3 things to watch for during Tennessee football's spring practice

Spring Practice begins March 18 for the Tennessee Volunteers and there is plenty to watch for on both sides of the ball.

Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Tennessee
Cheez-It Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Tennessee / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

Spring practice is here for Tennessee football. Josh Heupel is preparing for his fourth season on Rocky Top after going 27-12 in the first three years as Tennessee's head football coach. The Vols started spring practice on Monday, March 18, preparing to install the offense and defense for the 2024 season.

The Vols completed their first practice of the Spring on Monday and will continue practicing as they lead up to the Orange and White Game on April 13 at 1 PM ET. We will get to see this year's team play against each other in that game, but until then, we will only get to see bits and pieces from each practice.

There is a lot of new on Rocky Top this year, with new players, starters, and coaches all around the program. Spring practice is where we get an idea of what our Vols will look like this year, and it's the first step to getting back to football season. Here are three things to watch for throughout this year's Spring practice.

1. Nico Iamaleava

Nico Iamaleava is preparing for his first year as Tennessee's starting quarterback. The Vols have been lucky to have some solid quarterbacks throughout Heupel's tenure in Knoxville. Hendon Hooker dominated as Tennessee's quarterback and thrived in year two as the starter. Joe Milton bridged the gap from Hooker to Iamaleava and helped lead the Vols to an 8-4 record.

Now, we get to see what Tennessee's five-star quarterback has up his sleeve as the full-time starter for the Vols. We got to see a small sample size of Tennessee's future in their bowl game, where Nico led the Vols to a 35-0 win over Iowa.

He showed off his legs and arm throughout the game, which could be an asset for the Vols. Hooker and Milton were both dynamic, duel-threat quarterbacks, but Nico can take it to another level. We know what he can do with his legs, so it will be important to see the young quarterback establish his arm talent early in the Spring.

I'm not sure what to expect out of Nico in Year 1 leading the offense, but I believe he has the potential to be at least as productive and efficient as Hooker in 2022. If that is Nico's floor, then Tennessee is going to be very good over the next few years, but this Spring is where we can get an idea of what to expect from the Redshirt Freshman.

2. Secondary

Tennessee's entire secondary is overhauled from the 2023 season. The Vols' best corner, Kamal Hadden, is off to the NFL, and every other starter left in the December transfer portal. This means Heupel is replacing everyone in a sub-par secondary, which can be difficult through the portal.

MTSU transfer Jakobe Thomas and Oregon State transfer Jermod McCoy headlined the new members of the Vols' secondary, and I assume Tim Banks will pair them with younger and inexperienced guys on Tennessee's roster to put together a decent secondary group.

Tennessee will have freshman Boo Carter available to get some work in at Safety this year. He could see some meaningful minutes this year and could be a playmaker for the Vols. Sophomores Rickey Gibson III and Jordan Matthews also headline the secondary through Tennessee's transition. 

It can be easy to panic when you look at all the secondary players who left Tennessee after last season, but Tennessee has bounced back and could have as good or better a secondary as 2022. I don't expect the secondary to win many games for the Vols, but it will be important to put together a group that isn't going to lose its games this Fall.

3. Experienced Offensive Line

Tennessee comes into 2024 with an experienced offensive line to protect Nico and set the tone in the run game. This year's offensive line could make or break the Vols up front. With their size and experience, they could help the rest of the young offense settle in early in the season.

The Vols have three Seniors projected to start at Center, Right Guard, and Right Tackles, Seniors and Juniors competing for the open spot at Left Guard, and Sophomore Zalance Heard holding down Left Tackle. Heard might be the youngest of the group, but he doesn't look or play like he's only a sophomore. 

Heard is a massive man and could be the cornerstone of Tennessee's offensive line this year. It will be essential to see how Seniors Cooper Mays, Javontez Spraggins, and John Campbell Jr. continue to develop and grow on the offensive line as we progress throughout the Spring.

That's three returning starters coming back for the 2024 season, with Heard having experience playing Left Tackle at LSU last year. The Vols should be able to lean on the experienced offensive line to set the tone this Spring and throughout the Summer.

An honorable mention to watch is returning starter James Pearce Jr. on the defensive line. He's already in the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the 2025 NFL Draft, so his Junior season could be a monumental year for the Vols and Pearce's future.

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The Vols will continue with Spring practice over the next month as they prepare to showcase a small preview of what they could look like this Fall. This year's Orange and White Game should be a fun one, but it will be in front of a smaller crowd due to renovations at Neyland Stadium.