"Excited" Vols open Spring Practice

By: Wes Boling Email
By: Wes Boling Email
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TENNESSEE HEAD COACH PHILLIP FULMER'S COMMENTS DURING SPRING MEDIA DAY:

This is about as excited as I have been to get started for a spring practice. It is typical in some ways in that we have a mix of guys who have played and have some experience along with a number of youthful guys both on offense and defense. Certainly, spring practice is a time for them to make a move and see where they are.

Our first challenge as always is to find the guys on the field who want to play with tremendous effort. The older, more experienced guys who have played in the Southeastern Conference understand that and they certainly need to lead the way. The guys who haven't played in the SEC and against that competition, they have to learn that during the course of spring practice. Meetings are great, individual work is great, team work is great, but learning to play full speed when it is 11-on-11 is extremely important to us and we certainly will address that during the course of spring practice.

This is Phase 2 of four phases, the third being summer workouts that always are important and the fourth being the fall, particularly the time in two-a-days. This is a time that they have to really push themselves to the front as young players to establish themselves as guys we can count on.

One of our main goals for this spring will be to develop our leadership on our football team. We lost some outstanding individuals who were very good leaders for us, particularly when times were tough. One of our goals in spring practice will be to push those guys to the front.

It does start up front in the offensive and defensive front. Defensive front-wise, we have some guys who have played and some who have played extremely well for us at different times in Robert Ayers, Dan Williams, Wes Brown, Demonte' Bolden and Walter Fisher. Those guys need to lead the Chris Walkers and Ben Martins, who I think are both outstanding prospects. We are a little bit concerned about Chris Walker. He was doing the squat last week and may not be able to go full speed this week. But the veterans need to lead the way for those guys. I think Chris Walker and Ben Martin know how to practice and know how to prepare, but we've got another group in Donald Langley, Chase Nelson and Victor Thomas who really have to understand what it takes to play in this league and learn to play full-speed with great intensity and great effort to allow themselves the chance to be more consistent than they have been to this point.

There is a linebacking group that has played in Ellix Wilson, Nevin McKenzie, Adam Myers-White and Rico McCoy, and even Savion Frazier and Nick Reveiz have had some opportunities to play. But replacing Ryan Karl and Jerod Mayo is going to be a tremendous challenge for those guys. Three of those guys are seniors and Rico has played, so we're expecting those guys to step up and be leaders. I'm excited about Savion Frazier and his prospects to be a really good player. And if everybody on our team plays with the intensity and the effort that Nick Reveiz does, then we will have a fine football team. Chris Donald is kind of a mystery right now. We've tried him at a couple different spots and have moved him back to (middle) linebacker. This will be a very important spring for him that he kind of comes out of his shell and becomes the player we and he would like to be. Newcomer Austin Johnson is a guy we are pretty darn excited about. Austin has shown in the offseason program that he knows how to practice and work. He comes from a very fine high school program that competed for state championships and it will be an interesting spring for him.

In the secondary, a good many of the guys have played. Last year going through all we went through to get those guys ready, certainly the experience should pay off for us. We will look at DeAngelo Willingham at safety the first five days of practice and make a decision from there as that is a position we are most concerned about going into the fall. So we are going to take a good look at him and if he can make as much progress in spring, summer and two-a-days as he made the first fall he was here, then I think he has a very good chance to make an impact on our football team at safety. Looking at the number of guys who have played in the secondary, you have Antonio Gaines and Dennis Rogan, who as a true sophomore is a good thing because we have a chance to have him around for awhile; Demetrice Morley to reestablish himself as a factor for our football team; Anthony Anderson to establish himself as a guy who can help us in the secondary and on special teams; Marsalous Johnson and Brent Vinson will not be able to participate full speed, both of them coming off surgeries, but we think we know what both of those guys can do. The guy I haven't mentioned just yet is a special player and also a guy who I?think can be a special leader for us in Eric Berry. I'm excited about his leadership role and his opportunity to continue his development as a player in the secondary.

Offensively, I could not have asked any more of the new coaches and Greg Adkins as they have worked to get themselves ready for spring practice. Dave Clawson has done an excellent job of leading the meetings and getting us to this point where we're ready to go with a new system. The rules allow us to meet a couple of hours a week and we've taken advantage of that since recruiting has been over. The new system, a West Coast-style of offense, I'm as anxious as anybody to see it on the field and I?have every confidence in the world that we will be able to do well.

