Tennessee Football 2011: 10 Questions We Still Have After the Spring Game
After the less-than-perfect showing in the annual Orange and White game, many began to immediately speculate whether or not the Vols could even achieve a .500 season like last year. For anyone who attended or watched, it was a natural question that no one wanted to ask but did anyway.
Coach Derek Dooley has gone on record to say that he isn't worried about QB Tyler Bray's performance, but he's not sure yet that he is the starter either. We all know that it's very early in the season, and performance will improve as will the talent of the players, but just about everyone with a drawer full of orange T-shirts wants to know is....what does Derek Dooley know for sure?
Is the Right Man in the Huddle?
This year's depth at QB is considerably better than it was last year. You have Matt Simms, who by all accounts ran the Vol offense last year and did remarkably well, considering most of the offensive line could make it through the first quarter and a half before the penetration started filtering in and cleansing Simms out of the line of scrimmage. Tyler Bray had the benefit of an easier schedule and a much improved line as he walked his way through four starts and became Tennessee's next golden child.
This year you get those guys back, and sitting on the bench is arguably the Southeast's best freshman QB in Justin Worley. So who else is there?
Doak Raulston, a Louisiana Tech commit who followed Dooley to Knoxville. What has he done so far? He got in trouble with the law. Then there is Nash Nance, a young talented QB who got lost in Da Rick Rogers's shadow. I have actually watched this young man play, and it's a shame that no one will give him the proper attention he deserves. QB coach Darin Hinshaw is not in an envious position. He must split his time with these young men and be expected to train them so they can step into the limelight at any moment.
Can Justin Wilcox Prove the Spring Game Was a Fluke?
Much like Coach Dooley, DC Justin Wilcox has been given a lot of room to breathe since the regime change.
But, right now he should at least make sure his inhaler is full. The defense allowed allowed net 166 yards from eight different players, and they allowed net 299 yards passing from eight players and one of them was a running back. One thing did impress me out of the defense. Out of 28 players on the defensive squad, all but two players got solo tackles. To me that at least means they are making an effort.
The defense was shorthanded, and they did okay considering the score. But can four more months and incoming freshmen be Wilcox's solution? Only time will tell.
Can the Defense Survive Without Janzen Jackson If He Doesn't Come Back?
You can actually hear the air escaping in the defensive vacuum left open by the absence of DB Janzen Jackson. The biggest fear is wondering whether or not you can lose a starting cornerback who averages 3.1 solos and 2.3 assists per game, and one interception out of every three games.
The inevitable reply is who do you fill that vacuum with....
Can Prentiss Waggner Fill the Backfield Vacuum?
Is too much being laid on the shoulders of Prentiss Waggner?
It kinda trickles down hill. Janzen Jackon had to fill Eric Berry's vacancy, and now it may be up to Waggner if Jackson doesn't show this summer. Regardles of what happens, Waggner is pretty close to Jackson's numbers with an average 2.9 solos, and 1.6 assists per game.
Numbers won't make up for every detail. Jackson became a leader on defense and walked the line after his convenience store Bay-of-Pigs. It will be hard to lead a backfield when personalities get in the way. With improved maturity and the Vol-for-Life program, he could be that man.
Will DL Coach Lance Thompson Fix the Line?
DL coach Lance Thompson will have a very taxing summer. After moving over from LB coach to make room for staff changes, Coach Thompson will still have many obstacles to overcome. Although Willie Bohannon has found new religion at defensive end, he will still have to prove he can do better than his second-team performance from last season when he netted only nine tackles in 11 games. Daniel Hood is yet to be battle proven, but it never hurts to have a 300lb. 6'5" nose guard on the front. From all reports, he continues to improve in the weight room and showed good mobility during double-teams, that could spell out significantly when the incoming freshmen roll in.
The only man who Thompson won't have to worry about is Malik Jackson. With 29 solos, 19 assists, five sacks and one interception on the season, he at least proved that he was buying into the program. With all the youth that exists now, combined with the incoming freshmen, it will indeed be a scary task to prepare a starting squad.
