 2009, he then went on to Texas Tech where accolades continued until he wound up back where Dooley wanted him.
Last year was far from accolades; I sincerely hope this will be his season.
The greatest need at this point is having a returner that can catch the ball and know how to wave off the uncatchable ones. The lack of experience was crystal clear last season, as the average punt return was 4.1 yards. Kickoff returns were decent, but high school freshmen can match last season's average of 21.5 yards and never break a sweat.
I know it's very tough and critical but shouldn't more be expected of scholarship athletes?
Da'Rick Rogers may finally answer all naysayers as the rumored hero, but I don't think Saturday will prove his ability. Look for the usual mix of anybody that wants to try.
Will Justin Wilcox Have Enough Depth To Make Things Happen?
I see you.
This season should be markedly better for Justin Wilcox when you consider who he had on the roster last season and what he did with them.
The defensive line was really the star, as they out-hurried opponent QBs 44-33, five of which came from Montori Hughes and six coming courtesy of Chris Walker. Nine fumbles were forced; of those nine, five came from the defensive line.
Sadly, tackles for a loss were...well, a loss. The Vol defense trailed opponents in this category 320-420 yards, with only 26 sacks to the opponents' 41. However, a true bright spot is the Vol defense intercepted 18-15, and piled up 294 yards to the opponents' 197. This is a credit to the guys in the backfield considering only 43 pass plays were broken up the entire season.
Saturday will not be an indication of the Vol defense's true prowess. Expect these negative stats to flip-flop and the positives to increase by at least 25 percent.
Will Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney Be a Hero?
Jim Chaney needs to step up.
Derek Dooley was definitely the bigger man in the room when he decided to keep Jim Chaney as the man in the skybox, as a defined West Coast stink was left on the offensive table prior to his arrival.
As luck would have it, Coach Chaney had the same offensive mentality that Urban Meyer had been using to beat Tennessee consecutively over the last six years. True to form, Chaney was Lane Kiffin's first choice to run that same spread-option style, seeing as how Meyer had consulted Chaney heavily to manufacture his own spread offense.
This time around, Chaney will see things gel for his NFL-geared gimmicks. With an improved line and seasoned receivers, it will be a whole new ballgame (pun intended) for SEC defenses across the board.
Who Will Be Tennessee's Herald?
A good problem to have.
Despite what many think, Matt Simms is decent QB.
What must be realized is that the offensive line didn't start hitting on all cylinders until Tyler Bray started against Memphis. Through all of the OL tribulations, Simms still managed to throw for 1460 yards. Not impressive? Well, I think it's fair to assume your game would be off too if you were getting your bell rung almost every play.
Still—Tyler Bray is seemingly the Vol's champion for the foreseeable future and it is well earned. Despite having thrown five more interceptions than Simms, he also managed to pile up 18 TDs to his eight.
The caveat is maturity. If Bray can keep his emotions in check, cut out the sign language and remember that literally millions of people are watching his every move, it will be virtually impossible for Matt Simms to get back into the captain's chair. However, his character is nothing short of professional, a far cry from his days at Louisville.
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Thanks for reading and Godspeed.