With perhaps 40,000 curious onlookers spread throughout Neyland Stadium a relatively new offensive line sprang some leaks in pass protection. Quarterbacks and receivers struggled to connect on a consistent basis. With rushers ruled down on contact, there were no dazzling runs to spice up the proceedings.
To the casual observer, the performance could be summed up in one word … underwhelming. Given all of the personnel being run in and out of the lineup, however, No. 1 quarterback Justin Worley thought the public practice was a solid success.
“I think everybody showed up,” he said. “It’s always incredible to get in front of these fans. There was a little bit more energy, a little bit more bouncing around. The defense got fired up on third downs. I think everybody responded well, came out and competed.”
Worley completed a 25-yard pass to Josh Smith in a scrimmage drill but the play was nullified when Jones ruled Worley had been sacked (touched) before releasing the throw. Worley later completed a pass for 20 yards to Marquez North, who fell as the ball arrived but caught the deflection while flat on his back. Worley later hit North with a 40-yard touchdown pass that was on the money.
Backup quarterbacks Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs were hot and cold, as they have been all preseason. There are two weeks left until the opener, and the pitch-and-catch corps needs all 14 of those days.
On a positive note, part of the struggles in the pass game could be attributed to some good play by Vol defensive backs. Safety Brian Randolph saw some freshman cornerbacks step up in front of the live audience.
“D’Andre Payne was pretty much lock-down on the corner tonight,” Randolph said. “He did good against the big receivers. RaShaan Gaulden did good in the one-on-ones (prior to the scrimmaging). He got a pick. He came out with a lot of emotion tonight.”
Senior running back Marlin Lane thought the blocking was pretty good, even though substitute linemen were coming in and out at a steady pace.
“Our offensive line looked the same, even though we were putting new people in,” Lane said. “We were still seeing the same holes, the same intensity.”
Two weeks into a four-week preseason camp, breaking the routine by practicing before a live crowd at Neyland Stadium was downright refreshing.
|Tennessee wide receiver Jason Croom beats D'Andre Payne for a touchdown during Saturday's open practice in Knoxville.|
“It’s definitely a good rejuvenation,” Randolph said. “Our legs are dead. Some of us needed an extra spark, and I think this did the trick.”
Freshman linebacker Dillon Bates said his first time in Neyland Stadium before an actual crowd was a unique experience.
“I had butterflies,” he said. “Butterflies are the greatest feeling in the world. You never get that anywhere else. To get butterflies just for practice, I can’t wait for gameday.”
Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson thought the crowd in Neyland Stadium amped up the players’ energy level in dramatic fashion.
“We play hard any time we’re in here,” he said. “But it makes it 10 times better with the fans in here.”
Head coach Butch Jones thought so, too, noting: “Thank you for everyone coming out and creating a game-like atmosphere. We needed this for the overall development of our football team. It’ll serve as a great evaluation tool, especially for our kickers and our young players.”
Even performing in a half-full Neyland Stadium should prove beneficial for Bates and the other Vol freshmen who project to contribute right away.
“This is close to a game (experience),” A.J. Johnson said. “When they get to the game it’s going to be 10 times better, but they still get the great feeling of being in a game environment.”
Not all of Tennessee’s newcomers are freshmen. Junior college transfer Von Pearson, a likely starter at wide receiver, says keeping his body in tune is Job 1 these next two weeks.
“I know I’ve got to stay healthy,” he said. “The training room’s got to be my girlfriend. I’ve got to be there every day after practice so I can stay healthy and I can play every game 100 percent.”
The fact 40,000 people turned out to watch a glorified practice on a Saturday night speaks volumes about the passion of Tennessee's fan base. Pearson was duly impressed.
“I know they’re hungry for us to win some games,” he said. “When we win some games this whole town is going to erupt."
Open scrimmage video