Staff photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Ja'Wuan James plays in the annual Orange and White game in Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Editor's note: Today is the second in a three-part, spring practice analysis from University of Tennessee beat writer Wes Rucker. Today's focus is on problems that surfaced on the field.
KNOXVILLE -- The Volatile Volunteers of Tennessee just finished their third spring practice session in three years under a third head coach, and their month on the field shined a light on several potential problems heading into summer conditioning drills.
Here are some of the team's biggest concerns at this point:
1. Center conundrum.
Young tackles Ja'Wuan James and especially Dallas Thomas stepped up and enjoyed solid springs for the Vols, but the interior line is still full of question marks.
The Vols tried at least four linemen at center, but even snapping the ball was an issue at times.
"With everything else that can go wrong during a play ... you'd like to think you could snap the ball right every time," line coach Harry Hiestand lamented one day.
Cody Pope offered some measure of stability when moving to the position late this spring, but he and fellow upperclassman Victor Thomas -- a former defensive lineman -- still have a long way to go to help UT at a crucial position.
Pope vowed he and Thomas would make the necessary improvements.
"Nobody wants to hear they're the weak link on the team, and people are talking about we're going to the weakest link in a weak offensive line," Pope said. "Nobody likes to hear that stuff, but we'll use it as motivation to work as hard as we possibly can all summer long and put ourselves in position to be a strength for this team.
"I've always been a person who thought hard work could overcome any problem. If we work hard, we'll get there, and I know we will."
2. Who's on guard?
The other two-thirds of UT's interior offensive line hasn't generally been something to brag about, either. JerQuari Schofield, considered the Vols' right tackle of the future by Lane Kiffin's staff, has provided new coach Derek Dooley and Co. with some nice punch at right guard. Veteran and early 2009 right tackle starter Jarrod Shaw had his moments at left guard, too, but neither was consistently solid.
Incoming freshman Zach Fulton is a fit 6-foot-5, 318 pounds, and he looks every bit the part of a player who could contribute early. Schofield and particularly Shaw will need strong summers to hold off the highly-touted newcomer.
Dooley said that guard and particularly center were worries heading into the offseason, but he insisted he felt "good" about the current starting five.
"Our biggest concern upfront was the center position, and it still is," Dooley said. "Cody Pope has really persevered through the spring. We've played him at guard, and we've moved him to tackle, and then we moved him inside, and he's ended up being a real steady hand at center. He and Vic will battle it out at center.
"Now, the big concern his depth. We've got some young cats behind them, but I feel good about that first five."
3. Defensive tackle quantity.
It's not hard to see why the Vols feel good about their starting defensive tackles. Mammoth Montori Hughes was a constant nuisance (in a good way) throughout the spring, and smaller, quicker Marlon Walls had three sacks in the Orange and White game.
But there are nothing but questions behind that duo.
Rising senior Chase Nelson still looks the part in pads but has never lived up to the billing he came to UT with as a four-star prospect from Oklahoma, converted ends Rae Sykes and Steven Fowlkes are still learning the position and youngster Arthur Jeffery hasn't seemed ready to contribute.
The Vols need junior college signee John Brown to qualify academically and arrive in camp ready to help from the start. Talent isn't a question for the former Florida Gator, but coaches won't feel at ease until he reports to campus.
4. Poole ... then who?
Tauren Poole practiced this spring like he's done since the first day he arrived on campus three years ago. In other words, he's performed very well. Most days, especially in scrimmages, he seemed like the offense's best player.
But there are nothing but questions behind him.
David Oku proved again to look more like a third-down back than an every-down back, while Chattanooga native Toney Williams showed he wasn't nearly 100 percent back from last year's ACL tear.
In fairness, Oku now gets a full summer with UT's strength staff, and Williams will have a full summer to continue physically and mentally rehabbing his knee. Incoming freshman Rajion Neal is a powerful runner who looks nothing like a high school senior in street clothes.
Most competitive SEC teams need three solid, healthy running backs going into the season, though, and it's fair to question whether the Vols will have that many.
5. Stocker ... then who?
Dooley has left little room for interpretation when asked about the tight end position. He loves the big, versatile pass-catchers and considers them a crucial piece to his offensive system.
The good news is UT returns one of the best tight ends in the SEC (if not all of college football) in athletic, 6-6 Luke Stocker. The bad news is Stocker has anything but a proven backup.
The 6-1 duo of Ben Lehning and Ben Bartholomew look more like fullbacks than tight ends, and 6-6 walk-on transfer Daniel Adderley from Miami hasn't made many noteworthy plays.
UT needs junior college signee Mychal Rivera from California to arrive this summer in shape and ready to compete for the No. 2 position. An optimist would suggest that Vols' coaches expect Rivera to do just that, but nearly everything in the SEC is worthy of initial skepticism.
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