Will the Offensive Line Be Ready?
Yes, again youth is unfortunately a major concern.
My prediction is that Tennessee's big men will set the standard in the SEC East. Last year, the big men didn't show any potential until the Memphis win, and after that the line actually started working together.
The talent is there with guys like OT Dallas Thomas, OG Darin Gooch, OT Alex Bullard, C James Stone, OT Ja Wuan James and OT Zach Fulton. They all seem to be getting under the pads better and maneuvering their spins much better than last season.
Harry Hiestand will have a quality line before the summer ends. If they watch their calories and keep hitting the weights, they will have no problem, and the depth will tolerate an injury or two.
Why Did Rajion Neal Get More Reps Than Tauren Poole?
Did spring practice leave Tauren Poole healthy, or did Dooley limit his reps?
This actually screams that the Vols' rushing game has no depth. Fearing injury, I believe Dooley kept Poole on the bench and let his successor get some much-needed seasoning. Neal finished the 2010 season with 197 yards and averaged 4.3 yards per rush, a far cry from Poole's 1000 plus yards and five yard average.
I expect Neal to be the all-purpose runner as usual this season but will see fewer reps behind Poole and Toney Williams now that Williams has shown his ability to burst through holes.
Is Justin Hunter Tennessee's Best Receiver?
If you judge Justin Hunter's future performance by his showing in the Orange and White game, then you might wonder if he spent too much time offseason doing the long jump. However if you factor in the fact that he was catching some very far-reaching passes from a host of different QBs, things might even themselves out. Hunter will definitely be (insert QB name here)'s go-to guy; however with the arrival of phenom WR DeAnthony Arnett, things could get a little competitive. Factor in Matt Milton and Da Rick Rogers, and it could be all out pandemonium trying to decide where you can throw when everybody is open.
Should Matt Simms Be Given Another Opportunity?
Share and share alike, right?
He finished the season with 129.5 percent QB rating, he passed for 1,460 yards, eight TDs and five interceptions. He received at least two reported concussions and was suspected of having two more. Had he been given the opportunity, he could have won the same games that Tyler Bray did. Simms never lost a game, he just got beat into submission.
The Orange and White game was driven by and won by Simms.
Is Linebacker's Coach Peter Sirmon the Best Man for the Job?
In all fairness, it is rather early to be passing judgement when he has very little time to do his job. But what about the spring game, you ask?
I may have been too quick to judge. Of the 45 solo tackles netted by the defense, 11 of those can be claimed by the LB corps. It's still a far cry from splitting the field, but nonetheless substantial when you consider that Thurman has only had 23 real-live days to tutor and train a brand new group of athletes.
If he can do for incoming freshmen LB Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris what he has already done for the existing roster, there will be a new LB sheriff in the SEC East. Expect to see Maggitt taking reps come opening kickoff.
Can Derek Dooley Promise Anything Besides His Best Effort?
Normally I would accept almost anybody's assurances who offered their best efforts, and that would be enough. What if you had to answer to 6.3 million bosses? That's roughly the population of the state of Tennessee, and that's not including an estimated 2.3 million fanbase outside the state.
It's common sense not to promise anything you don't think you can deliver on. Is this the same mentality that Dooley is keeping quiet? Or, is Dooley to unsure of his ability to offer solace to the throngs of passionate fans waiting on their next General Neyland?
Whatever the answer may be the question is popping up more and more, at least in my circles. In the land of Bulldogs, there now exists a love-hate relationship for the fans of former Georgia Head Coach Vince Dooley. When asked they will tell you that they love Vince Dooley and his family, they love them much like Britains loves the Windsors. Even when Derek Dooley took over for the Vols, there was a definite Georgia exhale that echoed "We don't have to hate Tennessee nearly as much as we used to!"
The common question that was being asked was, "Man, is he as good as Vince was?" After the Orange and White game that question is being heard less often, and polite silence is heard more and more.