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A never-too-soon spring peek, part 1

In some circles, less than two weeks after a team’s bowl game is a tad too soon to start thinking about spring practice.

Sophomore Tyler Bray will be back to pilot a young, talented Tennessee offense.

The University of Tennessee sits comfortably outside that circle, though.

With that in mind, here’s the first of a three-part series looking at what the Volunteers must replace — and who might replace them — on Haslam Field this spring.

Today’s focus is UT’s offense.

(Note: For the time being, the only commits listed in the mix are ones planning on enrolling for the spring semester.)

QUARTERBACK
GONE: No one.
BACK: Sophomore Tyler Bray, senior Matt Simms, redshirt freshman Nash Nance, sophomore Doak Raulston.
NEW: Freshman Justin Worley.
OUTLOOK: The depth situation at this position should look much better than it did last season, with Worley — the Gatorade National Player of the Year — getting added to the mix. It’s obviously Bray’s job to lose, and few if any expect him to lose it, but the California Kid has quality arms behind him in the bullpen.

FULLBACK
GONE: Kevin Cooper.
BACK: Sophomore Channing Fugate, junior Ben Bartholomew, senior Sam Edgmon.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: Fugate took the starting spot and ran with it late last season after Cooper missed the South Carolina game with an academic suspension, and coaches are high on the Kentucky native’s future at the position. Bartholomew also plays some tight end, and Edgmon has emerged as a quality walk-on to give the position more depth.

TAILBACK
GONE: No one.
BACK: Senior Tauren Poole, junior David Oku, sophomore Rajion Neal, sophomore Toney Williams.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: Poole topped 1,000 yards on the ground last season, but he also frustrated coaches at times by missing holes. Neal had his moments, especially catching the ball out of the backfield, and he should be a more mature player as a sophomore. Oku, a talented scat-back, had an extremely frustrating season and went weeks without seeing a significant snap. Williams hasn’t looked like the same player since tearing his ACL last offseason, but youth is still on his side.

WIDE RECEIVER
GONE: Gerald Jones, Denarius Moore.
BACK: Sophomore Justin Hunter, sophomore Da’Rick Rogers, junior Zach Rogers, sophomore Matt Milton, sophomore DeMario Williams.
NEW: Freshman Vincent Dallas.
OUTLOOK: Here’s where the replacing becomes more difficult. Much more difficult. Jones and Moore were the centerpieces of last season’s offense, and both, quite frankly, were never fully appreciated by a decent chunk of UT’s fan base. Coaches and teammates knew the truth, though. Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers are fantastically gifted young playmakers, but the Vols need at least one of them — or someone else — to emerge as a dependable route-runner on third down to keep the chains moving. Jones was extremely valuable in that role, and Moore got better at that every season. Coaches are quietly concerned about finding someone to fill that role. If no one steps up in the spring, highly touted commit DeAnthony Arnett from Michigan could become that player — though that’s a lot to ask of any freshman.

Talented playmaker Justin Hunter will be asked to expand his role as sophomore in 2011.

TIGHT END:
GONE: Luke Stocker.
BACK: Senior Mychal Rivera, senior Brent Slusher, senior Ben Lehning.
NEW: Freshman Brendan Downs.
OUTLOOK: Replacing Stocker will be every bit as difficult as replacing Jones and Moore. Stocker will be in the NFL next season for a reason. He’s an above average blocker and route-runner. Rivera showed some flashes last season, but he’s not going to be as productive as Stocker was — and not nearly as productive as Stocker should have been. Slusher was once a scholarship player at Auburn, and Downs is an intriguing young talent from Northeast Tennessee.

TACKLE
GONE: No one.
BACK: Sophomore Ja’Wuan James, junior Dallas Thomas, redshirt freshman Marques Pair, sophomore Daniel Hood.
NEW: No one.
OUTLOOK: James and Thomas had good seasons, considering their youth, but coaches will expect more — much, much more — from the talented tandem next season. Both need to get physically stronger to combat bull rushes. Pair is rehabbing from knee surgery, but coaches feel confident he was the sneaky-good, under-the-radar signee they hoped he’d be. Hood, a former Knoxville Catholic High School standout, nearly cracked the rotation late last season and should provide quality depth. Something to keep an eye on will be whether Thomas and James keep their spots or switch sides next season. Coaches like Thomas’s athleticism on the left and James’ power potential on the right, but James also looks like a future franchise left tackle.

GUARD
GONE: Jarrod Shaw.
BACK: Sophomore Zach Fulton, sophomore JerQuari Schofield, junior Carson Anderson, sophomore Kevin Revis.
NEW: Freshman Marcus Jackson.
OUTLOOK: Fans are excited about James’ future at tackle for good reason — he could be an All-American one day — but they should feel nearly as excited about Fulton and Schofield on the interior. Both powerful young players could blossom into NFL-quality linemen, and both had solid moments last season. Schofield was solid before injuring his foot early in the season — something he never seemed to fully recover from — and Fulton has a solid finish. The sawed-off-looking Jackson isn’t as physically imposing as Fulton and Schofield, but coaches are still very excited to throw him in the mix.

CENTER
GONE: No one.
BACK: Sophomore James Stone, junior Darin Gooch, senior Cody Pope.
NEW: Freshman Mack Crowder.
OUTLOOK: Dooley and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand took a risk last season when moving the left-handed Stone into the starting lineup at center, but they didn’t feel like they had much of a choice. Regardless, the risk paid off, and Stone — one of the team’s smartest players — became a freshman All-American despite his wrong-handed, awkward-looking snap. Gooch, who started several games in the middle of the season, is probably back where he should be, proving quality depth as a solid No. 2. Pope, who started early last season before missing the final 11 games with a nasty stinger, could shake things up if he’s ever able to shake off that injury.

Contact Wes Rucker at wrucker@247sports.com, www.twitter.com/wesrucker247 or www.facebook.com/wesrucker247

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