Day 1 for Team 118 brings positive review
It may well have been the most anticipated practice in Tennessee’s storied football history. Team 118 took Haslam Field for its first spring practice in shorts and helmets with a victory-starved fan base eager to see how they looked.
While it is hard to make much of an assessment in helmets and shorts, the one review that counts was positive.
“I really liked our energy, I liked out enthusiasm, I liked our leadership,” said head coach Butch Jones as he summed up the day’s work.
“It was a different feel, definitely,” said linebacker Curt Maggitt, in practice for the first time in over a year. “We had a great offseason. I feel like there’s going to be a lot of competition, there’s going to be a lot of good things coming for it.”
It didn’t take long to notice some differences. When I first walked onto the practice field, there was a group of players working on catching the ball. I immediately thought one player was with the wrong position group because he was so much taller and bigger than the others. It was freshman running back Jalen Hurd.
Of course the quarterback competition has been the focus for most since three different players took their turn under center last fall, with mixed results. The four man race between Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson, Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman brought a smile to Jones’ face.
“I joked around about it, but I was kind of serious,” Jones grinned. “We may have completed more passes in one skellie (skeleton drill) than we did all of last year.”
Practice—and the players practicing—moved much faster than in the recent past.
“The additions of Von Pearson, Josh Malone and Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf and [Jalen] Hurd, all of them,” Jones said. “You could see the difference in team speed. Now that’s just practice one. What happens when the pads come on?”
“Big plays were almost non-existent last year,” added Jones. “So today, we had some big plays against some quality players. That makes us optimistic.”
Jones cited a big play between a redshirt freshman quarterback and a junior college transfer in his first Tennessee practice.
“We were in press man coverage and Riley Ferguson is the quarterback, and he makes a back-shoulder throw to Von Pearson and Von Pearson takes it the distance,” Jones said. “Last year, we wouldn’t have been able to do that and that’s instincts coming out. Again, it’s practice one, but I like what I saw so far.”
The defense should also be greatly improved, especially since it returns the heart and soul of Team 118, Maggitt, who missed last season recovering from a knee injury.
“I know I can make plays, I know A.J. [Johnson] can make some plays,” Maggitt said. “We’ve got some play makers on defense; Jordan Williams and Corey Vereen. We’ve just got to get that camaraderie and that experience with the new guys coming in.”
Jones made note of a competitive spirit about the practice “that I hadn’t seen before” and repeatedly praised the returning players for coaching and encouraging the newcomers.
There’s a long way to go before August 30, a lot of things that have to be improved, a lot of positions to be decided. If Jones’ post-practice reports remain this positive through April 12, the Vols will have taken a giant leap forward toward becoming relevant again in the SEC.