And it starts today.
Kiffin will open his first spring session since becoming coach of Vols with a 3:30 p.m. workout.
There will be 14 practices, followed by the spring game April 18 at 3 p.m. The first full-contact practice, to be held this Friday, will be open to the public — pending the fire marshal’s approval. All 14 workouts will be open to media.
The new access rules aren’t the only change. Kiffin has said several times that this will be a highly competitive, and physical, spring practice. It’s the chance for veterans to impress the coaching staff, which is entirely brand new. When preseason camp opens in August, the new recruits will get the first look so that Kiffin and company can see who will be able to contribute right away.
The only guy Kiffin says is guaranteed a starting spot is safety Eric Berry. And for good reason. Berry earned consensus All-America honors — on all five NCAA-recognized teams — as a sophomore in 2008. He tied for the national lead in interceptions with seven, and his 258 return yards off those picks led the country and helped set Southeastern Conference and Tennessee career records in the category.
Cornerback Dennis Rogan and safety Demetrice Morley join Berry as returning starters in the secondary. Morley has been in and out of the doghouse, but if he falls out of favor, Rogan has experience at safety. Brent Vinson and Marsalous Johnson have starting experience. Rod Wilks, Johnson’s brother, is listed as a defensive back but could be moved to wide receiver.
Other returnees looking to keep their starting jobs include end Wes Brown, tackle Dan Williams and linebacker Rico McCoy.
Williams’ decision to bypass early entry to the NFL is huge given the lack of experience and manpower at tackle. Players like Chase Nelson, Andre Mathis, Victor Thomas and Donald Langley need to take a major step forward. Ben Martin and Chris Walker proved themselves at end last year. It’s a pivotal spring for Willie Bohannon, a talented end who redshirted last season.
McCoy is the lone returning starter at linebacker. Nick Reveiz, a former walk-on, got significant reps last season. Gerald Williams could see time at linebacker or end. The new coaching staff could signal a fresh start for guys like redshirt sophomore Chris Donald. One of the most highly touted linebackers in the nation coming out of high school, Donald has barely seen the field through his first two years in Knoxville.
Offensively, 2008 was the worst season in some 30 years for the Vols. Kiffin has yet to decide if he will let someone else call the plays.
The question as to who will call them in the huddle remains a focal point, as the battle for the starting quarterback job renews.
Senior Jonathan Crompton, junior Nick Stephens and freshman B.J. Coleman are the candidates. All three had a crack at the job in 2008, but none of them did enough to keep it. Crompton will get first look due to seniority, but after that it’s wide open. Stephens will miss at least a significant share of spring practice because of injury.
Montario Hardesty is the most experienced running back on the roster. In years past, that would make him the favorite to become the starter. Lennon Creer, however, was the second-highest rusher on the team (388 yards) as a sophomore.
Leading receiver Gerald Jones (30 catches, 323 yards, 4 touchdowns) returns, but there’s question as to how his “G-Gun” role will translate in Kiffin’s pro-style offense. Brandon Warren already was moved to receiver from tight end, where Luke Stocker and Jeff Cottam return.
Up front, there are significant depth issues. Center Josh McNeil, tackle Chris Scott and guards Jacques McClendon and Vladimir Richard all started games in 2008. The Vols have just nine additional linemen, counting Aaron Douglas, who’s moving from tight end to tackle. None of the nine has seen significant playing time in their careers.
Daniel Lincoln returns as placekicker, but his performance last season fell well short of the marks that earned him All-America accolades as a redshirt freshman. Chad Cunningham is the most experienced punter, and handled that duty in the first four games of 2008 to mixed results.