Checking in on the Tennessee Vols

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- I'm spending the day on Tennessee's campus and had a chance to catch up with Derek Dooley and several of the Vols' players.

We'll have a lot more on the Vols on the SEC blog in the coming days, especially Monday.

Hard as it is to believe, this is the first time since 2008 that the Vols have gone through spring practice with the same head coach for the second consecutive year.

Dooley, entering his second season as the Vols' coach, wraps up his second spring this Saturday with the annual Orange & White Game.

He feels significantly better about Tennessee's talent level going into this second season, but points out that 70 percent of the Vols' players will be freshmen or sophomores.

Coming off a 6-7 season, Dooley isn't ready to predict that Tennessee will climb back into that upper tier of the SEC in 2011. After all, the Vols have lost 20 games over the last three seasons.

But what Dooley is confident of is that there's been marked improvement across the board.

"It's hard to put a barometer on where we stack up," Dooley said. "So what am I evaluating? I'm evaluating how much improvement we're going through as a program at each position. We're light years ahead of where we were a year ago, and we should be."

The trick, according to Dooley, is whether some of those freshmen who showed flashes last season can develop into big-time SEC players their second time through the league.

The Vols have the look of one of those teams that might have to outscore everybody they play next season.

Sophomore Tyler Bray returns at quarterback, and there's promising talent all around him on offense. In particular, sophomore receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers are freakish athletes who should be even more technically sound next season as receivers. Tennessee also has some of the best young talent in the league on the offensive line.

On defense, there are a ton of unknowns.

Dooley said it would probably be early July before the Vols know for sure if safety Janzen Jackson will be back with the team. Jackson withdrew from school this semester to deal with personal issues, but has continued to work out.

Junior college defensive tackle Maurice Couch will be counted on to help right away in the interior of the Vols' defensive line, and the same goes for junior college defensive backs Byron Moore and Izauea Lanier. None of the three are going through spring practice, though, and won't be on campus until this summer.