On Saturday the Tennessee Volunteers took the field for their first practice under new head coach Butch Jones.
The first practice was intense, energetic and designed to “catch the Vols up”,. Butch Jones has already instilled in the team that they are basically down 15 practices to 8 of their 12 opponents next season, those opponents got extra bowl practices.
Tennessee appears to be in good hands with Butch Jones and staff. There’s an excitement around spring practice that hasn’t previously been in place. The players are going to have to work hard, really hard, but they know that, they’ve accepted that, and they’re extremely excited.
Butch Jones has made it his mission to create a family atmosphere at Tennessee, an atmosphere that embraces competition, but at the end of the day shakes hands. Jones has taken names off the helmets, saying that players and coaches should know everyone’s name. Jones said they players have embraced the coaching staff and the expectations the staff has put on them. When you listen to the players talk about the staff, you can feel they understand there are high expectations. You can also feel that they want to exceed those expectations, you already get the feeling that every player on the team would run through a wall for this coaching staff.
Family atmosphere and chemistry is certainly one part of the recipe for success, but it’s not the only important thing. Technique and conditioning are just as important. Coach Jones is installing new offensive and defensive schemes, the team will have to adjust their mind and bodies to the new style.
Defensive lineman Jacques Smith said defensive line coach Steve Stripling stayed after them, imploring the unit as a whole to “get better” and referring to the Vols being “15 practices down”. The Vols are switching back to a 4-3 front, after a failed attempt at a 3-4 scheme under previous defensive coordinator Sal Sunserri.
The defensive side of the ball wasn’t alone in their intense practice. Running back Rajion Neal said he felt a little winded at times, but he expected it. Neal said new running back Robert Gillespie is “no joke”. The senior running back said that coach Gillespie wants it his way, but the backs understand it makes a difference.
So about that headline that’s sure to dominate spring practice — the quarterback battle.
Coach Jones has said the battle will be wide open, but it’s looking more and more like it’s going to be a two-man battle, between junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshmen Nathan Peterman.
On Friday Jones described the type of quarterback he wants:
“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.”
It’s been widely speculated that Jones would want a “dual-threat” quarterback. Worley certainly isn’t going to win any races, and Peterman shouldn’t be considered your typical dual-threat quarterback either. In fact here’s what each had to say about their running prowess.
Justin Worley: “I don’t think I’m a terrible runner, 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
Nathan Peterman: “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.”
We said just after signing day that we believe Peterman will win the job, and we’ll continue to stand by that until we see something that tells us we shouldn’t. It’s still very early and it’s very unlikely that the job will be won in spring practice.
Another encouraging sign for the football program is the former Vols being invited back in with open arms. The Vol’s first spring practice was watched by several former Vols including: Jamal Lewis, Leonard Little, Erik Ainge, Joey Kent and Johnny Majors, among others.
Welcoming former players back is an extension of the family atmosphere that Butch Jones preaches. Every day, after practice, Vol For Life coordinator Antone Davis goes over with the team the former Vols who were at practice. Coach Jones said also that players will be familiar with the former players that wore the number they’re wearing.
The Tennessee Volunteers football team still has a long way to go to fully develop their identity. The most important thing is it appears the team has bought-in fully to Butch Jones and his staff. That’s a connection that sometimes isn’t made, and can set a program back for years, which sounds a little familiar.
All I know for sure is Rocky Top is going to be a fun place to be this fall.