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March 22, 2011

Vols could challenge in SEC East

A Tennessee athletic program is in turmoil, but for the first time in a while, it's not the football program.

Basketball coach Bruce Pearl was relieved of his duties Monday, and attention certainly will be focused on that program for a while, which is probably a good feeling for football coach Derek Dooley. Dooley, obviously, doesn't like it that another coach was let go, but that means his program will be out of the spotlight for the next month or so.

Dooley's first season was a success, even if the Vols finished with a losing record (6-7) after falling to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. Dooley took over a program that had holes everywhere, but he and his staff cajoled six wins out of a patchwork roster.

Still, there are holes this time around, too. While the Vols look to have found a quarterback and a tailback, there are questions at wide receiver, linebacker, along the defensive line and at kicker and punter.

Here's a look at Tennessee as the Vols get ready for spring practice.

TENNESSEE AT-A-GLANCE
Coach Derek Dooley did a good job getting six wins in his first season at Tennessee.
THE BASICS
Coach: Derek Dooley
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the SEC East. Lost 30-27 in 2 OT to UNC the in Music City Bowl.
Spring dates: March 22-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offfense (5): T Ja'Wuan James, TB Tauren Poole, QB Matt Simms, C James Stone, T Dallas Thomas.
Defense (4): T Malik Jackson, LB Herman Lathers, CB Marsalis Teague, CB Prentiss Waggner.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

While Tyler Bray made just five starts at quarterback as a true freshman last season, he showed enough to make folks that the position is in good hands for a while. Bray might be a tad brash, but he has a nice arm and understands the offense. Former starter Matt Simms is an able backup. TB Tauren Poole ran for 1,034 yards and 11 TDs as a junior last season after barely seeing the field in his first two seasons, and he has all-league potential. The line has a chance to be solid if players such as C James Stone, T Ja'Wuan James, G Zach Fulton and G JerQuari Schofield make the usual freshman-to-sophomore jump. T Dallas Thomas showed promise last season as a sophomore. Don't necessarily expect great things for a still-young group, but the added experience should mean more running room for Poole. Defensively, the secondary has potential and should at least be "good," even with talented FS Janzen Jackson withdrawing from school (he could return in the fall). It's a young group, but the Vols still were 30th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. Prentiss Waggner's versatility -- he started at safety and corner last season -- is a plus, and true freshman SS Brent Brewer, a former minor-league baseball player, came on strong late last season.

Help is needed

While Poole is a good one, depth at tailback is unproven and someone needs to emerge as a solid No. 2 guy during spring drills. The top three receivers are gone and the leading returning wide receiver, sophomore Justin Hunter, caught just 16 passes last season (but seven of his receptions went for TDs). This spring will be vital as guys fight to be the go-to receiver -- as well vie to be the No. 2 and No. 3 guys. TE Luke Stocker will be missed. The front seven on defense needs five new starters, and linebacker and end is a particular concern. Tennessee had just 18 sacks last season and 13 came from their defensive backs on blitzes. Thus, it's vital that the coaches find a pass rusher or two this spring. The Vols also lost their kicker and punter.

3 guys to watch

DE Willie Bohannon: Both starting defensive ends from last season are gone. Ben Martin was a likely starter at end last season but tore his Achilles tendon; he tore it again recently and will miss spring practice, but is expected back this fall. Bohannon, a junior, needs to seize his opportunity this spring. In two seasons, Bohannon has played in 24 games and has made 23 tackles, including three sacks, If he doesn't flash some playmaking ability, he risks falling behind younger players on the depth chart.

WR Da'Rick Rogers: Rogers is a former five-star prospect who had 11 receptions as a true freshman last season, including an impressive 45-yard TD grab against North Carolina in the Music City Bowl. In a perfect world, he and Hunter would have strong springs and give Bray two consistent targets in the fall. While Hunter is going to spend some time this spring with the Vols' track team (he's a good long jumper), Rogers needs to impress coaches and show he can, at the least, be the No. 2 receiver.

G JerQuari Schofield: Schofield started the first five games last season as a freshman before he suffered a foot injury that basically sidelined him the rest of the way. He'll have the chance to win his starting job back this spring. His toughest competition might come from true freshman Marcus Jackson, who already has enrolled and is being called the strongest offensive lineman on the team.

The pressure is on

LB Daryl Vereen: This is the final go-round for Vereen, a fifth-year senior who plays a position of need. The Vols lost two starting linebackers and Vereen has a shot at one of the starting jobs on the outside. He has made 22 tackles in his career and must turn in a strong spring performance to ensure he'll see important minutes this fall.

The buzz

If the Vols were in the SEC West, it would be hard to pick them higher than fifth. But they're in the East, which appears to be wide open. South Carolina is the defending division champ and likely will get the preseason nod, but the Gamecocks certainly aren't unbeatable. And Florida and Georgia have as many questions this spring as Tennessee, with Florida also breaking in a new coaching staff. If progress can be made in the defensive front seven in the next month, including identifying an all-league-type pass rusher, the Vols likely would feel good about legitimately contending for a top-two finish in the division -- and even challenging for the top spot.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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