KNOXVILLE — When the going got tough last season, Tennessee's football team got going in the wrong direction.
Turnovers became points for the other team. One-score games became blowouts. The Volunteers ultimately bottomed out at season's end.
If UT is to improve its win total this fall, it'll need to answer negatives with positives. The Vols, who report for preseason training camp today, believe they'll handle it. They won't know for sure, though, until the first adversity hits.
"We've had a lot of it," UT's third-year coach Derek Dooley said at Southeastern Conference media days earlier this month. "You've got to get back in the fire. The only way to do it you keep throwing it out there.
"What I'm hoping is we're better equipped to handle it because we've got a deeper, more talented and more experience football team. Most guys who handle adversity when they through it the first time, they don't know how to react. Our guys have been through it now."
UT clearly wasn't there a year ago. The Vols went into a shell when receiver Justin Hunter went down with injury against Florida, and a bad third-quarter sequence cost them against Georgia. Though undermanned, the Vols went toe-to-toe for a half with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas before second-half meltdowns.
Aside from freshman receiver Alton Howard's recovery from foot surgery, the Vols begin preseason practice relatively healthy. The offense has high hopes with a possibly potent passing game. The Vols are breaking in a new system defensively, which is sure to bring highs and lows.
The biggest intangible question they face entering the season, though, is how to react when things can go wrong. Dooley, who addresses the media at 5:30 p.m. today, said there have been "good, positive signs" that his team's leadership is better. Moreover, the coach pointed again to his roster as evidence the Vols will handle adversity more effectively.
"I think you have to have a certain level of ability on your roster that can compete," Dooley said. "There's a leadership component [to handling adversity], but there's also a talent component. The coach has got to do a great job of putting the players in the right position to make a play.
"There were times [last season] we didn't handle it very well, and there were times that it wasn't that we weren't handling it very well, we were just getting whipped on the football field. We were playing a team that was putting it on us, and we weren't good enough. What I hope is this year that we don't run into a team where we fell like we don't have the guns to go out there and take it to them for four quarters."
As it opens practice on Friday, Tennessee expects to be a better football team across the board. But that doesn't mean the Volunteers are without a handful of concerns as the preseason begins. The Times Free Press looks at the biggest five questions.
1. Who takes control at running back?
It's been well-documented: Tennessee was 116th nationally last season in rushing yards per game. While the offensive line must block better, the biggest key for the Vols is finding a running back who can run consistently, make players miss and be physical enough to get that extra yard. Exiting spring, the backfield competition was "thick," as Rajion Neal put it.
"We don't go out there to think about who's going to start," said Marlin Lane. We just go out there together and compete. We're not satisfied with the run game from last year."
Neal, who's had fumbling problems, enters August as the slight favorite, and Lane's the leading returning rusher. Devrin Young likely has carved out touches with his speed. The Vols are anxious to see if freshman Davante Bourque can add a dimension.
2. How much have the cornerbacks improved?
UT's secondary allowed 13 pass plays of 30 yards or more last season, mostly when opposing receivers simply outran a Vol cornerback. With new position coach Derrick Ansley preaching and teaching press-coverage techniques, UT hopes to avoid that. But someone will need to step up.
"We're definitely not where we want to be," Ansley said after spring. "We're just trying to find guys who can compete at a high level all the time. Once we get that recipe, we'll be fine."
Izauea Lanier, perhaps best suited to play more physically at the line, is ineligible this season. That leaves Prentiss Waggner, Marsalis Teague and Justin Coleman as returning players battling for starting spots. Freshman Deion Bonner, who turned some heads in summer workouts, is also in the mix.
3. How good will UT's defense be up front?
The Vols were 11th in the SEC last season in sacks, and coach Derek Dooley voiced his own concerns about his defensive line's ability to stop the run at spring's end.
Waggner, a defensive back, was second in sacks last season behind the departed Malik Jackson, so UT needs pass rushers to emerge. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri may have to be creative in devising ways to develop pressure.
Junior-college transfer Daniel McCullers, who's listed at a whopping 6-foot-7, 377 pounds, was brought in to be the prototypical run-stuffing nose tackle in the 3-4 defense. How quickly he adjusts could determine UT's run-stopping efforts. It took Maurice Couch half a season to make the transition last season.
"I think we're going to have to do some things to stop the run," Dooley said. "Nobody's really put their hand in the dirt [on] the defensive line and lined up and said, 'We're going to whip your tail.'"
4. How reliable is UT's kicking game?
Young helped solve the Vols' return-game woes last season, but the kicking-game situation is more dire entering the season. Michael Palardy and walk-on Derrick Broadus missed field goals in the spring game. There wasn't much more confidence in punter Matt Darr.
Palardy, formerly a top-rated high-school kicker, has largely been a disappointment. Darr averaged 38 yards on 40 punts as a redshirt freshman last season. The Vols also must adjust to college football's new kickoff rules.
If UT plays more close games this season, its field-goal kicking will certainly come into play, and that area might be the Vols' biggest concern.
"There's competition there, yeah," Dooley said. "You've got to perform, especially at kicker. You miss a few field goals and it's hard to have a lot of patience."
5. Is Tennessee's offense ready to be great?
With a defense in transition, the Vols might need to light up a scoreboard or two. The passing-game components — quarterback Tyler Bray, the receiver trio of Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson and tight end Mychal Rivera — have generated some buzz this summer. But as Dooley pointed out at SEC media days, it's unproven.
"We have some ability," he said, "but we haven't really proven we can do it."
Hunter was hurt in game three last season, Bray has yet to play a full season and Patterson is making the jump from junior college. The offense's fate is in Bray's hands. But can the whole unit put it all together?
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 ...