Here are some of my observations, notes and opinions from Tennessee football spring practice #8 (Saturday, March 29, 2014). The media was allowed to see the entire practice and situational scrimmage held at Neyland Stadium.
I’ll be posting post-practice blogs and interviews on this page throughout spring practice, so please share and tell your friends and co-workers.
What we saw as a whole
In a steady light rain at Neyland Stadium, the team got it’s first opportunity to practice in wet conditions, according to a few players. Because the field drains so well and was in excellent condition, Butch Jones told the team they’d still benefit from scrimmaging at Neyland Stadium. It was family day as well for the players and staff. (Photo credit above - UT Athletics: Team & family)
My official count had UT running 37 drives of offense vs. defense live game work. All drives were situational. Sometimes the offense would start in the redzone; other times the offense would start at it’s own 1, sometimes at it’s own 35, etc. Butch Jones had a scoring system, but
Keep in mind, when one side or player looks good, someone else can look bad on the other side. Overall though, I think the offense is ahead of the defense. Also, many of these are my observations from what I saw in this scrimmage. From one practice to the next players can look different or come along and improve. There are no real grand declarations from me here after just one scrimmage.
In or Out
Butch Jones said they kept a few guys out. The conditions and wanting to give some younger guys some looks played a role in that.
WR Marquez North was not at practice today due to a family emergency. Jason Croom took his spot on the first team along with Von Pearson and Josh Malone.
Marlin Lane participated a little, but they limited his touches.
WR Johnathon Johnson was the only player I noticed in a green non-contact jersey and did not participate in the scrimmage.
A.J. Johnson, as was the case in the first scrimmage this spring, did not do much. He was dressed out and even led the post-practice high-five line for the defense, but he may not have taken a single snap.
I charted the drives for all four quarterbacks, and here’s how it looked:
As was the case in the first scrimmage, every quarterback worked with the 1s and against the 1s on defense. Each also led the second team offense versus the second-team defense, Riley Ferguson told us afterwards that the QBs don’t know when they will go on the field. There’s no script. The coaches call them out when they want one to go back out. They must all be ready all the time.
Who looks to be playing the best at quarterback? In my opinion, it’s redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson. He seems to have nice command of the offense and the huddle. He is the most gifted passer of the four. It isn’t a drastic difference, but it is an edge for him. Ferguson has made some mistakes. In an overtime situation with the offense down 3 in overtime, Ferguson, on 1st down, threw the ball up for grabs towards the goal line off his back foot. It was intercepted by Malik Foreman. Butch Jones calmly used that as a teaching moment on the mic for the team with Ferguson standing alone in the middle of the field with him. Ferguson had no problems with it. Butch patted him on the helmet afterwards and that was it.
The key though is that Ferguson isn’t making more than the other more experienced guys. If there’s no difference in protecting the ball, then that opens the door for the coaches to go with the guy that can make plays from the position. THis offense will really need that play-making ability with an overhauled offensive line. Butch Jones has complimented Ferguson's instincts before, and mentioned that that is one thing he's looking for from the quarterback.
Jason Croom had a long touchdown catch from Justin Worley on the first drive where he beat CB Emmanuel Moseley down the sideline then fended-off Moseley who couldn’t bring him down after the catch.
Josh Malone got in the endzone, deep middle, on a nice throw by Justin Worley with CB Devaun Swofford trailing. Malone, North, Pearson and Croom is such an imposing looking group of wide receivers. I still wonder about Croom’s consistency, but I think Pearson and Malone will be special. Pearson had a nice touchdown catch on a corner route. He continues to work a lot at the Slot WR position. Plenty of other guys were a part of the scoring or had nice plays including Cody Blanc and Jacob Carter. Josh Smith didn’t take advantage of his opportunities as much.
Jalen Hurd continues to impress those of us watching, the coaches and his teammates. He had a 20-25 yd touchdown run. He has tremendous balance and is a combination of power and elusiveness. His pass catching and pass protection will determine how quickly he’ll be an every down back. He’s going to excite Tennessee fans more than any newcomer with his play this year.
