published Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Checking out 'the bad' — Three concerns for UT

Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
Tennessee wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson (84).
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It's just one day away.

New University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones will hold his spring practice news conference late Friday morning, and the Volunteers will hit Haslam Field for the first of 15 practices nearly 24 hours later.

Tennessee is coming off a 5-7 season in 2012, so there are holes to fill and positions of concern.

The biggest -- and loudest -- complaints from the Vols Nation were directed at the previous coaching staff. With running backs coach Jay Graham's recent defection to Florida State, there is not one holdover from last year's staff.

Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen. Still, there are a slew of areas of concern as Jones and Co. start their first spring practice Friday.

Today on page D5 we will take a look at some potential concerns facing the Vols as they head in to spring practice.

KNOXVILLE — As it continues its weeklong spring practice preview, the Times Free Press will survey the bad — three potential problem areas the Vols must repair or improve.

1 Pass catchers

When receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson declared early for the NFL draft, the talented duo took 119 catches, 1,861 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches with them to the next level. Add that production to the 58-catch, 1,053-yard, 12-touchdown seasons of graduated receiver Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera, and Tennessee has a massive production hole to fill at receiver and tight end. In fact, the Vols' returning receivers and tight ends accounted for just 14 percent of receptions and nearly 11 percent of the yards in 2012.

Though some incoming freshman talent should help, the players already on campus should have plenty of chances to impress the new coaches and build comfortability and timing with new quarterbacks Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman. Vincent Dallas is the team's returning leader in yards, and Jacob Carter, a former walk-on, quietly developed into a dependable target. Paul Harris, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound early enrollee, already has caught the eye of the coaching staff.

At tight end, Brendan Downs is a junior who's shown some nice ability in the past, and Justin Meredith is finally healthy after missing the entire 2012 season with a nagging hamstring problem.

2 Pass defenders

A troublesome position for Tennessee, cornerback again looks to be a concern for the Vols, who lose Prentiss Waggner and Marsalis Teague from a position that struggled in 2012, when Tennessee played too much man coverage. Justin Coleman is the most experienced player in the unit, but he struggled at times last season. Among the other options are Daniel Gray, a speedy rising sophomore who had a tough time in his lone start against Troy last season, fifth-year senior Naz Oliver and former walk-on Jaron Toney. How will Tennessee's new defensive use Eric Gordon, another fifth-year senior who, like Toney, played mostly nickelback last season?

Jones signed junior college transfer Riyahd Jones and enrolled him on campus in January, clear evidence he knew the cornerback position needed immediate help. Some other options arrive as freshmen in the summer, but the group on campus likely will provide the core at corner.

3 Pass rushers

The math is simple: Tennessee sacked opposing quarterbacks an SEC-low 17 times last season, and the team leader in sacks -- Darrington Sentimore, who had four -- surprisingly declared for the NFL draft. Graduated linebackers Herman Lathers and Willie Bohannon took three more sacks with them, too.

Tennessee seemingly has lacked a pass-rushing threat in recent years, and the Vols must try to find one again this season. What will this staff do with Daniel McCullers, the mammoth nose tackle big enough to plug the run and collapse a pocket? He had just one sack last season and, after playing last season in the 360-pound range, could play at a lower weight with a new staff in a new scheme.

Corey Miller and Jordan Williams are possibilities at defensive end. Curt Maggitt might be the Vols' best edge-rushing option, but he may be better suited at linebacker and won't be available for the spring as he recovers from a knee injury. How will the roles of players like Jacques Smith and Trevarris Saulsberry look in a new scheme?

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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