Surprising spring

Head football coaches generally dislike surprises. Being a somewhat anal-retentive bunch, they want to know what's going to happen before it does.

Sometimes, though, the unknown can be a good thing. That appears to be the case for Tennessee's head man this spring. Phillip Fulmer readily admits he is "about as excited as I've been to get started with spring practice," and that's largely because this shapes up to be the most unpredictable spring of his 16-year tenure.

By comparison, the Vols were painfully predictable last spring. Senior Erik Ainge was locked in as the No. 1 quarterback for the fourth consecutive year. The coaching staff was locked in, as well, returning intact from the previous season. The Vols were locked in to running the same basic offense they had utilized since 1977. Moreover, everyone had a pretty good idea who the starters would be and who the team leaders would be. As a result, spring ball was almost anti-climactic.

There is nothing predictable or anti-climactic about this spring, however. Instead, there is an incredible influx of youthful enthusiasm – on the staff and the roster – along with a mind-boggling number of questions to be answered.

To wit:

- How will new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's West Coast attack differ from what Tennessee has run in the past?

- How will the arrival of four new aides – Clawson, receivers coach Latrell Scott, running backs coach Stan Drayton and tight ends coach Jason Michael – affect the direction and performance of the offense?

- How will new terminology and new wrinkles impact cohesion?

- How will the quarterback's role evolve now that Ainge is gone?

- Who will emerge as the No. 2 running back behind senior standout Arian Foster?

- How competent will the tight end position be now that two-year starters Chris Brown and Brad Cottam are no longer around?

- Who'll play defensive end now that two-year starters Antonio Reynolds and Xavier Mitchell have exhausted their eligibility?

- Who'll be the bell cow on defense now that superstar linebacker Jerod Mayo and four-year starting defensive back Jonathan Hefney have departed?

- How good can an enormously gifted (but still youthful) secondary be?

- Who will be the team leaders now that Ainge, Eric Young, Mitchell, Mayo and Hefney are gone?

- Can a sensational sophomore class mature quickly enough to carry Tennessee to a Southeastern Conference title and a BCS bid?

Fulmer admits that this sophomore class may have to provide leadership, as well as great play, adding: "There's some growth there that's happening and we want it to continue, regardless of the class."

As for the impending change on offense, the head man believes holding spring drills from March 11 through April 19 (sandwiched around spring break) will help ease the Vols' learning curve.

"Our spring schedule helps our offense because there are so many new coaches and a new system," Fulmer said. "It is spread out, and there's a lot of time to critique ourselves and for the players to be critiqued and get themselves familiar with what we're doing."

Even with workouts spread over six weeks, though, Tennessee's players have a lot to learn and a relatively short time to learn it. Fulmer is confident the Vols will adapt, however.

"There's always a learning curve," he said. "They went from one system to another last year – the no-huddle with the coded system we had – so there was a lot of learning that I was apprehensive about last year. But they did a tremendous job with it, and it seems to be following the same suit right now."

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