Top 5 Storylines for Tennessee Volunteers 2013 Spring Game
Tennessee Begins the Butch Jones Era
Tennessee concludes the first spring practice under first-year head coach Butch Jones on Saturday for the Volunteers' annual Orange and White game from lovely Neyland Stadium and face a litany of questions after a 5-7 season. The Volunteers saw a revolving door of key players at skill positions bolt early for the NFL draft including quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson in the wake of the firing of Derek Dooley after three dismal seasons in Knoxville.
Enter Jones who is now the third head coach of the Volunteers since legendary head coach Phillip Fulmer and the school unceremoniously parted ways following the 2008 season. Following the failed Lane Kiffin experiment and three years under Dooley the program is searching for permanence and stability at the head coaching position.
Tennessee hasn’t won a bowl game since 2008, hasn’t had a winning record since 2009, hasn’t finished conference play with a winning record since 2007 and hasn’t won the SEC championship since 1999 when they won the first BCS National Championship.
However, after back-to-back 1-7 seasons in the SEC and two years without a bowl appearance there is good news on the horizon as this sleeping giant of a football program is ready for Jones to rebuild this program “brick by brick” and restore the pride and tradition of this tradition-rich university. I think he will do it once he gets a couple recruiting classes under his belt.
The first brick will be laid this Saturday for his first ever Orange and White game and these five storylines are what I’ll be watching for on Saturday in the middle of a sea of orange and white.
5. Fans Packing Neyland Stadium
Maybe you were expecting something about a defense that was the worst in the SEC last year in scoring defense, but I wanna see how the fans pack Neyland Stadium on Saturday. This group is hungry for a perennial winner and wants this program to “rise to the top” brick by brick with Jones at the helm. I’m expecting to see at least 50,000, maybe even 60,000 fans in orange and white supporting Jones, his staff and the players as they erase the memories from the Dooley and Kiffin years.
4. Potentially Elite Offensive Line
With so much talent departing the team from the skill positions the area of strength for this offense will be its offensive line which returns four starters, only losing guard Dallas Thomas who could be a second round pick in the draft. The line is led by the best set of offensive tackles in the conference and perhaps the country in Ja’Wuan James and Antonio “Tiny” Richardson. The 6-6, 325-pound Richardson could challenge to be one of the first offensive tackles taken in next year’s draft while James could enter the first round conversation as well after deciding to return for his senior season. Senior Jason Stone returns at the pivot with fellow senior Zach Fulton entrenched at one of the guard spots. The biggest question is who gets Thomas’ vacated spot on the line between senior Alex Bullard and junior Marcus Jackson.
3. Who Steps up at Wide Receiver and Tight End?
Affectionately known as “wide receiver U” the program will really put that reputation to test this season. The departures of Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter who could both be first round picks in next week’s NFL draft hurt, but the Vols also lose Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera. Those are the four top receivers from last season, but it does present an opportunity for young and talented pass-catchers.
Whoever winds up as the quarterback will have an inexperienced bunch of targets to throw from a group that includes Jacob Carter, Vincent Dallas, Alton Howard, Jason Croom and Drae Bowles. At tight end look for JUCO transfer Woody Quinn to get a chance to beat out Brandan Downs and Justin Meredith.
2. Who Replaces Tyler Bray?
Tyler Bray declared for the NFL draft after his junior season after an up-and-down career that largely didn’t live up to his potential. However, his departure leaves a big hole at the game’s most important position on the field. Two talented freshmen recruits, Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, will enter the competition this summer but currently the two fighting it out are Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman. Will one of them play head and shoulders above the other and enter the summer as the clear-cut starter or will one of the aforementioned freshmen have a legit opportunity to start.
1. Butch Jones
For the first time since taking over for the over-matched Derek Dooley fans will get to see new head coach Butch Jones at Neyland Stadium. We’ve seen him at basketball games, NASCAR events and working hard on the recruiting trail, which looks like he could have a 2014 class among the top five in the nation, but this will be the first time to see his brand of football.
At Cincinnati Jones earned a share of the Big East title for two straight seasons before his arrival in Knoxville and has won 19 games over the past two seasons for the Bearcats. He’s already won over the fan base, support staff and now he needs to prove that he’s leap years ahead of Dooley and Lane Kiffin in the coaching department--that's a slam dunk.