Pressing Questions: Fall Camp Edition

For the first four days this week, leading into Thursday's pre-camp press conference inside Neyland Stadium, we at are going to tackle the most pressing questions Tennessee's football team faces as it seeks to further solidify its Year Two foundation under coach Butch Jones.
We'll bring you this content each day at lunch, and we're opening up with what we're all identifying as our respective top objectives for the Vols during the course of this three-week camp, which officially begins under the lights Friday night on Haslam Field.
For me there's plenty of obvious big-picture questions; however the question is what's the top objective for fall camp and for me that's solidifying things at left tackle. The other offensive line positions are pretty much set with little competition at any of the spots (that's another question they must answer, depth). However before you can find linemen 6, 7, or 8, you have to find five and that's why finding or solidifying the left tackle position is so important. Dontavius Blair has lost some weight. He's in much better shape physically, but where is his confidence? He didn't seem like a very confident player at the end of spring. Blair's competition for the spot is former-walk-on-turned-scholarship=player Jacob Gilliam. Gilliam is a great story in college athletics. He's played in three games in his career. Can he handle the position? Can either guy handle the position?
An offensive line needs as much work as possible as a unit in order to develop chemistry. With a big-time pass rush looming in week three in Norman, Okla., settling in at left tackle to grow as a unit is a big time objective for Butch Jones.
All the points outlined here at pivotal to the Vols' camp success during the month of August, but I'm going with solidifying a defensive line rotation and then cultivating a pass-rush within that group as the crucial element as camp unfolds.
I think the Vols are going to enjoy a huge offensive uptick for a variety of reasons, and I think the offensive line will play with a chip on its shoulders that could help conceal some, not all, of its inexperiences.
However, Tennessee needs massive help along its defensive front and particularly at pressuring the opponents' quarterbacks if it is to snap a string of losing seasons that matches the longest in the storied program's history.
Curt Maggitt is fully healthy, and A.J. Johnson is faster than he's ever been in manning the second level of the defense. Maggitt, Jordan Williams, Trevarris Saulsberry, Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis and Danny O'Brien all have various levels of experience. Dimarya Mixon might quietly have been the biggest surprise among the DL in spring camp; Owen Williams got a valuable indoctrination into the grueling world of being an interior lineman in the SEC. He got in better physical shape, has continued that in the offseason and also added needed strength.
Now there's a cast of talented newcomers who will push immediately for playing time, led by Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett and Michael Sawyers.
Whatever combination the Vols ultimately find comfort with, they need it to be vastly more effective. UT had a paltry 18 sacks a year ago, tied for 99th nationally and last in the SEC. Tennessee has had just 51 total sacks combined the previous three seasons; Stanford notched 44 sacks just last season.
The Vols are much more talented across the board defensively, and they'll be a more athletic team in the back-7 on defense. But that group needs help, and a healthy pass rush with an established rotation along the Vols' defensive front looms as key for Tennessee during camp.
They say that if you have two quarterbacks then you don't really have any. I'm not sure that is correct, but I feel like it's important to establish a clear-cut No.1-option at the most important position on the field for Tennessee. Obviously it was a competition last fall before Justin Worley established himself as the signal-caller. He struggled early and then came the Nathan Peterman experiment at Florida. Butch Jones turned back to Worley and he was just starting to play really well when he was injured and missed the remaining four games. Would the Vols have made a bowl game last season if Worley isn't injured? I believe so, but we will never know.
Worley's absence gave Josh Dobbs the chance to play and gain experience. Dobbs had some good and some bad like most any freshman would that was pushed into duty. Now, both have shown improvement during the spring and have the chance to take command once again in fall camp. Worley's off-season work and appearance at the Manning Passing Academy are what you would expect from a senior who mentally gets it. Dobbs also gets the mental side of the game and both have worked hard to improve on their weaknesses in the passing game. It's important that one gain control early in August and never look back, so it allows for the starter to play free and not tight with the backup closely looking over his shoulder. This team has two great leaders on the defense, but with an all new offensive line and young wide receivers, they need a go-to guy on offense. It always starts with the quarterback in any offense and that will definitely be the case on Rocky Top if Tennessee is to make it to a bowl game for the first time since the 2010 season.
It's been a good while since the offensive line was real preseason concern in Knoxville but that trend is changing in a big way this fall. After losing five veteran starters Don Mahoney is in total rebuild mode with his unit. How quickly this group can gel could have a huge impact on the course the upcoming season takes.
Only guard Marcus Jackson, who redshirted last season, has significant experience and he'll be leaned on heavily to provide some veteran leadership. Center Mack Crowder has become a favorite of Butch Jones and his staff for his grit and work ethic. He enters this fall with a ton on his shoulders at a crucial position, but also riding some momentum after a very strong spring.
Kyler Kerbyson also turned heads with his progress last year and rolls into fall camp as the likely starter at the guard spot opposite Jackson. The redshirt sophomore plays with some nastiness and with the kind of physical edge required inside.
The biggest question marks among a long list of them are at tackle where two newcomers to the program, freshman Coleman Thomas and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, enter fall camp as the presumptive starters or in Blair's case, battling to supplant Jacob Gilliam as the starter at left tackle.
Having both Thomas and Blair on campus for the spring semester as early enrollees was huge for their development. Blair was one of the most highly sought after junior college prospects in the country last fall and he showed some very obvious physical gifts during spring practice. It wasn't a seamless transition for him though, as he had some struggles at times, but seemed to really make some strides in the coaches' eyes towards the end of spring.
Thomas has quietly been one of the nicer surprises in what looks to be a loaded freshman class. Thrown into the fray as the starter at right tackle in the spring, he's worked to nail that spot down and looks like a potential four-year starter. He's also had one of the best offseasons on the team, adding over 25 pounds of 'good' weight since his arrival to presently check in at 323 pounds.
There's no doubt he'll encounter some growing pains against the caliber of competition he'll see on the defensive line in his first tour through the SEC but so far he's handled everything thrown at him.
Individually, this group has some bright spots. Successful offensive line play though is dependent on five individuals meshing into a cohesive unit that can think and make adjustments on the fly in incredibly high pressure situations. How good this group can be will largely depend on how quickly they can find the kind of chemistry required to play at a high level in this league particularly.
Tennessee has seriously upgraded its talent at the skill positions, but in order to take advantage of that, this group is going to have to develop at an accelerated rate.
The good news is that the future looks pretty bright. The bad news is that the Vols are about to open 2014 with five new offensive line starters, which is never an ideal position.
It was no real shocker in the spring when newcomers like Jalen Hurd, Josh Malone, Dimarya Mixon, Ethan Wolf, Von Pearson (and the list could go on) all received a ton of reps with the first team as they are going to be valuable keys to the vols' 2014 season.
With 18 more incoming newcomers for fall camp I believe Tennessee's top objective is getting those players as ready as possible in the month of August before the first game of the season.
Almost all of the Vols' 14 January newcomers were able to find a role in the two deep in the 15 practices in March and April and the group that will get their feet wet beginning Aug. 1, will add more to that number.
With most of the help on the defensive side of the ball, getting reps for guys like Dillon Bates, Chris Weatherd, Evan Berry, Elliot Berry, Rashaan Gaulden, Dewayne Hendrix, Derek Barnett, Michael Sawyers will be extremely important as the Vols try and find out who can help them early on in the season.
Tennessee seemingly needs depth at every position and several of the summer newcomers will have to take on big roles for the team, so getting the group acclimated and going as quickly as possible is a huge key this August.