The final Saturday scrimmage of the fall preseason was held today at Neyland Stadium, and those who decided to show up were allowed to sit in and watch. All told, there were probably around 50 people that enjoyed a beautiful afternoon inside Neyland Stadium - far fewer than the previous week's tally of about 1,000 due to the light contact and special teams emphasis placed on the practice.
Still, for those of us who expected a lot of lining up for a kick, then resetting and kicking again, the day's practice felt a lot more like a live scrimmage than expected. Yes, the rules were more of a glorified two-hand touch than anything else, but the pace was fast, the energy high, and the trench warfare in full effect. Here is a brief rundown of my observations.
(Heads-up: I'm not going to discuss specifics of plays; at this point in time, the team has to work on the same plays they plan on using in the regular games, and I don't want to be that guy who gives away some crucial wrinkle that they play on pulling out in the third quarter. With the big trend toward closing off practices from media and fans, we really ought to meet the football team in the middle on this.)
The new 'Tron (brought to you by every paying sponsor except the fans) was on today, and the techies were putting it through its paces in preparation of the regular season. If you haven't seen this thing in action yet, you have to get down to Neyland sometime (football game or otherwise) and watch it. It's crystal clear and highly responsive; I could not notice the time delay between the field action and the 'Tron - a huge change from the old dinosaur. They still have some kinks to work out, as some of the static commercials were not sized properly and much of their tops and bottoms were cut off due to the extreme widescreen aspect ratio.
But the real entertainment for me was when they tested out the Gameday graphics (brought to you by all things UT - pay your booster fees!); evidently, UT will be playing the Western Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. Big Red is angry. So for those of us who show up on Saturday (I have my ticket!), take a look at the scoreboard and see if they've figured out that it's the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
First things first: Lane Kiffin was not in the huddle with the offense; he would often be on the field for a better view of individual players, but he let the playcalls commence as they would during a game. The one thing I noticed about that is that the offense seemed very smooth. Even during two-minute drills, I never once saw the offense (either with Jonathan Crompton or Nick Stephens) appear like they didn't know what was going on. Substitutions were quick and smooth, and they simply lined up and ran the plays.
Jonathan Crompton looked sharp today. Keep in mind that it was against the practice squad, and not the defensive ones or twos, but he did a much better job of going through his checkdowns and not staring down his one and only target on every play. (Occasionally he would stare down a receiver, but he did have some really nice staredown fakes that drew the safeties away from his eventual target, too.)
Turnovers were way down today. I only saw one fumble from the offense ones and twos today, and it was late in the practice and recovered by the fumbler. A part of this is that the two-hand touch rules made it practically impossible to strip the ball, so it's not really telling us much today, but the ball carriage seemed consistently high and tight. Interceptions were down as well for the offensive ones and twos, and passing was mostly sharp and crisp.
The usual suspects are still in play: pass-blocking will probably be the top concern entering the season. There were a far number of passes blocked at the line of scrimmage today, which indicated that the line needed to do a better job of keeping the defensive line from jumping as high.
There will be some inconsistency during the season. One offseason hasn't turned them into worldbeaters after last year's collapse, but I really think the offense is in much better shape now than it ever was during 2008. They play fast and confident, and the quarterbacks are far more decisive. There will be mistakes, but not as many.
Learn the names and numbers of the tight ends and fullbacks. I know this is unusual for Tennessee fans, but trust me on this. You're going to know who they are.
If they stay healthy, the defensive line may just challenge the secondary for best overall unit on the field. As with the offense, the defense's ones and twos practiced against the practice squad and not against the best offensive players. But if you take the (highly arbitrary) assumption that Western Kentucky's offense is somewhere on par with UT's practice squad, then get ready for a bloodbath on Saturday.
As this point in time, I must take an aside and speak about Nick Lamaison for a minute. Still learning the offense after having transferred to UT so recently, Lamaison was the primary quarterback for the scout team. I really like his internal clock; he had a good sense of when to throw the ball away or when to tuck it and run. I liked how he read his blockers and moved around the pocket (and outside of it) to buy more time. That said, he seems to underestimate the closing speed of the secondary. Receivers that were open for him were not open by the time the ball got there, resulting in several interceptions. But it's hard to fault him too much for it; for one, he's still very new to the offense. Secondly, (and this is why I'm talking about Lamaison in the section on defense) the defensive line didn't exactly give him much time. A few plays for the scout team offense were little more than snap-the-ball-back-up-three-steps-duck-down-and-take-the-sack. Our defensive line: oh, wow. Lamaison has a ways to go, but I can't see him habitually holding on to the ball for too long if that's what he has to practice against every day.
Even the scout team's d-line had a good day today. They didn't get to Crompton and Stephens like the defense's ones and twos were doing, but they did make the offense earn their yards. A lot of the scout team play was very highly disciplined - something I absolutely love to see in the practice squad; coaches that prepare the scouts that well are not prone to overlooking the development of their main players.
Just a couple of quick notes here. They did run a few fakes, but I'll keep mum about that as I mentioned earlier. Punting was pretty good; most punts were in the air for about 4.5 to 5 seconds, which is a noticeable increase from the sub-4 second punts of last year. I still worry a bit about getting the punt away fast enough, but I won't be able to tell until the games start.
Place kicking was overall pretty good. Daniel Lincoln appears to have a maximum field goal range of about 60 yards, though anything beyond about 45 naturally becomes riskier. Cunningham handled most of the kickoffs, of which I can only remember one going into the end zone. Most are near the 5 yard line, so I wouldn't expect a massive transformation in that department this season.
Lastly, somebody in the tech department really likes Kid Rock. Ba-widda-ba-da-please change to a different track now. I get the feeling we won't be hearing Tennessee Jed this fall. If the price for that is Kid Rock ad nauseam, I'm fine with that. Better yet is the band, though.
I don't have any verified information from the team, but I did notice two things. One was that Gerald Jones was in normal sneakers without any visible ankle support. The other was that Denarius Moore was running occasional sideline-to-sideline sprints. Seeing Jones without a walking boot or other such accoutrement was a very, very happy thing and makes me hopeful that his recovery might be sooner rather than later. Moore did not run at full-speed, but he wasn't too far from it.
FUN RANDOM MOMENT
At one point in time, when the scout team offense was in, Nick Stephens was on the sideline on one knee, leaning on his helmet and talking to Jonathan Crompton. The sideline official was lined up directly in front of them in preparation of the next play. Stephens, having his line of sight obstructed by a zebra's rear end, reached over and slowly began tugging the yellow flag out of his back pocket. If the scout team hadn't gotten the play off so quickly, he would have had it all the way out. The official showed his appreciation for the antics when, while running past Stephens after the play was over, he kicked Stephens's helmet out from under his hand, nearly causing him to lose balance and fall. Lols and gggls were shared, and things moved on.
Thus concludes the final practice report before the season opener against the Western-I-mean-Hilltoppers.