Our spring schedule actually helps our offense because there are so many new coaches and a new system. It works in our favor because it is spread out and there are a lot of times to critique ourselves, for the players to come in a be critiqued and to spend time on their own studying and getting themselves familiar with what they are doing.?Obviously, the goal as Dave will tell you is to get the ball to the playmakers. Establishing those during the spring practice will be important. The obvious ones are the ones who have been here in Arian Foster, Josh Briscoe, Austin Rogers, and to some degree Gerald Jones. They have established themselves but we need to see what those other guys can do. Montario Hardesty, if he can stay healthy, he's really had a good attitude from an offseason standpoint. Those young backs, Lennon Creer and Daryl Vereen, and I'm excited about seeing what Tauren Poole can do. Obviously like Austin Johnson, he's brand new to the program but he hasn't blinked in the offseason program and actually has established himself as a leader around here. So I'm excited about Tauren and seeing who we can get in the mix. I do expect some growing pains early as we go from one system to another.

It starts up front. We are very fortunate to have a group of offensive linemen who have played together. Anthony Parker will move to center in Josh McNeil's absence this spring since Josh is coming off a knee surgery. Hopefully, we will established ourselves and pick up where we left off in the fall with Chris Scott, Vladimir Richard, Jacques McClendon and Ramon Foster being the other guys on either side of Anthony Parker. We are looking for depth there. That is a really important area for us to come out with some depth during the course of spring. There are a good number of guys who have a chance to push themselves into that depth and it will be a process.

The tight ends will be Jeff Cottam and Luke Stocker. Both, I think, are SEC players and both can play significant roles in our offense.

This will be a crucial spring for Gerald Jones and Ahmad Paige to see where they can put themselves, particularly in the absence of Lucas Taylor, who will miss a lot of spring practice contact overcoming his shoulder injury.

The kicking game, just watching it in passing, I love the attitude of what Daniel Lincoln has done. He's coming off a fantastic year and is more determined than ever to be the kind of kicker who represents Tennessee well on and off the field. He just has continued to work hard and is kicking the ball really well. Morgan Cox has taken on the leadership role Casey Woods had and that's important because we are not able to be around those guys all the time. Obviously, it's a very crucial time for Chad Cunningham to establish himself as a guy we can count on in the absence of Britton Colquitt the first five ballgames. Bram Cannon and Geoff Courtney both are working to be our holder and I'm anxious to see which one of those two guys, or anybody else, emerges there. That's one of those areas that is taken for granted until something happens. We have been so blessed here for a number of years to have really quality young men playing that role for us.

During the spring we will alternate teaching and then testing our team with our scrimmages and that will be crucial. Within the rules, we can have three full-speed, 11-on-11 scrimmages and then our individual work, group work, team work and half-scrimmages that we sprinkle through the practices.

Our goal as we go into spring is obviously to have daily improvement and not have any wasted reps from the standpoint of how we play the game with effort, passion and desire to be a good player individually and collectively on either side of the ball. As I mentioned, most important is growing our leadership and finding the players who are going to be the starters, and then also building our depth as we go through the spring. We probably won't get that done 100 percent because of some of the guys who are out, but the guys who aren't able to participate, except for Josh Hawkins, have all played for us and I think we know what they can do.

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(WVLT) -- The Tennessee football team had quite a new look when it opened spring practice Tuesday afternoon at Haslam Field.

Gone were four assistants; their replacements, Dave Clawson, Stan Drayton, Latrell Scott and Jason Michael held court for the first time. Gone also were stars Erik Ainge and Jerod Mayo, lost to graduation. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton and linebacker Rico McCoy hope to fill the holes they left behind.

Despite these, and other, changes, coach Phillip Fulmer said Tuesday he was "excited" about what spring practice held in store. He said the coaches were ready to install the new offensive system, which should resemble more of a West Coast style. Several players, including Crompton and standout defensive back Eric Berry, emphasized how thrilled they were to be back in pads. Both goals and spirits were high for a team which finished on a strong note with an Outback Bowl win over Wisconsin.

