Five spring questions (offense)

Spring football practice is always a much-anticipated time at the University of Tennessee but few springs in program history have created as much buzz as the one that begins Tuesday.

There's a new head coach (Lane Kiffin), a new staff of assistants, a bunch of new players and a new group of questions to be answered as the Vols try to bounce back from last fall's 5-7 disaster. Tennessee averaged a paltry 268.8 yards and 17.3 points per game last fall, so the offensive questions are of the utmost concern at the moment.

Here are the top five questions on that side of the ball with the start of spring practice one day away:

QUESTION: How will Nick Stephens being sidelined three to four weeks with a fractured wrist affect the quarterback competition?

BEST GUESS: This spring is crucial for Stephens, who started just one year of varsity ball in high school and saw no meaningful action in his first two years at UT. You learn by doing, and Stephens will be watching – not doing – for the first half of spring practice. On a positive note, the Vols will take a 10-day spring break from March 14-23, so Stephens won't miss any workouts during that span. Assuming the strong-armed junior returns in time to participate in the last two weeks of spring ball, he might still challenge rising senior Jonathan Crompton and rising sophomore B. J. Coleman for the No. 1 job. But the odds are against him.

QUESTION: What can Tennessee's staff do to upgrade a passing attack that managed a mere 49.5 percent completion rate with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) last fall?

BEST GUESS: Decrease the workload on the quarterbacks and build their confidence by installing a simple offense this spring that demands little of them, mentally or physically. There will be plenty of time to install all of the bells and whistles in preseason.

QUESTION: Who will be the No. 1 tailback?

BEST GUESS: As a senior who has paid his dues, Montario Hardesty would be the first-teamer if Phillip Fulmer were still in charge. He isn't, though. Assuming the new staff wants to put more of the load on the ground attack and less on the QBs, Tennessee will need a tailback who can turn a flare pass into a five-yard gain and pop the occasional big play. That sounds a lot like Lennon Creer, who averaged nearly two more yards per carry (5.3 to 3.6) than Hardesty did last fall. Rising sophomore Tauren Poole will push for significant playing time, as will signee David Oku when he shows up in August.

QUESTION: Who'll join Gerald Jones in the wideout rotation, now that Lucas Taylor and Josh Briscoe are gone?

BEST GUESS: Austin Rogers caught 56 balls as a sophomore in 2007, so he should bounce back in a big way from his 14-catch disappointment of '08. If the new offense is as user-friendly as advertised, converted tight end Brandon Warren should make immediate impact as a slot receiver. Denarius Moore (24.6-yard average on 11 catches last fall) is the leading home-run threat. And maybe, just maybe, this is the year that heralded Ahmad Paige finally lives up to his high school hype. Signee Nu'Keese Richardson will make an impact ... but not till August.

QUESTION: How much will the departure of seniors Anthony Parker and Ramon Foster affect the offensive line?

BEST GUESS: Losing experienced offensive linemen is always tough, so replacing Parker (38 career starts) and Foster (28) will be no walk in the park. UT's O-linemen were confused by the flip-flopping and pass protection schemes installed by 2008 offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, however, and that hurt the line's continuity. A simpler scheme should produce better results, even with less-experienced athletes doing the blocking. An injury or two could be disastrous, however.


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