The stats are essentially irrelevant, and while you got a small glimpse into the mind of Butch Jones on Saturday, the product you saw on the field was irrelevant too. As is the way with spring football, there wasn’t much you could take from the Tennessee Volunteers spring game from a football standpoint.
Jones realizes as well as anyone that a scrimmage in April has absolutely no bearing in October. However, he treated the action on the field with the kind of intensity he’s reportedly been bringing to practice all spring in Knoxville and at every other coaching destination along the way. And somehow, in a game where the final score was nearly indecipherable (Orange won 95-71 over White), Butch Jones managed to leave 61,076 Volunteer fans in attendance (the second most to ever attend UT’s spring game) and many more at home excited.
After three years of apparent exile under Derek Dooley’s administration, former letterman showed up in droves. Almost 500 were present for a dinner hosted by Coach Jones on Friday night. Al Wilson did an in-game interview with ESPN, Eric Berry talked extensively with a mic’d Jones throughout the fourth quarter and Arian Foster, who hadn’t been back to Knoxville in an official capacity since leaving in 2008, took over the DJ booth for a spell in the first half.
Knowing that Saturday was nothing more than a glorified practice for his football team, Butch Jones created an atmosphere for the fans. Martin from Duck Dynasty called a play, a successful screen pass to start the fourth quarter. Players and coaches signed autographs before the game and fans were allowed to walk the field–an opportunity the equivalent of packing into St. Peter’s Square for thousands of East Tennesseans.
And while the overwhelming impression from the field is that the Vols will need an immediate influx of talent at the skill positions to replace what was lost to this year’s NFL Draft, Butch Jones was still able to create a sense of optimism. It feels like everything will eventually be okay.
On the playing surface of Shield-Watkins Field, we didn’t see a lot, as expected. Those with an eye for talent evaluation probably took stock of where this team is developmentally 15 practices into the Butch Jones era, but other than that, there simply wasn’t much to behold.
With Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson all leaving early to enter the draft, and Marlin Lane currently working his way back towards rejoining the team off of suspension, the Vols spent the spring fairly barren at the skill positions. Injuries at wide receiver certainly didn’t help, and on Saturday depth at the offensive skill positions was the obvious focus.
Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman have been locked in a quarterback battle that is likely to continue well into the fall, and while people were anxious to see how they’d perform in front of a crowd (Worley took first-team reps, for what it’s worth), the pair certainly didn’t benefit from the situation at tailback and at receiver. Worley went 8-for-18 for 123 yards, a touchdown and an interception while Peterman went 9-for-23 for 98 yards and ate six sacks.
Neither looked particularly comfortable in the system to this point, but that’s to be expected with a pair of relatively inexperienced signal-callers in an entirely new offense.
Alden Hill took advantage of Lane’s absence and was able to gain 101 yards on 18 carries. Hill certainly looks capable of making an impact in the fall, specifically in short-yardage scenarios as a 6-2 217 LB back. However, Lane’s status heading into the 2013 season will ultimately affect how much action Hill likely sees.
Wide receiver Cody Blanc showed surprising speed when he took an eight-yard curl and outran the entire defense on his way to a 58-yard touchdown catch. However, the wide receivers had their difficulties and it’s obvious that the addition of Marquez North and a healthy Jason Croom will be welcomed on the outside this fall.
Defensively, early enrollee Corey Vereen had an impressive first half, racking up four sacks (albeit of the touch variety). Vereen was recruited as a middle linebacker under the previous administration but has made the move to defensive end under defensive coordinator John Jancek. LaTroy Lewis also looked like a potential impact player off the edge for the Volunteers.
In the secondary, Brian Randolph (back from an ACL injury against Florida last year) intercepted Worley and walk-on Max Arnold, who was one of three recipients of the John Stucky Iron Vol Award this spring, took a fourth-quarter interception to the house. Arnold’s pick-6 sealed the 95-71 victory for the defense.
All told, it’s hard to put much emphasis on a scrimmage with a score that looks like the final of a Heat-Wizards game, but if we learned anything about Team 117, it’s that they’re a long way from where they want to be. The same can be said for every program in the country.
The Tennessee Volunteers spring game gave us a little bit more, though. What Tennessee fans needed more than anything was to feel like there was hope. They needed to feel excitement and optimism because, quite frankly, they really haven’t felt much of either in the past five years.
Butch Jones provided exactly that.
This still looks like a team that has to grind just to make a bowl game, but Jones looks like a guy who will eventually get the Vols back towards the top of the SEC. At the very least, he’s already proven he knows how to build a brand.