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Spring storylines

Vols, 'Horns, USC among teams with issues to resolve

Posted: Tuesday March 7, 2006 2:01PM; Updated: Wednesday March 15, 2006 6:07PM
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Erik Ainge
Erik Ainge will try to rebuild his confidence under offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, who has rejoined the Vols' coaching staff.
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We interrupt March Madness to inform you of this breaking development: Spring football practice is under way!

At places like Texas, Alabama, Tennessee and UCLA, teams have already been donning pads for a week or longer, and most other major programs will soon follow. Coaches will be using these 15 precious practice days to seek answers to their squads' most glaring questions. Here are 10 that stand out:

1. Can Tennessee rediscover its edge?

What's taking place in Knoxville right now can best be described as a spring cleaning. The Vols are trying to clean themselves of the bad habits that contributed to their first losing season since 1988. Quarterback Erik Ainge is trying to clean his head of the confidence-shattering juggling act that took place between himself and departed senior Rick Clausen. Offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe, back for his second stint under head coach Phillip Fulmer, is cleaning out Tennessee's long-stagnant playbook and replacing it with a more versatile scheme. And the offensive linemen are cleaning themselves of extra pounds (15-20 pounds in some cases). "It's important that we use every minute, every period of the 15 days we are allowed to get our edge back as a football team," Fulmer said. Finding a couple receivers who can catch a ball in traffic wouldn't hurt, either.

2. What will Texas' offense look like post-V.Y.?

Offensive coordinator Greg Davis completely reinvented the Longhorns' attack two years ago to fit Vince Young's unique athletic ability. After winning a national title with it, Davis isn't likely to go back to the drawing board just because Young is gone. While no one expects either of the two players vying for the QB job, redshirt freshman Colt McCoy and true frosh Jevan Snead, to make the kind of plays that Young did, it will be imperative that they use the spring to become more comfortable making the type of reads necessary to be a signal-caller in a shotgun, zone-read attack. Equally interesting will be seeing how Texas' offensive balance changes without either Young or standout tight end David Thomas. With running back Ramonce Taylor sitting out the spring to focus on academics, sophomore-to-be Jamaal Charles has a chance to assert himself as the primary back.

3. Who will be the new faces of Ohio State's defense?

It's not often you see a team lose nine starters on one side of the ball yet remain on the short list of national title contenders. Part of that is the buzz associated with Troy Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and the rest of the Buckeyes' offense, but it also shows the deep confidence most people have in OSU's ability to reload. Indeed, included among the projected "new" starters are two fifth-year linebackers, Mike D'Andrea and John Kerr (a transfer who was a freshman standout at Indiana), who we've been hearing about for years. At other positions, however, most notably in the secondary, youngsters who have played sparingly will have to blossom into stars immediately if the Bucks hope to remain dominant on D. Among those who will be getting a hard look this spring: defensive end Lawrence Wilson, linebacker James Laurinaitis and defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and Jamario O'Neal.

4. Mark Sanchez or John David Booty?

USC has had only two starting quarterbacks in Pete Carroll's five seasons -- Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart -- and both won Heisman trophies. Needless to say, there's more than a little interest in L.A. as to who inherits the reins next. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and quarterbacks coach Steve Sarkisian have both said they'd like to name a starter by the end of spring. Booty, who graduated from high school a year early only to sit behind Leinart for three seasons, has the clear edge in experience over redshirt freshman Sanchez, but practice observers last season were blown away by the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Sanchez's arm strength and delivery. The guess here is that Booty will emerge from spring as the starter but will be constantly looking over his shoulder should he struggle in the slightest next fall (which is entirely possible considering the attrition on the Trojans' O-line).

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