KNOXVILLE — The only changes were a new strength and conditioning coach and some shifting of assistant coaches on the defensive staff. Compared to years past, the winter months this time around were much tamer for a Tennessee football program that had gone through changes at the top each of the previous two offseasons.
And now the Volunteers return to the practice field Tuesday for their second spring practice under coach Derek Dooley, looking to continue to build off a strong finish to last season.
“It’s a lot more relaxed, a lot more laid-back as far as outside of football,” junior-to-be cornerback Marsalis Teague said earlier this offseason. “We’re still putting in the same amount of work that we were doing [last offseason], but now it just seems like it’s more lax outside of football.
“People are easygoing more about things because we know where we’re going right now. Before it was like, ‘What to expect?’ Now we know what to expect, and so it makes it that much more easier.”
The expectations are a bit higher in Dooley’s second year, especially after the Vols won four straight games in November with a lineup loaded with freshmen. But two of UT’s weaknesses last season — youth and depth — can’t necessarily be fixed in a season. Attrition has decimated the Vols’ junior and classes, and the 2011 roster will be predominantly sophomores and freshmen.
Fourteen true freshmen were regular contributors, including at key positions such as quarterback with Tyler Bray and the offensive line with Ja’Wuan James, James Stone and Zach Fulton. That group could be considered the veterans for the Vols.
“I think so because we’ve got a lot of younger guys coming,” said receiver Justin Hunter, who set a freshman record with seven touchdown catches in 2010. “In the position I’m in right now, I’m the old guy for the receivers. We want to have a winning season and just take over where the seniors left off, just trying to build the program back up.”
That will take continuing the process of building depth across the board. The Vols didn’t have comfortable backups on the left side of the offensive line at times last season. Mychal Rivera is the only returning tight end who’s caught a pass, and Ben Martin’s second Achilles’ tendon injury leaves Corey Miller, Jacques Smith and Willie Bohannon as the lone three scholarship players at defensive end. Also, both starting safeties from the end of last year, Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer, currently aren’t with the team.
While reinforcements, specifically in the secondary and along the offensive and defensives lines, should arrive this summer, the Vols certainly will be looking for guys already on campus to step up.
“I think a lot of schools that win national championships, they have depth at every position,” senior-to-be cornerback Art Evans said. “I think that just explains it all. For us to get to where we want to go, everybody has to push everybody. If it’s four or 15 or however far down line, I think that’s the biggest thing, that we do have depth.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...