SPRING FOOTBALL OUTLOOK:

(UTSports.com) -- Tennessee brings back enough quality players from the team that captured the Eastern Division title of the Southeastern Conference to make a serious run at the league crown in 2008, or so it appears.

But if college football continues on the same path of unpredictability that made 2007 one of the wackiest years ever, forget any preseason projections and enjoy the upcoming campaign as it unfolds. There could be surprises galore awaiting Phillip Fulmer's troops as they return to action in the nation's most taxing football conference.

You would expect nothing less than a bold bid for national glory from an outfit that begins the season with the return of eight starters from offense and six from defense. They are thoroughly battle-hardened, these current Orange shirts. They placed eventual national champion LSU in peril before bowing to the Bengals, 21-14, in the SEC playoff game.

And yet, despite bringing back an impressive collection of starters, augmented by a corps of newcomers that comprised one of the nation's best freshman units in 2007, the Vols have question marks hovering over their outlook.

Losses from last season were few but critical. How do you make up for the absence of a quarterback who had started a vast majority of Tennessee games since breaking in as a rookie four years ago?

When Erik Ainge arrived on campus in 2004, even the most unschooled railbird saw evidence of potential stardom. His rangy body and strong arm stamped him as a talent that couldn't be long denied. By the end of his career, Ainge had led the Vols to three bowl games, including back-to-back trips to the Outback Bowl in Tampa as a junior and senior.
Furthermore, Ainge had maneuvered the Vols through the gauntlet of strong Eastern Division rivals to land a berth at the Georgia Dome last December against the powerful LSU Tigers.

His final game ended in a 21-17 Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin in a widely ballyhooed showdown between representatives of the SEC and the Big 10. The win over the Badgers earned UT a 12th-place national ranking and pumped fresh hope into the Vols that 2008 could bring their rise to an SEC championship.

One comforting thought about the quarterback vacancy: The person who winds up in the fall as Ainge's successor will operate behind a line that last year set an NCAA record for fewest sacks allowed. No line in college football history surpassed the Vols' feat of permitting only three sacks of Ainge and four sacks total over an entire season.

Add to the departure of Ainge the concern created by the unexpected decision of defensive anchor Jerod Mayo to cast his lot with professional football instead of spending his senior season wreaking destruction around the SEC. With his dossier of 140 tackles last season, the Vols' star linebacker was a fearsome nightmare for opponents to contemplate.

OFFENSE

As Tennessee fans were bidding a fond farewell to Erik Ainge following the Outback Bowl victory over Wisconsin, they were simultaneously reviewing in their minds the identity of the candidates who would seek the starting quarterback job in spring practice.
First up in the tryouts, with a background as a two-year top reserve, is a man who instantly captured the hearts of UT partisans with his daring approach to the running game in his Vols debut two years ago. Jonathan Crompton, a strapping product of the mountains of Western North Carolina, won't be intimidated by oncoming defenders. He sidesteps when he can, but he will lower his head and plow ahead if necessary, using the power contained in his sturdy 6-4, 220-pound frame.

His passing, frequently on display during a freshman season that included a start against Arkansas, was more limited last year. Crompton threw only 12 times and completed seven for 87 yards and had a touchdown in the Louisiana-Lafayette game. Competition for Crompton's claim to the starting role will come from redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman and sophomore Nick Stephens, both of whom hope they might win the nod from the mostly new offensive staff, headed by coordinator David Clawson, the former head coach at Richmond.

Three talented tailbacks, including a 1,000-yard club member, will be helpful in establishing a running game that should ease the introduction of the new signal-caller. Senior Arian Foster, who started every game in 2007, posted a 5.1 per-play average in toting the leather for 1,162 yards. Toss in 314 yards he accounted for as a pass receiver, plus 117 yards on kickoff returns, and it's obvious Foster lugged the ball for an impressive distance. He also tallied 12 touchdowns from scrimmage, matching Jay Graham's 1995 total. No other Tennessee tailback had met with Foster's success in reaching pay dirt during the intervening 11 years.

Backing up Foster are veterans Montario Hardesty, who rushed for 388 yards a year ago, and exciting Lennon Creer, a heralded runner who lived up to expectations as a freshman with a 6.2 average on 35 carries. Hardesty, Creer and any newcomers who make the grade will rotate with Foster to assure quarterbacks Crompton, Coleman and Stephens a formidable running attack to supplement their own rushing and passing skills.

