5 key questions coming out of spring

For Tennessee to return to championship-level play, the Vols must improve in several areas. They must be better at running the ball and stopping the run. They must find play makers at receiver. They must shore up the secondary. And they must find a replacement for kicker James Wilhoit.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer was encouraged by many of the things he saw during 15 spring practices. But he knows there is work to be done for a team that couldn't hold 10-point second-half leads against Florida and LSU last year, wasn't physical enough against Arkansas and played without pizzaz against Penn State.

Here is a look at five key questions coming out of spring practice:

HOW MUCH IMPROVEMENT DID THE OFFENSIVE LINE SHOW?

Quite a bit. The Vols ran the ball much better during the spring, but their ability to convert short-yardage situations remains a mystery.

Chris Scott has apparently found a home at left tackle, but he won't be as effective as Jacobs Award winner Arron Sears. Eric Young is solid at right tackle, although Young and Scott could switch spots. Young has All-SEC potential, according to UT coaches. Same for center Josh McNeil.

Guards Anthony Parker and Ramon Foster are good enough.

Line coach Greg Adkins also believes guard Jacques McClendon, Ramone Johnson and Steve Jones can help – if not start. Center Michael Frogg was an early starter last season and Vlad Richard, moved from defense, has a chance to play.

That gives Tennessee more depth than it's had in years.

DID ANY RECEIVERS EMERGE?

Not really. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor said Quintin Hancock, Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers – 11 combined catches in the spring game – could play now.

But Fulmer said the Vols are in dire need of dynamic play makers at wideout.

``It's very difficult to lose a first-rounder,'' Fulmer said of Robert Meachem. ``That's hard to replace. We don't have anyone with the dynamics to be a difference-maker in the SEC.''

And he said several newcomers – like junior college transfer Kenny O'Neal – will have a chance to break into the lineup in the fall.

Hancock appears to be the best play maker now.

``He comes closest to making the tough catch of anyone we've got and he's capable of running by you,'' Fulmer said.

This might be the most pedestrian group of receivers UT has had in years. If that's the case, UT's run game becomes that much more important.

DID ANY DEFENSIVE LINEMEN EMERGE?

Yes, and that's a good sign. Demonte Bolden, who suffered a neck injury in the spring game, Dan Williams and J.T. Mapu are all much better than last fall. Mapu struggled last season coming off a two-year Mormon mission but he has All-SEC ability.

The bad sign: The Vols don't have much depth at defensive tackle, one reason they experimented more with the 3-4 alignment.

Walter Fisher (shoulder problems), Chase Nelson (undersized at 256), true freshman Donald Langley and redshirt freshman Victor Thomas must make strides to provide adequate depth.

Chavis really likes defensive ends Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell.

DID THE SECONDARY FILL SOME HOLES?

Absolutely. Marsalous Johnson was the most improved defensive player during the spring. Antonio Gaines emerged as a starting cornerback. And Jarod Parrish came out of nowhere to record four interceptions in the last two Saturdays.

``Parrish is an amazing story,'' Fulmer said of the fifth-year senior who has played in 10 games.

Parrish reminded Fulmer of a former UT All-American. In 1985, Chris White had been a career backup before an injury opened the door for him to start. He made three interceptions in his first game and led the nation with 10.

Parrish, who said he's battled injuries throughout his career, isn't blessed with great ability, but he is smart.

Jonathan Hefney is the best free safety in the SEC, if not the nation.

Roshaun Fellows, a former Freshman All-American, Ricardo Kemp and Antonio Wardlow battled for playing time.

While the secondary improved, Fulmer noted that UT signed two junior college defensive backs, and ``you don't sign junior college players unless you expect them to come in and start.''

The competition should be heated in August.

DID THE NO-HUDDLE OFFENSE SHOW SIGNS OF EFFICIENCY?

Yes it did. Before his knee injury, Ainge was having a ``fantastic'' spring, according to Fulmer.

The no-huddle will allow Tennessee to find some mismatches – one of David Cutcliffe's strengths – and hurry the pace, if necessary.

UT can also run out of the no-huddle. The one concern: Does the no-huddle cause your linemen to block with more finesse, thus making it harder to convert short-yardage situations?

We won't know the answer to that until September.

It was disappointing that Jonathan Crompton didn't take advantage of Ainge's absence to advance his case as a potential SEC starter. Nick Stephens has a good arm, but throws too many interceptions.

Fulmer liked much of the progress UT made in the spring, but he knows much more must be accomplished in the offseason for the Vols to be a SEC title team.

``I think it'll be a fun team to coach,'' Fulmer said. ``But right now, if we took 70 to Cal (for the season opener) I don't know if we could fill up the plane.''


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