Spring cleaning, UT style

New Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley accepts that he must play the cards he's been dealt ... but he's already shuffling 'em.

With the start of spring practice still a day away, Dooley has moved Austin Johnson from fullback to linebacker and Rod Wilks from wide receiver to safety.

These moves are in response to the heavy attrition the Vols have suffered on the defensive side of the ball since the 2009 season ended. Tennessee is down three key players at linebacker, since Rico McCoy is out of eligibility and both Nick Reveiz and Savion Frazier are recovering from ACL surgeries. Tennessee is minus three starters from its '09 secondary. Art Evans is recovering from shoulder surgery, while both Eric Berry and Dennis Rogan elected to bypass their senior years in favor of the NFL Draft.

"Austin Johnson we moved to linebacker, and it wasn't because of film," Dooley said. "It was because we were heavy at fullback and light at linebacker. He's a good body type and can play that position and do it well."

Johnson, a 6-2, 231-pound rising junior, should make a seamless transition. He was a standout linebacker at Hickory (N.C.) High School, where he registered a mind-boggling 580 career tackles. As the Vols' No. 2 fullback last fall, he carried one time for 2 yards and caught six passes for 68 yards.

Wilks, a 6-0, 217-pound rising sophomore, is no stranger to defense, either. He played cornerback at Smyrna High, intercepting six passes as a senior, and spent some time at safety as a UT freshman before moving to receiver when a rash of injuries depleted the position last fall. He caught just one pass all season but it produced a 33-yard gain.

"Rod Wilks has moved to safety for the same reason (Johnson moved to linebacker)," Dooley noted, adding that the Vols are "heavy at one position and light on another, so who at that position could play the other?"

The new head man said he has watched enough tape of every player to form "a general early opinion on all of their physical talents" but insists he has no preconceived notions about who his best players might be.

"I'm going to evaluate them on the next 15 practices, then training camp and how they play next fall," he said. "But we had to start somewhere."

Special teams, long a sore spot at UT, apparently will get special attention from the new head man.

"The hardest part is special teams - putting everybody in your coverage units," Dooley said. "That's the hard part."

MISSING IN ACTION

In addition to injured defenders Reveiz, Frazier and Evans, Tennessee will open spring practice without the services of Aaron Douglas. The 6-6, 290-pound sophomore started the final 10 games of 2009 at right offensive tackle.

"Aaron Douglas has some personal business he's been tending to," Dooley said. "He may not be out there for a couple of practices. I don't anticipate it being anything long-term but it is personal. One thing we're always going to do as coaches in our program is support our players because nothing's more important than their personal growth and their personal life."

Douglas is the bell cow of a UT offensive line that already lost four starters to graduation and recently lost reserve William Brimfield.

"College football's hard, and if your commitment level isn't at a high level, it's not a fun thing to do," Dooley said. "It was time for a parting of ways with Will."

BRYCE TO LEAVE?

Published reports in Kansas suggest that sophomore tailback Bryce Brown is mulling a transfer from UT to Kansas State. Older brother Arthur transferred from Miami to KSU earlier this month.

"Bryce has never come to me and indicated that," Dooley said. "I've had conversations with Bryce; I've had many of them.... I've talked to Bryce about how I think we can help him in the run game.... He's never indicated that (transfer thoughts) to me."

Brown was rated the top prospect in America by Scout.com as a senior at East High in Wichita, Kansas, in 2008. He rushed for 460 yards on 101 carries as the chief backup to Vol tailback Montario Hardesty last fall.

WARREN, BAILEY TO RETURN?

There has been some speculation that two players dismissed by former UT head coach Lane Kiffin - receiver Brandon Warren and offensive lineman Preston Bailey - might return to the program now that a new regime is in place.

Dooley says that's news to him.

"I don't know," he said. "Nobody's ever approached me wanting to return."


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