KNOXVILLE — Preparing for a game should be easier this season for Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
The Volunteers were limited at the skill positions entering 2013, but the development of some second-year players and an infusion of first-year talent have Bajakian feeling much differently heading into Tennessee's season opener against Utah State in nine days.
"Significantly better," Bajakian said after Thursday's practice.
"Guys have developed quite a bit more. The guys that were here last year were new to the scene. Those guys are a year into the program and much further along, and even the guys that joined us in January have a lot of reps and a lot of skills under their belt. It provides more weapons for me as a play-caller, but definitely for the quarterback as he manages the offense."
The increase in options is a welcome sign for an offense that took a step back last season after the 2012 group, which featured a handful of future NFL players and a couple of first-round picks in receiver Cordarrelle Patterson and tackle Ja'Wuan James, registered one of the best statistical seasons in program history.
In 2013, Tennessee finished 11th in the SEC in scoring (23.8 points per game) and 12th in the conference in total offense after finishing fourth and second in those categories in 2012.
While the success this season largely will depend on how a new-look offensive line jells and the play of quarterback Justin Worley, the Vols certainly have upgraded the receiver and tight end spots.
"It just gives us more options," Bajakian said. "It gives us more flexibility with formations and personnel, and really allows us to move a little bit faster because we don't have to necessarily place guys in the exact spot we want them.
"When guys have multiple skill sets, they can move around and they can play multiple positions, and it allows us a little more flexibility to get lined up quickly."
Of course, the biggest reason for the increase in options is how quickly Tennessee's coaches have flipped the roster heading into their second season.
"It's something that we've done everywhere we've been, and obviously we can only be as good as our personnel," Bajakian said. "We've had good success recruiting and are continuing to have good success recruiting, and that's a key part, a key element of what we're doing."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek seems fairly concerned about Tennessee's situation at defensive tackle, where the Vols will use two converted ends, a junior college transfer and another 19-year-old freshman. The Vols will be an undersized group, and that in particular has Jancek a little uneasy.
"Yes, I am [concerned]. Yes," he said. "We have to have a contingency plan in regard to that."
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling said he feels good about playing five defensive tackles right now. Senior Jordan Williams, redshirt junior Danny O'Brien, juco transfer Owen Williams and freshman Dimarya Mixon figure to do most of the heavy lifting. Freshman Michael Sawyers will have to play as long as Trevarris Saulsberry is out with a knee injury.
"Mike Sawyers is a work in progress," Stripling said. "Typical freshman. He's got a long ways to go as far as understanding what college football's all about and the total commitment of taking care of your body, three meals a day, getting enough sleep, intensity every day. He's a work in progress."
Both Jancek and Stripling struggled to contain their excitement when talking about freshman defensive ends Derek Barnett and Dewayne Hendrix, four-star recruits who will play significant roles for the Vols this season.
"I would not call Barnett a typical freshman," Stripling said. "Barnett seems to weather things. He seems to have a maturity about them. He seems to be able to grind through. Same way with Dewayne. He's miles ahead of your typical freshman, so I'm really pleased with those two."
Both players have impressed Tennessee's coaches since the early parts of training camp and bring a presence off the edge the Vols long have missed. The hope is that they and a healthy Curt Maggitt can improve Tennessee's sack total. The Vols finished last in the SEC in that category in 2012 and 2013.
"That's a tall order for a freshman," Jancek said, "but certainly you can see that, 'Man, these guys have got some skill level and some talent.' That's exciting for us as coaches."
Maggitt on mend
After missing more than a week of practice with an ankle injury, Maggitt was back at practice Thursday, though he spent part of the period open to the media working one-on-one with a trainer.
The oft-injured junior appears on track to play in the opener, but he's missed a bunch of practice time and hasn't played since November 2012, when he tore his ACL late in the Vols' four-overtime loss to Missouri.
"He's been staying in shape," Jancek said. "He's been in the water on the treadmill, on the bike, elliptical, all those things, so I think he's done a good job on maintaining his conditioning levels. It's just going to be getting out there and actually playing to see what he can do. He hasn't played in a game in a long time. I'm excited for him."
Tennessee, which should be more multiple defensively this season, spent most of the preseason in a nickel defense with two linebackers and five defensive backs, and Jancek said either Maggitt or juco transfer Chris Weatherd would be the third linebacker alongside A.J. Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin in a more traditional 4-3 look.
"I like his ability to rush the passer," Jancek said of Weatherd. "He's got good traits in terms of pass-rushing ability, change of direction. He gives us another athlete on the field. He's done some good things in regards to that."
Freshman receiver Vic Wharton returned to practice after missing most of the last week with an undisclosed injury. ... Worley's biggest improvements from last season to this season, per Bajakian, are his rhythm, anticipation and decision-making. ... Bajakian said the backup quarterback competition between Nathan Peterman and Josh Dobbs is still ongoing: "They compete every day."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...