Early Returns for Tennessee Preseason Practice
Tennessee’s tailbacks are boring.
That’s not a criticism of the often overlooked group. It’s just a fact. With a quarterback controversy, an exciting group of young receivers and one of the best offensive lines in the country, it’s hard to get noticed. Still, UT’s tailbacks have managed to distinguish themselves, at least in the weight room.
Only a handful of Vols squatted 600-plus pounds in the offseason. Of the small group, two were tailbacks Rajion Neal and Alden Hill, meaning the pair squatted almost triple their body weight.
“Our strength staff has done a great job of getting these guys ready,” running backs coach Robert Gillespie said following UT’s first preseason practice on Friday. “These guys had career max numbers. It’s good to know that you have guys in the group that are strong runners. Now you just have to translate that to the football field.
Admittedly, Gillespie can’t determine much from watching his personnel run around in shorts. Once the Vols don pads, he’ll know more about what UT has in the backfield.
“They have to be 600 pound squatters with the football in their hand on fourth-and-one,” he said. “That’s what’s going to make us a great football team.”
Redshirt freshman Alden Hill was a standout in spring practice. The question is whether or not he can carry that production into the fall.
“I am confident in what I can do, what is asked of me,” Hill said. “I am not content…I play as if I am on the scout team.”
Hill said the attention from spring practice is nice. It’s not, however, his ultimate goal to be somewhat known.
“So I might have a name,” he said. “People might know what I am doing, that I am a hard worker, but I haven’t played yet. As long as I stay consistent, doing what I need to do, I think people will recognize that, and right now we have to focus on that and not the depth chart.”
Hill will have to fight to get on the field. Senior Rajion Neal and junior Marlin Lane both have more experience. Lane is the X-factor of the group.
Lane has been able to produce big plays, especially in the passing game. Yet he’s also drawn the ire of two coaching staffs. Head coach Butch Jones announced that Lane is back to satisfactory status to open fall camp after disciplinary action during the offseason.
“We missed him,” Neal said. “It is a guy that we are comfortable with and that we know, we interact with a lot, on and off the field. So it is good to have him back. He is happy to be back. I can honestly say, being away from the guys for too long you start to miss them. You start to realize how much you actually enjoy being around them.”
Fighting for Snaps
Junior Justin Worley is the only UT quarterback with game experience. That doesn’t mean he’ll garner the vast majority of early practice snaps during preseason camp. Until a quarterback hierarchy is determined, Worley will split snaps between redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
“I mean with the two freshmen coming in, we’re definitely splitting up the reps a little more to incorporate them, so the reps have been a little bit different, but I mean, everybody is getting them,” Worley said.
Quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian said each quarterback will have equal chances to prove himself, especially early in camp.
“We’ll keep shuffling until a guy steps up,” Bajakian said. “So, we’ll evaluate the video, rate each guy, Justin, Nathan, Josh and Riley, all of them. As they demonstrate a grasp of what we’re doing, then they’ll get more reps.”
Dobbs and Ferguson have drawn praise from their teammates. That carried over to the first day of preseason camp.
“I’m happy,” Bajakian said. “Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson, boy they are further along from a mental standpoint than any freshmen I’ve had before. Physically, they are both very talented, so it should be interesting to see how they progress as training camp goes on, but they stepped in in their reps and in a lot of ways, managed the offense like veterans. I’m happy to see that. That’s a testament to both Josh and Riley but also to what Nathan and Justin did with those guys this summer.”
When asked about the quarterbacks, head coach Butch Jones said, “I thought Peterman, I thought Worley showed good poise. I thought they showed a lot of confidence from having the spring but I still need more leadership. I still need more take charge, more assertiveness from them.”
Looking the Part
After losing its top four receivers from last season, UT is in dire need of pass catchers. A talented freshman group of receivers hopes to answer the bell.
“You can tell who’s got some natural ability from the freshman, who’s got a chance to play early,” receivers coach Zach Azzanni said of what he can judge from the first day of practice. “You’ve got an opportunity to see who’s really been cranking it up this summer and who hasn’t.”
The Vols signed four receivers in February: Paul Harris, Ryan Jenkins, Marquez North and Josh Smith.
“Every one of them had a little bit of flash today,” Azzanni said. “I saw something good from every one of them today. It was all positive.
Azzanni said Jenkins might have a bit more ground to make up. He is the only receiver of the newcomers that enrolled in July instead of June.
“You can kind of tell he’s not quite there with the timing and the speed,” Azzanni said.
As for North, there’s no questioning the ability of the 6-foot-3, 205-pound athlete from Mallard Creek High School in Charlotte, N.C. Still, there’s more to him than just size and speed.
“Physically, he’s what you’re looking for; he’s a big receiver that can run,” Azzanni said. “The great thing about Marquez is he doesn’t say a word. He says ‘Yes sir. No sir’ I like that. He definitely has a chance to be really good here.”
Championships won’t be won on the first day of preseason camp. Yet head coach Butch Jones was pleased with the overall performance of his team – for the most part.
“I thought we started off exceptionally well and as practice wore on I thought we lost our mental intensity,” Jones said. “I still like the mentality of this football team. We just have to continue to preach and learn how to play winning football.”
Coaches repeatedly said the key to early preseason practices was utilizing what they learned during spring practice. Jones said that was prevalent on Friday.
“I saw some great retention from our older players,” said Jones. “I thought our freshmen for the most part did a great job but as we continue to move forward, our installation will continue to move forward as well.”
Much has been made of UT’s offseason training program. The Vols have been forced to focus more on conditioning than just strength and size.
“Our players are in the best shape they’ve been,” he said.
One of the better examples of the conditioning transition is Dan McCullers*. The senior is now 352 pounds with just 18-percent body fat. He said he hope to drop to 345 before the season.
When asked about the first day of camp, Couch said, “Today I would say was an average day, but as far as the freshmen go, it was an excellent day for them. They made mistakes, but were able to move on. It’s not the football team Coach Jones wants though. We just have to take it one day at a time and get better.”
Offensive guard Zach Fulton’s jersey isn’t too small. It’s just the way he likes it – with his stomach exposed.
“I always have my belly showing during practice,” the senior said. “I have had that going since high school. You can call it whatever you want. I am just trying to survive out there and trying to breath.”
*Edit — original version cited Maurice Couch on accident.