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Five things Tennessee coach Josh Heupel needs to address this spring

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Josh Heupel is entering his fourth spring as Tennessee’s football coach.

He had a plethora of question marks his first spring, taking over a program with massive defections and an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations while installing a new fast-pace offensive system.

His second spring led to an 11-2 record, wins over Alabama and Florida and a victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

His third spring resulted in a 9-4 record and a one-sided Citrus Bowl victory over one of the Big Ten’s top teams: Iowa.

What happens during the fourth spring could go a long way in determining whether UT will be closer to the 2022 top 10 team or last year’s version which lost to Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Georgia while offering no upset wins.

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Here are the five biggest questions UT needs to resolve this spring:

Plan B

Find a QB2. Nico Iamaleava showed his skills against a top five defense in Iowa, accounting for four touchdowns. But who will be his backup?

Could be walk-on Gaston Moore, who transferred to Tennessee from Central Florida several years ago. He knows the offense but his skill set is limited.

Signee Jake Merklinger is talented but the 4-star is new to the system. He’ll be force-fed the up-tempo attack (which requires precisely reading the defense) in hopes of having him ready come September.

Tennessee’s starting quarterback was hurt in 2021 and 2022. Maybe Iamaleava, who is 6-foot-6 and a rail-thin 210 pounds, can make it unscathed in 2024. But you need a capable backup just in case.

Target Practice

Identify a receiver rotation. You can trust Bru McCoy (52 catches in 2022, great blocker) and Squirrel White (67 catches, cat-quick) but the Vols need to find at least two more.

Oregon Transfer Dont’e Thornton finally starting to come on before getting hurt late in the season when he caught his only touchdown. Mike Mathews is a 5-star prospect. Chris Brazzell caught 44 passes at Tulane last season.

Those are the three best options, unless Chas Nimrod and Kaleb Webb show marked improvement, and 4-star signee Braylen Staley emerges.

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Left Hand Man

Bolster the offensive line, particularly at left guard.

Lance Heard (LSU transfer) is penciled in at left tackle. Three other positions seem set: John Campbell at right tackle, Javontez Spraggins at right guard, Cooper Mays at center.

Maybe the left guard will be Andrej Karic, the Texas transfer who played to mixed reviews last season, or Jackson Lampley or a signee. UT needs a starter at left guard and some overall depth along the o-line.

No Red Herring

Improve the linebacker room. The return of 26-year-old Kennan Pili (torn bicep in season opener last year) is a huge boost.

The Vols lose Aaron Beasley, who had more tackles than any Vol over the last two years, but last year’s leading tackler (Elijah Herring) returns. Talented Arion Carter got plenty of experience last year and Jeremiah Telander proved to have a nose for the ball as a freshman. Kalib Perry is another option as is 4-star freshman Edwin Spillman.

Nowhere But Up

Get some defensive backs that can cover.

Tennessee nabbed three defensive backs from the transfer portal and two need to be starters. Jermod McCoy (Oregon State) and Jalen McMurray (Temple) are corners; Jacobe Thomas (MTSU) is a safety.

The Vols lost seven defensive backs from last year year’s team with the majority transferring to Power Five schools. But the secondary was the weakness a year ago, allowing over 220 pass yards per game.

The top returners are Ricky Gibson, Jordan Matthews, Jourdan Thomas, Will Brooks and Andre Turrentine. None strike fear into an opposing quarterback.

Athlete Boo Carter is likely to begin his career in the secondary and might win a starting spot. Kaleb Beasley is another touted recruit.

This is definitely an area UT must shore up if it wants to threaten a 10-win season and contend for a berth in the College Football Playoff.

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