Which Vols shined in Friday’s scrimmage?
image via Wade Rackley / Tennessee Athletics
Butch Jones has been hesitant to praise his players during spring practice. That changed slightly on Friday. Just slightly.
“Very productive day today,” Tennessee’s head coach said. “Anytime you can go and scrimmage with no coaches present, being on the sidelines and really let them play. There are so many things when you try and create game like situations and scenarios that present themselves that sometimes you don’t practice in practice.”
Then there was the ever-present, never-quite-content Jones that UT fans have grown to know.
“Offensively we started exceptionally fast, defensively we did not,” Jones said after UT’s scrimmage on Friday. “I didn’t like the way our defense came out. I didn’t like their approach. I didn’t think we had much energy. I thought our offense did a great job of driving the football. We had some big plays. Then as the scrimmage went on, in the situational scrimmage, our defenses started playing with the energy that we expect and we started generating three-and-outs and we started generating turnovers.”
Jalen Hurd was the standout during Friday’s practice. Hurd had a handful of highlight reel runs. He has continually progressed this spring after missing most of his senior season in high school with a shoulder injury. Hurd enrolled at UT in January.
“He is working himself back into football shape and there is a difference,” Jones said. “He hasn’t played football in a year with recovering from the surgery so each day of practice I see him getting better and better. I see the improvement coming but I also see the confidence getting in him as well. He understands what he needs to work on.”
Hurd performed well behind a line that struggled far too often. It was evident the Vols were replacing five offensive line starters from last season in Friday’s scrimmage. The Vols first-team offensive line consisted of freshman Coleman Thomas at right tackle and junior college transfer Dontavius Blair at left tackle.
“It takes time to build that consistency, that chemistry” said Jones. “I mean we are starting a young man who should be a senior in high school right now at right tackle. We are starting another individual in Blair at left tackle. So we have some individuals playing for the first time and playing at this level.
“So you are going to go through the growing pains but I have liked in terms of they have had a workman like approach to every single day. Just like any scrimmage there is good. There is bad,. There are corrections but valuable teaching points.”
Signal Caller Synopsis
Riley Ferguson had the best day in Friday’s scrimmage among UT’s quarterbacks. The redshirt freshman threw a perfect pass to sophomore receiver Marquez North just outside the red zone for a touchdown. Ferguson also showed the ability to throw on the run when he hit a receiver on a crossing route who was double covered. It looked like a bad decision but Ferguson completed the pass. Ferguson also showed the ability to elude defenders when running the ball.
“We are just going out and being who we are, playing quarterback,” Ferguson said. “We’re just trying to get better every day. That is what we are focused on – helping each other and trying to get better as a unit.”
Sophomore Joshua Dobbs was mostly solid except for a fumble near his own goal line. Sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen picked up the ball and scored. For the first time this spring, UT’s quarterbacks faced full contact.
“It was kind of a feel thing to see how much we wanted the quarterbacks live,” Jones said. “But so much occurs when you make the quarterback live. I wanted to see what players could create plays in terms of the quarterback position, who could manufacture themselves out of bad situations.
“It was great for them to create the scramble drill but also to see how we could tackle the quarterback in space. We did not do a very good job with that. We will continue to make them live as the season progresses.”
Senior Justin Worley threw an interception as the Vols were about to score. Sophomore Nathan Peterman made some good reads but is still struggling with his accuracy.
“All of us watch each other because we’re told to take mental reps,” Peterman said. “That’s what we all try to do – put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes, determine what we would do there and get the look on the defense, also. I think it’s very beneficial to do that.”
As far as practice reps, every quarterback is seeing time with the first and second team. It appears to be a truly open quarterback competition.
“Reps have been even,” Worley said. “We’ve been throwing to all different guys. We’ve seen about 10 different guys in front of us on the offensive line. Everything has been pretty even so far. Each one of us have done a great job of taking what we’re given in terms of reps, in terms of what the defense has given us and kind of run with it.”
As the Vols take a week off spring practice, there isn’t a quarterback who should feel he’s out of the race. However, Ferguson leaves campus feeling the best about his performance.
“I would say just commanding the offense,” Ferguson said when asked where he’s improved. “I am trying to have a lot of voice on the field, try to command everybody and get them to follow me. Just lead the offense, whether it is the line and getting everyone lined up or the receivers and telling them where to go and tell them what play we are running.”
Newly appointed defensive end Curt Maggitt looked like a natural at his new position for much of UT’s scrimmage. The converted linebacker, along with sophomore end Corey Vereen, has provided reason for optimism concerning UT’s pass rush.
“It was energy,” Vereen said. “When we came out here, you could feel it, we were kind of flat. We needed to change that. That’s a leadership thing we have to take care of. We have to get everyone going so we come out juiced up instead of coming out flat and having to turn it up the second half of the scrimmage. You have to come out with the juice and the intensity because it can cost you games.”
Vereen scored a touchdown on Friday when he scooped up a fumble near the goal line. Still, the young player knows there’s room for improvement.
“I would say there’s a lot of things I need to work on,” Vereen said. “You saw the exterior, the good things. But there’s a lot of things I need to work on technique-wise [like] leverage. I have a lot of things I need to improve on.”
Vereen is expected to be a force this season. Having enrolled in January 2013, he was a standout in spring practice. Understandably, he struggled at times during his freshman season but still managed 13 tackles and a sack last season. The key for Vereen’s improvement is to keep his pads low.
“We have really challenged him to bring a challenge off the edge,” Vereen said. “He has been playing exceptionally high right now. He has been playing too high. Our entire lines of scrimmage, in terms of offense and defensive lines, have been playing too high. So we have really challenged them and I thought Corey had a little more explosiveness coming off the football today.”
Matt Darr will be a pivotal player for UT in 2014. After redshirting last season, Darr could be asked to punt, kick field goals, kickoff or all the above.
“I’m always going out there to compete every day,” Darr said. “We have guys that are going to be fighting for every position on this team. I do take ownership for the punting role and would like to have that job come fall.”
Sitting out last season wasn’t easy for Darr. He was considered one to the top punter prospects in the nation. He surely didn’t expect to redshirt for his senior season while watching former Vol Michael Palary handle punting, kickoffs and field goals.
“It was tough from a personal standpoint, but seeing the success of Mike and him being able to help out the team like he did, I couldn’t help but be happy for him,” Darr said. “I’m grateful just to be part of the team and the success that we had.”
Running back Marlin Lane has been slowed by a wrist injury. A break from practice comes at the perfect time.
“It is his wrist right now and he will benefit from spring break,” Jones said. “He is going to stay here and he is going to rehab it. We fully anticipate him to finish spring football but a lot is how the bone heals in the next 10 days.”
UT will be on spring break next week. The Vols won’t practice again until March 25.
“The maturity of this football team will show when we come back after spring break,” Jones said. “…I am really very,very interested to see the leadership in what happens when we come back after spring break.”