A week from today, Tennessee begins its fall camp.
But with the season opener against Montana just over a month away, some key positions are still up for grabs.
Will a newcomer impress coaches enough in fall camp to earn a starting position? Did off-season training boost an upperclassman's chances of starting?
All of that will be decided over the next month. But here's part one of a look at 10 position battles as UT heads into fall camp.
Despite putting up O.K. numbers last season (eighth in the SEC in pass defense and fourth in pass efficiency defense), the Vols' secondary has much room for improvement. At one point during the year, coaches didn't know whether they could afford to play a nickle package, which uses five defensive backs. The two safety spots look to be settled with Janzen Jackson and Brent Brewer. But the cornerback position is still up in the air. Prentiss Waggner, who played both safety and cornerback last year, and Marsalis Teague appear to be the top candidates among returning players. Junior college transfers Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier were brought in to push for starting positions and provide depth at the very least. Early enrollee Justin Coleman and sophomore Eric Gordon are also in the mix. Given the newly added depth and questions at linebacker, expect UT to use five defensive backs a lot this year, regardless of who starts.
This unit lost team captain Nick Reveiz and two-year starter LaMarcus Thompson to graduation, so it was replacing two of its three starters already. Then the other starter, Herman Lathers, broke his foot during summer workouts and will most likely be out until October. So the Vols will begin the year with huge holes to fill at all three spots. Seniors Daryl Vereen and Austin Johnson have the most returning experience and ended spring practice listed as starters. Sophomore John Propst backed up Reveiz last year at middle linebacker and makes up for his lack of speed and size with instincts, according to coaches. Junior Greg King missed virtually all of last year due to injuries, but he played a big role as a freshman two years ago. He has the size and ability to make an impact, but he hasn't proven he can stay healthy. Freshmen A.J. Johnson and Christian Harris will each be given ample opportunity in fall camp to earn playing time.
While sophomores Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers are the Vols' top-two threats at receiver, coaches are still looking for a dependable slot receiver. Junior Zach Rogers replaced an injured Gerald Jones early last season and played well. Sophomore Matt Milton is still adjusting to the position after playing at quarterback and running back in high school, and needs to catch the ball more consistently. Early enrolee Vincent Dallas impressed coaches and teammates in spring practice and was compared to former Vol Denarious Moore. DeAnthony Arnett was regarded as one of the top receivers in the 2011 class and could get in the mix for playing time as well if he picks up the playbook quickly.
It's no secret UT struggled in the return game last year, especially at punt return. It seemed coaches couldn't find anyone who could successfully catch a punt. The kickoff return game wasn't nearly as bad, but it wasn't up to the standards of coaches. Da'Rick Rogers had some productive returns towards the end of the year and is expected to have the job this year. Devrin Young, an undersized running back from Knoxville's Bearden High School, is also expected to contribute in the return game. A shifty runner, Young seems to transition best to punt returner but will also get a look at kickoff returns.
Replacing Luke Stocker is no easy task. That job will fall on Mychael Rivera, a junior who transferred to UT last year. While Rivera saw plenty of playing time last year in two-tight end sets, he didn't have much production (11 receptions for 112 yards). With Stocker's departure, Rivera could have a "breakout" year. Freshman Cameron Clear and Brendan Downs will likely battle for back-up roles. Clear, a highly ranked recruit, is seen by some as a future offensive lineman with his size, but he has the hands to play tight end. Downs, another early enrolee, has the advantage of going through spring practice and all of summer workouts. More of a pass-catching tight end, he ended spring practice second on the depth chart behind Rivera.