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March 9, 2008
Tennessee opens spring practice March 11 as the defending SEC Eastern Division champion.
The Vols got off to a rocky start last season but won a number of close games and led LSU late in the fourth quarter of the SEC Championship Game before the Tigers rallied. Finding a new starting quarterback and rebuilding the linebacking corps will be the highest priorities for the Vols this spring.
Here's a look at Tennessee as it readies for spring drills.
Tennessee safety Eric Berry leads a talented secondary.
Offense—7: TB Arian Foster, T Ramon Foster, C Josh McNeil, G Anthony Parker, WR Austin Rogers, T/G Chris Scott, WR Lucas Taylor. Defense—5: SS Eric Berry, T Demonte Bolden, LB Rico McCoy, CB Brent Vinson, T Dan Williams. Special teams—2: P Britton Colquitt (suspended for first five games), K Daniel Lincoln.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Parker, a Rivals.com third-team All-American, leads an offensive line that returns four starters from a unit that allowed the fewest sacks in the nation last season. That veteran line should help open hopes for the tailbacks. The line could help Foster could challenge for the SEC rushing title. Berry was playing as well as just about any defensive back in the conference late last season, and he returns to lead a secondary loaded with young talent.
HELP IS NEEDED
Tennessee has holes to fill at linebacker after losing Jerod Mayo and Ryan Karl, who combined for 225 tackles last season. The Vols also will have a first-year starter at quarterback following the graduation of Erik Ainge, who started for at least portions of the past four seasons.
KEEP AN EYE ON
WR Gerald Jones: He caught 11 passes, ran the ball eight times and occasionally lined up at quarterback as a freshman last season. Jones' ability to line up at different positions could make him a nice fit for new coordinator Dave Clawson's scheme.
S Demetrice Morley: Morley had 51 tackles – seven for loss – and two interceptions in 2006 before leaving school for academic reasons. Now that he's back on campus, Morley – who will be a junior this fall – will try to pick up where he left off two seasons ago.
CB Dennis Rogan: After showing big-play ability while returning punts as a true freshman, Rogan should compete for an expanded role this season - whether it's in the secondary or on offense.
HIS TIME IS NOW
Although he made one start in 2006 in place of an injured Erik Ainge, Jonathan Crompton has spent most of the past two seasons patiently waiting for Ainge to move on to the NFL. Crompton enters this spring as the clear favorite to emerge as the starting quarterback, but the job won't be handed to him. If he fails to beat out redshirt freshman B.J. Coleman this spring, it's tough to imagine Crompton ever winning the job.
After a number of its players ran afoul of the law during the offseason, Tennessee will be happy to return its focus to the field. There certainly are plenty of storylines to follow. Who will be the new starting quarterback? How will the winner of that battle respond now that former offensive coordinator and noted quarterback guru David Cutcliffe has headed to Duke? And who's going to make all those tackles Mayo delivered last season before deciding to enter the NFL Draft?
Steve Megargee is a national football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.