Here are some of my observations, notes and opinions from Tennessee football spring practice #5 (Friday, March 14, 2014). The media was allowed to see the entire practice and situational scrimmage held at Neyland Stadium.
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First of all, we were pleasantly surprised to be able to watch the entire scrimmage at Neyland Stadium. You can learn much more from those settings than you can in individual position drills, so we in the media appreciated the access. The key is to not go over the top with assumptions. Many things will change and there are plenty more players that will be with the team in the fall that aren’t now.
I’ll start with the quarterbacks. Each of the four QBs got close to equal reps. All four QBs worked with both the first team and second team offenses. All four had TD passes. All four had positive plays as well. Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson didn’t turn the ball over. Ferguson fumbled an exchange at the goal line that was recovered by the defense, but a LaTroy Lewis offsides call gave the ball back to the offense and took the turnover off the board. Justin Worley threw a redzone interception. Butch Jones classified that as “catastrophic.” Joshua Dobbs fumbled trying to escape a pass rush out of the back of the pocket and, with the ball away from his body, he was stripped backside and fumbled. The fumble was recovered in the endzone by Corey Vereen for a defensive touchdown.
If you remove the names and knowledge of experience (or lack thereof) from the four quarterbacks, the player that looked the best to me is redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson. He has the strongest arm. He made a number of excellent throws. He didn’t take unnecessary risks with the football. He made plays with his legs scrambling, and once on a zone-read run. He looks like the guy that can make the most plays from the QB position. That’s something that Butch Jones is looking for. If he has the mental aspect of the offense down enough, and the coaches aren’t spooked by his lack of game experience, I’d say there’s a chance he could win this job. Justin Worley has the experience on his side to offset not having the arm strength and running ability of the other quarterbacks. However, if he can’t protect the football better than the rest, then the job could go to Ferguson.
The most impressive player at the scrimmage was true freshman RB Jalen Hurd. He showed off his power, footwork, cutting ability and balance throughout practice. One impressive move (inside cut and bounce to the outside) he put on sophomore S Lemond Johnson in the open field drew oohs and ahhs from the offensive sideline. He worked against both the first and second team defense. This was the first time that we had a chance to see him in a team setting. Butch Jones alluded to this being the first time he’s shown them what he could do in that impressive fashion, although he has shown flashes.
I think the offense was a little better than expected in the scrimmage. On the flip side, I thought the defense wasn’t as good as you might have thought. The offensive and defensive lines had huge drop-offs with the second units. That was very apparent.
True freshman CB Emmanuel Moseley getting first team work at outside cornerback caught my attention. He has great speed, but was beaten for throws a couple of times including a 25 yd TD pass from Ferguson to QB Marquez North. Moseley missed on a tackle attempt of North where he flung him around but North stayed on his feet and kept going. The fact that he wasn’t afraid to come up and try to make a tackle several times is a plus. I think it’s a positive to earn that opportunity. Cam Sutton was at the other corner. Justin Coleman, as expected, saw action at the nickel corner spot.
There were a few other defensive notables. DE Corey Vereen made a number of plays from his defensive end spot including a fumble recovery for a touchdown. LB Kenny Bynum, DE Kendal Vickers, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin and DT Owen Williams also made multiple plays on defense.
On offense, sophomore WR Marquez North is still a beast. He is so tough to cover with his size, speed, hands combination. True freshman WR Josh Malone, JUCO transfer WR Von Pearson and sophomore WR Josh Smith made some plays in the passing game as well.
It was a mixed bag for many others who made plays and flashed but at other times were not a factor.
All aspects of the kicking game have a lot of work to do. One “in-game” field goal was a 41-yarder from George Bullock that was good. He got under it some, but it still made it through. Another kick was doinked off the left upright, off the crossbar and out. The snaps continue to be high. Butch Jones had said earlier in camp that they are still looking for a long-snapper. The pre-scrimmage kick attempts were short. One was blocked, but that was because of the interior of the line allowing too much penetration. Matt Darr hit some nice punts, an average one and a bad one. Overall, it was better than what we saw from him in practice a year ago when he really struggled with Butch Jones standing over him.
Tennessee returns to the practice field next week after spring break, Tuesday, March 25.
I’ll have more on the radio show I host, the News Sentinel Sports Page, weekdays 10am - Noon on The Sports Animal, sportsanimal99.com and on the WNML iHeart radio app!