Vols' spring game won't be preview of this fall's team

John Moorehouse • Mar 31, 2007 at 7:00 AM

KNOXVILLE - Come to Tennessee's spring game today expecting to get a sneak peak at the team's system heading into next fall, and you might be disappointed.

"We won't have a lot of the offense or defense in," offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe said regarding today's Orange and White game, which starts at 2 p.m. "We've got a lot of people to look at still. We're not trying to make it a mentally complicated thing for them. Let them go out there and compete and have fun.

"And to be honest with you, you never know who's there. I'm sure they'll be some friends of some friends of mine who coach in this league. So, you're just not going to show a lot of things."

That means there won't be much of a chance to truly evaluate the no-huddle offense that Cutcliffe implemented this spring. Nor will there be a great opportunity to see the package where LaMarcus Coker lines up as a slot receiver a la Reggie Bush.

"I'm not trying to run fans off; it's going to be fun to watch," Cutcliffe said. "We're going to throw it around and run it and the defense is going to chase the ball and hit and compete. It's going to be good against good."

The Orange and White rosters have been split up to contest players of equal skill against one another. Jonathan Crompton and Alex Trent will quarterback the White team, which includes the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense. Nick Stephens and Dylan Dickey are signal-callers for the Orange team, which includes the No. 1 defense and No. 2 offense.

Erik Ainge, the incumbent starter at quarterback, is out for the remainder of spring practice after knee surgery.

"I think it's been good for Jonathan," Cutcliffe said. "He's throwing to the better receivers on a consistent basis. He's working a line that can manage some things."

Of the running backs, Arian Foster has had the best spring.

"I think he's in the best shape of his career since I've even been around here," Cutcliffe said. "I think Arian Foster's faster right now than he was. ... Come to the game and you'll see a difference."

Coker remains the most explosive tailback, but missed some practice time due to a conflict with his class schedule. Montario Hardesty also has given the team a boost after returning to full work after spring break.

Chris Brown and Brad Cottam head the depth chart at tight end, which Cutcliffe identified as "one of the positions that I feel best about."

But questions linger at wide receiver, where Cutcliffe praised the wideouts more for their blocking skills than their play-making ability.

And while Cutcliffe praised the offensive line for its improvement, he said the run game still had a ways to go.

"Are we good enough as a team right now? No," Cutcliffe said. "We've got to understand how hard it is to take 11 people every play and do it right and win in this league, and we don't understand that right now."

The team does, however, have a better grasp of what it takes to be physical. Both Cutcliffe and defensive coordinator John Chavis said it had been one of the most physical spring practice sessions they could remember.

"Maybe even since I've been here going back to 1989, which was almost brutal," Chavis said. "And now we've got more guys up front that understand what it takes."

That's the result of more live drills, especially inside drills that emphasize the run game - "where we're just lined up knocking heads" according to Cutcliffe - and one-on-one drills.

"You're either going to get tough, or you're going to quit," Foster said. "We haven't had anyone quit."

Defensively, stopping the run has been the main priority. Last year, UT posted its worst numbers in rushing defense and sacks of Chavis' entire tenure as coordinator.

Defensive tackle has been a particular point of concern, with Justin Harrell, Turk McBride and Matt McGlothlin among the departed. J.T. Mapu has established himself as a starter.

"I think he's a force to reckon with inside and I think he can be an all-SEC caliber player," Chavis said of Mapu.

Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams are fighting for the other starting spot.

At linebacker, Ryan Karl, Rico McCoy and Jerod Mayo all return with starting experience, but a sore knee has sidelined Mayo this spring and Ellix Wilson now is pushing him at middle linebacker.

"Even if you're established, it still hurts when you miss spring practice," Chavis said. "I think Jerod Mayo's a guy that's proven he can play in this league, but I tell you, when you miss spring practice, we're going to have a battle."

Marsalous Johnson and Antonio Gaines have received the most praise among the defensive backs, with Jarod Parrish emerging as safety opposite the returning Jonathan Hefney. Ja'Kouri Williams also has made a move to the secondary.

The statistics racked up today won't carry over or have any significant impact - and, in the past, some of the best performances in the spring game have been recorded by unknowns or bench warmers.

This spring has been different - a testament to the greater physicality of the recent practices. Of returnees from the 2006 two-deep roster, only defensive end Robert Ayers and defensive tackle Walter Fisher missed the entirety of spring drills. Starting offensive linemen Anthony Parker and Eric Young are among those who returned ahead of schedule from operations.

Admission for today's game is free. A Fans Day autograph session will take place on the field at Neyland Stadium starting at noon. Gates open at 11:45 a.m.

CSS will air Tennessee's spring game on tape delay starting at 5 p.m.

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