Under glistening sun and the watchful eyes of more than 35 Vols For Life, Butch Jones took the field as the head coach of Tennessee for the first time on Saturday. The Vols started their spring practice schedule for the first of 15 sessions on Haslam Field.
“I think it was a typical first day of practice,” said Jones. “I thought our players were eager. I thought you could feel the energy. But we have a lot of work to do. It has been 105 days since Tennessee has played football and I think it showed a little bit. We are taking the approach of this football team is down 15 practices because eight of our 12 opponents that we play next year had those extra 15 practices with bowl practices. Every single rep counts, every single practice counts but I liked our energy. But again now we have to come back and we have to improve on today and we have to have an even better practice on Tuesday.”
Team 117 was full of energy and intensity in their first practice under the direction of their new head coach. Something they knew they would have to bring to their first practice of the spring.
“Coach Jones, at the beginning of practice he reinforced [the uptempo effort] to us, and all throughout the meetings and things today the coaches kept emphasizing it,” said defensive lineman Jacques Smith. “Coach Strip kept saying `guys we need to get better, we are 15 practices down and we have to make up for it.’ We definitely did today. The D Line got after it; we worked as a whole today and are getting better as a unit. We are just getting better.”
The D Line was not the only group that got after it as Rajion Neal, who holds nearly all of the weight room records for Tennessee running backs, felt the pace of the practice get to him.
“The first day was pretty exciting and really fast,” said Neal. “There was a fast pace to everything. I caught myself being a little winded. But it is exciting, I like it. I like the style of offense that we are running. It is different and its fun learning something new. Everybody had fun and it was fun seeing everyone get back out there and be excited to be there.”
The excitement carried from the offense to the defense and could be felt throughout the football complex.
“Even through our workouts in the winter, this staff always emphasizes energy and always being up from start to finish,” said defensive lineman LaTroy Lewis. “You could see that from when we first got out there to the end that everybody was up and it was high energy.”
Offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, one of a handful of veteran offensive linemen, will look to lead the team this season.
“The offensive line sets the tone for everything, said Richardson. “You have leaders like Ja’Wuan [James] and myself, who have been in the fire and done it, we are just going to lead our team. We are moving pretty fast, even faster than last year so it is going to pay dividends in the end.”
“When I stepped out on the field it was like a breath of fresh air,” continued Richardson. “I am just happy to be back on the grid.”
QB COMPETITION STARTS UP
The start of spring practice meant the beginning of a highly anticipated quarterback competition, which remains wide open as the new coaching staff evaluates what kind of talent they have the position.
Currently, the frontrunners for the job are Justin Worley, who has had limited playing experience during his time on Rocky Top, and Nathan Peterman, who redshirted his freshman year. Both players will split reps throughout spring practice.
I think it’s pretty wide open,” Peterman said. “I think me and Justin know that. We’re just trying to make sure everything is best for the team. … I’m sure they’re going to play the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”
Despite Peterman being recruited by head coach Butch Jones and his staff at Cincinnati, both players are having to adjust to the faster tempo of the new system and learn the new offense on the fly.
I know I’ve talked about it before, but it’s all about consistency,” Jones said at the opening spring press conference. “The individual who manages the football the best and makes the least amount of mistakes, but really, it’s the individual that gives us the best opportunity to win come Saturdays will be our starting quarterback.”
One new addition to the offense that wasn’t a part of last year’s system will be the quarterback’s ability to run the ball and the zone-read attack that’s part of Jones’s offense.
“I don’t think I’m a terrible runner,” Worley said. “But I’m not going to tell you I’m a dual-threat guy either. I’m not a whole lot worried about that, but we’ll see how things progress.”
Peterman offered a similar sentiment.
“They’ve just installed the offense and said, ‘You can pull the ball and run at certain times here. So whoever the quarterback is knows that,” Peterman said. “I would say I’m more of a passer with the ability to get myself out of trouble. I can pick up a first down here or there, if we need to.”
In the world of big-time college football, change is everywhere. Whether it’s a new staff with a new style or a positional change for a player, it can’t be avoided. That theory certainly holds true for the Vols, as they enter the spring season under a new coaching staff.
It’s not just Coach Jones and his staff that has welcomed adjustments, but the players, including senior Brent Brewer, junior Devrin Young and redshirt freshman LaTroy Lewis, who will all be welcoming change this offseason.
Brewer, a three-year safety for the Vols that has amassed 16 starts and 33 game appearances over his career, believes his move to linebacker will not only be easy, but it will make a positive and immediate impact on the program.
“I’m a physical person. I’m fast and like the physical play down there,” said Brewer. “I think it will be pretty easy to adjust. I’ll bring more leadership and physicality to the position. Now I’ll get to use my speed in covering the tight ends and running backs so I think it will help us out a lot.”
Lewis is another one that believes his move from linebacker up to the defensive line will only help the Orange and White.
“For me it’s working well,” Lewis said. “It fits into most of my strengths such as rushing off the edge and still being able to play the run, but most importantly, getting after the quarterback.”
For others, the transition maybe didn’t go as smoothly as expected on day one, but with more work and reps to be put in the potential is certainly there.
“I’m not going to lie, I thought it was going to be easy at first, but it’s a lot of technique,” Young said about his transition from running back to the perimeter. “There’s a lot that goes into playing wide receiver, but it will definitely give me more opportunities to play. I’ll get to show how versatile I can be and it will get me into open space.”
In this game change is unavoidable; it just needs to be embraced.
“I did. Once the coaching staff told me the information I was happy,” Brewer said about his move. I called my family and everything. I love it.”
I SPY, A VFL
From the moment he stepped foot on campus, Butch Jones has had an open invitation to all the former Vols for them to visit anytime. Saturday, several past Tennessee legends and players came and watched the Vols’ start to spring practice.
The list included UT greats such as Jamal Lewis and Leonard Little, and even former UT head coach and player Johnny Majors made an appearance.
Coach Jones has made it a point of emphasis after taking over the program to forge a connection with the past and celebrate Tennessee’s traditions.
“It’s great,” Jones said after practice. “They are the program. We tell our players this all the team: the logo never comes off. We are one of the most storied programs in the country and that is how it should be. It is great to see our former players come back and be part of it.”
Many of the former players on the sidelines of Haslam Field, including Jim Haslam, set the standard for what the current players are trying to accomplish.
“Just to see all the guys that you grew up watching,” Jacques Smith said. “Leonard Little, that is unspeakable. I try to work as I can every day to try and be better than him. I haven’t accomplished it yet, but it is a goal of mine.”
On the offensive side, the running backs were treated to some advice from not only a Tennessee legend, but an NFL great who attended Saturday’s practice.
“He (Jamal Lewis) came and spoke to all the guys and gave us words of encouragement, ins and outs of what he went through here and at the next level,” fellow running back Rajion Neal said. “When you can get little snippets and a little cheat code like that, why not take it all in?”