KNOXVILLE, — Butch Jones said the Vols ‘grew up’ and ‘matured’ as they took part in their first scrimmage of camp.
“Nice warm evening, great, great day today,” said Jones after he put Team 118 through nearly two hours of scrimmage action under the lights at Neyland Stadium on Saturday. “I liked our approach for this football team, I thought we grew up a little bit, I thought we matured a little bit. It started with our approach this morning with a lot of special teams work and just overall fundamental improvement. Tonight, anytime you get the chance to scrimmage in Neyland Stadium, 102,455, is very special.”
Jones’ puts a lot of emphasis on the mental side of the game and he was happy with the team’s approach.
“I liked our approach, I liked our mindset. We’re slowly learning how to practice as a football team. Still a lot of mistakes, penalties, turning the football over, but I liked the way we competed.
“It’s going to be a great evaluation tool for us as coaches,” added the coach. “We’ll go back now and look at the film and see who’s game-ready. We’ll see who can execute and make plays in our system. The great thing was, our coaches were off the field, so they had to think for themselves, they had to play football. We’ll know more in the next couple of days who’s game-ready and what individuals need to step up just overall knowledge of our schemes.
The effort of the Vols was something that Jones very pleased with.
“The big thing for us is our overall effort,” he said. “Effort can make you right when you’re wrong and our younger players are really struggling with that right now. They ave so much going on with deciphering the signals and the calls and getting lined up and playing with their technique and executing heir assignment, then playing with effort. As we know, 63 effort is the cornerstone of our program, so our freshman class is very, very behind in that. This will be a great tool to go in and watch their effort. I’m pleased overall with our football team in their mentality.”
Big runs carry offense
The Vols offensive unit received nothing short of a live-game simulation running roughly 90 plays over the course of their first scrimmage. Among the offensive unit, the running backs group split reps and showcased a drastically lower run style, along with solid position depth and a detailed understanding of the playbook according to Butch Jones.
“It was some big runs,” said Jones. “I think Jalen Hurd continues to get better and better and better. So we did some good things. And we have really stressed the importance of negative yardage football plays, you can’t have them on offense but again on defense you have to generate them. So great teaching moments.”
For freshman running back Hurd, tonight was a much-needed practice experience, as it was his group’s first time to collaborate with the O-line in a full, game-like environment at Neyland Stadium.
“[The offensive line] did really, really, good,” said Hurd. “There are still things that, of course, we need to work on but you know, as a team, I thought we did really well tonight.”
Along with the chance to play off of live blocks, tonight provided the entire offense with game reps and rotations at every position. For Hurd, it was an opportunity to continue working alongside senior Marlin Lane, who shared time with him in the matchup.
“He’s a great leader. You know, I look up to him a lot,” said Hurd. “I look at his running style and we feed off of each other. We work really good together and I think our whole running back group works really hard and we push each other every day.
“The team came out with a fast-paced tempo and Coach Jones always talks about one day. And today we were really focused on this one scrimmage,” added Hurd. “We came out and we played really good as a team and I think the future is looking really good for us.”
Freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett continues to earn glowing recognition from the Vols coaching staff. A day after defensive line coach Steve Stripling called him a ‘boy wonder,’Butch Jones continued to sing his praises.
“Derek Barnett is an individual who continues to show up,” Jones said after the workout scrimmage. “He has worked himself into a role in this football team. Now I will go back and I will see exactly where he is at because he had to play in some extended drives.”
Jones made special note of the Brentwood Academy product for his performance through nine practices.
“Of all the young individuals right now on the defensive front,” said Jones. “Derek Barnett is the one who is really standing out right now.”
All about communications
Defensive back Brian Randolph saw many improvements and positive takeaways from the defensive unit following the first team scrimmage.
“One of the main things that stood out to me is that everybody is getting to the ball,” Randolph said. “There are a lot of opportunity plays coming from getting to the ball. Everyone is swarming. Everyone got the call on defense. There weren’t many blown coverages in the backend.”
Butch Jones, although not completely satisfied, was excited that the defense prevented the offense from some big plays.
One major play from the defense came from Lemond Johnson, who recovered a fumble in the end zone after the offense drove down the field. Prior to that play, the offense had been coming up with big plays.
“He had a big hit on the goal line,” Randolph said. “That showed that our defense had pride. We never gave up. 98 yards and two more yards to go and we didn’t give up until the end.”
Randolph says their biggest improvement over the first week of camp has been communication among the group while on the field.
“Earlier this week we had bad communication. We pretty much got that corrected today.”
Loads of receiving options
As is the case with many position groups on the Vol roster, the wide receiver group finds itself with a shortage of veterans, and a surplus of promising young talent. One of those veterans is Josh Smith, who as sophomore, has been thrust into the role of a leader of the Vols young receiving corps.
The added depth of new players has been a welcome addition, according to Smith.
“We have so much potential. All those young guys coming in, it’s a healthy competition,” Smith said. “Josh (Malone), Von (Pearson), and Vic (Wharton), we’re all pushing each other to get better each and every day. “
The receiving corps is not the only part of the passing attack that stands to improve from the added depth of new talent and more experienced veterans.
The new and improved tight end group also stands make a major impact in the Vols’ passing game.
“It helps a lot because [they give] us a little different dynamics in the game,” Smith said of the Volunteer tight ends. “It brings height, power. It gives us a little break because they’re making plays, and it’s awesome because they have so much depth and so much talent. So it’s big.”
While the new players have received most of the spotlight in camp, Smith also likes what he sees from the veterans of the passing attack, naming senior wide receiver Jacob Carter as the group’s best route runner and brightest player.
“Jacob is the smartest,” Smith said. “And he might not be the fastest guy, but he’ll run the route just how you want it.”