Assembling the cast

Hail, hail, the gang's all here ... well, comparatively speaking anyway.

When first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson tried to install his version of the West Coast offense at Tennessee last spring, there was an obvious stumbling block: How do you assemble a puzzle without all of the key pieces?

No. 1 tight end Jeff Cottam sat out most of spring ball with a fractured fibula. No. 1 receiver Lucas Taylor missed all of spring practice due to a shoulder injury. No. 2 receiver Austin Rogers missed the last half due to injury and No. 3 receiver Josh Briscoe missed about half due to a class conflict. Also sidelined by injuries were No. 1 center Josh McNeil and No. 2 tailback Montario Hardesty.

With so many major contributors watching from the sidelines last March and April, Clawson was really hoping to get his first look at Tennessee's full complement of weapons during two-a-days. That won't happen, though, because Cottam's slow-to-heal leg projects to keep him out another couple of weeks.

Clawson is a patient man but his patience is being tested.

"When you go through spring you want to get all of your personnel evaluated," he concedes. "But we went through it without Austin Rogers for most of the spring, without Jeff Cottam, without Lucas Taylor, without Montario Hardesty, without Josh McNeil."

As a result, Clawson is spending the first week of preseason drills evaluating guys he had hoped to assess last spring ... assuming, of course, they show up to be evaluated this week.

"It's real important as we go through camp here that those guys are healthy and practice, and we get a great feel for what they can do and what they bring to the table," Clausen says.

That's because, despite the return of nine offensive starters from 2007, the Vols still have some concerns:

- Can Hardesty stay healthy?

- Can Taylor rebound from the turf toe that limited him the last half of '07?

- Can Taylor, Rogers or Briscoe develop into enough of a deep threat to stretch opposing defenses?

- Can McNeil bounce back from his 2007 injuries?

- Can Cottam blossom as a receiver or is he just a blocking tight end?

"You'd like to have those questions answered by the end of spring," Clawson says. "But because of injuries and surgeries and those type of things, they weren't there.

"Our leading receiver (Taylor) has yet to take a rep in this offense. He was in the meetings and he's seen things but it's different when you've got to listen to a play in the huddle, adjust a route vs. the coverage and do it all like that (snaps fingers).

"It's different than watching it on film and having 18 seconds to think about it. There's a learning curve with that, and that's going to happen here."

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