The fullback position, starkly vacant in this age of one-back formations, is headed by three-year letterman David Holbert, who will return from an injury-related redshirt season. Holbert's biggest play to date was a 21-yard touchdown catch against South Carolina in 2004. He should be fit for service at either tight end or fullback.

Tight ends came in for more than their customary number of pass-catching opportunities last season, and they should be no less occupied this year despite the loss of ace receiver Chris Brown. With 40 catches to his credit, Brown was a key possession receiver with a 6.9-yard average. He also accounted for six touchdowns. Neither Jeff Cottam nor Luke Stocker will come forth and state reasons they should be any less inviting targets. Cottam had 13 catches and Stocker 11, using their long bodies (Cottam at 6-8 and Stocker at 6-6) to call the quarterback's attention to their availability and readiness to help out.

The anticipated decline in wide receiver efficiency last year didn't materialize, thanks to sharply increased production by a trio who had previously labored quietly in the shadow of Robert Meacham, Bret Smith and Jayson Swain. Lucas Taylor led the way with 73 catches for 1,000 yards and a 13.7 average and has one more season to apply polish to an excellent career. Austin Rogers with 53 receptions and Josh Briscoe with 49 came through in fine style and, with Taylor, heads an expanded receivers corps including Quintin Hancock, Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore. Receptions notched by Taylor, Rogers and Briscoe added up to 175, a welcome contrast to the 29 the threesome latched onto in 2006. Jones, a sophomore who last year saw occasional service at quarterback, made his mark with two key receptions in the four-overtime victory over Kentucky. One was a spectacular touchdown grab in the first overtime, pulling in a 10-yard strike by Ainge. In Foster, the Vols have a running back who caught 35 passes charging out of the backfield and who gives the quarterbacks a safe outlet. Two of Foster's receptions went for touchdowns.

Following a long-standing Fulmer practice, most of the offensive linemen have been trained to step in and play at more than one position. The coaches don't hesitate to move them, assuming they have been well schooled to switch around to where they are needed. Slated to lead the charge up front is Anthony Parker, a consensus All-SEC and a secondteam All-America. Parker started every game at left guard last season, moving over from right guard where he had been in the opening lineup 12 times in 2006. Fulmer has expressed full confidence in the play of Josh McNeil, who in only two seasons has chalked up 23 starts at center. McNeil's toughness was credited for a large part of Tennessee's knack for keeping Ainge out of harm's way. The Vols were sacked only four times last season, almost invariably giving Ainge ample time to locate his open receivers. Senior tackle Ramon Foster and junior tackle Chris Scott are other returning starters in a deep front wall that includes lettermen Jacques McClendon (a lateseason starter at guard), Vladimir Richard and Cody Sullins. All things considered, it's a sensible expectation for the line to operate in championship fashion as the Vols barge out of the gate against UAB for the start of the season Aug. 30 at Neyland Stadium.

DEFENSE

A recurring theme over the years in college football, not only at Tennessee but nationwide, has been a call for the defense to hold the fort while the offense reinvents its game. The Vols may pull a switch on tradition by reversing the roles. Coordinator John Chavis' forces suffered some devastating losses through graduation and an especially damaging defection to the NFL. So, take the ball, offense, and move on down the field while Coach Chavis and his staff rebuild.

You normally introduce a discussion of defense with an appraisal of returning ends. But there is little to say on that subject because of the loss of a pair of last season's most timetested veterans, Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds. Mitchell ranked sixth in tackles with 48, and Reynolds registered 28. Responsibility for leadership will rest mainly with Robert Ayers, a senior stalwart who last year alternated with Reynolds on the right side. Ayers had only 33 tackles, but made them count by hauling down 11 runners behind the line of scrimmage. Junior Wes Brown, like Ayers, appeared in every game and had 23 tackles. Beyond Ayers and Brown, there are three other lettermen, none with appreciable experience except on special teams. Ben Martin, whose quickness and leaping ability are impressive, could move into the rotation at end, depending on how well he fares in competition with other hopefuls such as Andre Mathis and Chris Walker. Newcomers will have a shot at providing depth at a position where graduation took a heavy toll.