Marlin Lane had one drive where he pulled-in a catch out of the backfield with yards after catch from QB Riley Ferguson, as well as about a 15-20 yard run slicing through the defense with cuts in traffic. He looked good. Butch Jones continues to praise Lane, even calling him a warrior.
Devrin Young looked pretty good, especially in the passing game and on edge runs. He got to the endzone a couple of times. Alden Hill, Justus Pickett and Deanthonie Summerhill all had success in red zone eye formation pound-the-ball situation runs.
Butch Jones proudly said over the wireless microphone, "We love to run the football at Tennessee. We love to run the football at Tennessee."
Ethan Wolf saw some first team looks. Daniel Helm has previously as well. Both have flashed in the passing game. The coaches like their progress for being so young. There are plenty of reps for those two freshmen. Talented walk-on Alex Ellis got some run with the first team some also. He’s a very fluid pass-catcher and looks the part at tight end. If he can stay healthy, I think he’ll see the field. Joe Stocstill continues to see some work as their short yardage H-Back, as he did at the end of last season.
Jacob Gilliam was with the 1st team at left tackle again. Dontavius Blair is still with the second unit. Butch Jones complimented Gilliam for his consistency. This is a big area of concern. Coleman Thomas continues to hold down the right tackle position. The lack of depth on the o-line is alarming. The fact that none of the other second-team guys have shown enough improvement to earn some first team reps with all positions up for grabs is not a good sign either.
We saw players flash: Kendal Vickers with a sack; Corey Vereen with a sack; Kenny Bynum with a tackle for loss; Owen Williams with some nice tackles on running backs through the hole and more…but, overall not enough, I don't think. This group isn’t nearly as disruptive as they need to be. There wasn't a consistent pass rush. When they did get to the quarterback it was after hanging in the pocket for 3 or 4 seconds. You’d think they would be more disruptive against a totally new and inexperienced offensive line. There were numerous times where the edge wasn't contained and the defense lost leverage allowing big runs to the outside. The second team defensive line struggled stopping the power run in red-zone situation drives.
Curt Maggitt saw action both at end and at outside linebacker. Maggitt didn’t look like the explosive difference-maker he was two years ago in that 11-on-11 setting Saturday. He may not be going all-out by design, so he doesn’t suffer a set-back. I don’t know. We’ll wait and see how the rest of spring plays out. He has a lot on his plate mentally trying to learn multiple positions while handling the mental aspect of trying to stay healthy, so those are definitely factors as well.
Jalen Reeves-Maybin was in on a lot of plays. Kenny Bynum was in A.J. Johnson’s spot a lot with the first group on the inside, and did a nice job at times. Justin King had a sack. The second unit’s struggles highlights the lack of depth in this area as well. Quarterbacks were scrambling for big chunks of yardage quite a few times. Some were missed tackles, but others were where the LBs were dropped too far back in coverage or not able to get off blocks near the line of scrimmage. No A.J. changes this unit, so you have to take that into consideration. Help is on the way in the summer with four new guys.
This is another mixed bag performance unit. Cam Sutton is the best corner on the team and has looked pretty good, overall. Emmanuel Moseley continues to run with the first unit at cornerback. I like him. He was beaten in coverage a few times, but I like his willingness to go after the football (pass break-ups) and mix-it-up to either blitz or come up and make a tackle. He has to get bigger, but the coaches like his make-up. The safety position has LaDarrell McNeil as the deep safety while Brian Randolph is out for the spring. I mentioned the Malik Foreman interception earlier. Max Arnold had a 90-ish yard pick-6 of Justin Worley and a late throw to the flat without enough on it. Lemond Johnson had a big hit, that drew oohs and aahhs, on a short pass attempt to a check-down receiver.
George Bullock made all three of his kicks from inside 45. That was a positive, especially with the wet grass. I asked Butch Jones about the long snapping after the game, because he had previously mentioned that they were still searching for a long snapper. He told me Matt Giampapa is there long snapper, and that he’s definitely improved his consistency. We saw more of the same from punter Matt Darr...some nice booming punts, but not consistent.
Tennessee returns to the practice field on Tuesday.
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