Compared to end, the tackle slots are awash with experienced performers, including both of last season's starters. Dan Williams, at 310 pounds, came along at a steady pace in his sophomore season, climaxing the year's work with a game-saving play in the second session of the four-overtime 52-50 victory over Kentucky. Williams blocked a 34-yard field goal that had the potential to bring defeat to the Vols at the hands of their border state rival. He started seven of the final eight games. Demonté Bolden, the returning starter at left tackle, also had a significant role in the win at Kentucky. He forced a fumble and tallied a sack against the Wildcats. Williams finished the season with 39 tackles to rank seventh for the Vols. Bolden had 26. Walter Fisher, a senior who came to Tennessee out of junior college ranks, figures to be the leading reserve at tackle as the lone lettermen returning exclusive of Williams and Bolden.

The linebacker situation took an unexpected nosedive when Jerod Mayo weighed all the factors and concluded the time was ripe for him to make a move to the NFL. He decided to forgo his senior season for the opportunity to test the waters of pro football a year earlier than his coaches had hoped. To say his former teammates will have a lot of making up to do would be putting it mildly. Mayo ended the season with 140 tackles, a total that led the SEC and that no other Vol had exceeded going back all the way to 1988 when Keith DeLong notched 159. Complicating the linebacker picture was the graduation of another starter, Ryan Karl, who had 82 tackles, fifth on the team. The burden of bringing the linebacker corps to speed revolves around the example set by Rico McCoy, overshadowed in the past by Mayo, but clearly capable of taking on a leadership role. As a sophomore, he finished with 106 tackles. In six games, he walked off the field as the team's leading tackler. McCoy ranked sixth for tackles in the SEC and was awarded second-team all-league honors. Ellix Wilson, a three-year letter winner who had 24 tackles and three sacks, is the first name that pops up as a possible new starter. Other returning lettermen in the picture are Adam Myers-White, Nevin McKenzie, Savion Frazier, Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson.

Contrasted with last season, when inexperience was the recurring problem, the secondary has a wealth of seasoned talent, led by a sophomore strong safety who made everybody's freshman check list in 2007. Eric Berry could be one of UT’s most decorated defenders ever when he winds up his career. Two different sources picked him as the nation's freshman defensive player of the year, influenced no doubt by his five interceptions for a school-record 222 yards and nine passes deflected. Berry saved his most prolific performance for the final game of the regular season, registering 14 tackles in the four-overtime victory over Kentucky that clinched the Eastern Division title in the SEC. Aside from the departure of free safety and four-year starter Jonathan Hefney, the Vols return nearly every secondary player who helped the team attain its 10-4 record. In addition to Berry, starters returning are senior DeAngelo Willingham at right cornerback and sophomore Brent Vinson at left cornerback. Among many who will compete for playing time will be junior Demetrice Morley, who started two years ago at the strong safety slot now filled by Berry. Morley was ineligible last year because of classroom deficiencies but has worked himself back into academic good graces. Other lettermen vying for playing time will be senior Antonio Gaines, junior Marsalous Johnson and sophomore Dennis Rogan.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There is good news, and then there is bad news concerning the Vols' kicking game. Under the heading of Good News is the unexpected but deserved honor that was accorded Daniel Lincoln, who in his freshman season was named first team Football Writers All-America placekicker. An award normally bestowed on a veteran kicker, the FWAA accolade went to Lincoln on the basis of the success he enjoyed on 21 of 28 field goal attempts, including a game-winning 27-yard bull’s-eye in a 27-24 overtime victory over South Carolina. Lincoln also made good on 49 of 50 extra points attempts. On the not-so-good news front is the fact that punter Britton Colquitt received a five-game suspension for a disciplinary infraction this winter, which means the second-team all-SEC senior can see his first action Oct. 11 at Georgia. Colquitt averaged 41.5 yards last year. Sophomore Chad Cunningham, who filled in when Colquitt sat out the Southern Mississippi game with a leg injury, figures to handle punting duties at least until Colquitt returns. Dennis Rogan comes back as the punt return specialist with a 10.7 average from the 2007 season. Rogan and Lennon Creer are experienced kickoff return men, Rogan with a 30.3 average and Creer at 18.7. Things seem to be looking up in the return department, an area in which the Vols had failed to meet Fulmer's exacting standards in recent seasons.


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