I had the luxury of heading out to watch the team practice for a while today, which constituted my first real opportunity to watch the coaching staff in action. (I don't count the Orange and White game because spring scrimmages are more dog-and-pony shows than anything else. And unfortunately, because they only allow credentialed media to take pictures, I have no eye candy for you.) I don't know what they were doing before I showed up, but most of the time I was there was spent running plays with the squads alternating on occasion. (They also had one water break and a little time of 7-on-7 drills while the linemen were working separately.) It's hard to compare the practice to any other because I never did watch a practice before, but I can certainly sum up a Vols practice in one word.
All the talk you hear of the high-energy, high-paced practices with coaches screaming at everybody and things seemingly on the edge of chaos is absolutely true. I don't know how those coaches can manage to speak the next day; I would have lost my voice a long time ago if I yelled as much as they did for as long as they did. The coaches on defense were particularly amusing; the offensive coaches had to stop once in a while and bother themselves with playcalling, but the likes of Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron were pretty well free to holler at anything that moved (and probably a few things that didn't).
But though it looked nearly out-of-control, things were run very efficiently and very deliberately. A play clock was used to provide pace between plays during the drills, and I never saw the offense have trouble getting the play off. When the ones and twos switched out, everybody went right to their position and was ready. The team was very responsive to the coaches and it was clear that the coaches had the team 'won over'.
I have a favorite Vol for the night.Montori Hughes.
That dude was hilarious during the latter half of the time I watched. When he wasn't in the drill, he was on the sideline cheering on the defense and jeering on the offense with a voice loud enough to rival Orgeron. (Seriously.) It was all very good-natured stuff that you wouldn't mind your 6-year old hearing, but he would let up only enough for the next play to happen and he'd be right back at it. If his play can match his enthusiasm, he's going to be a lot of fun for us to watch.
That's called light contact?
I know they said today was a light contact day and that they were only using shoulder pads, but there was a lot of hitting going on out there. They stopped short of tackling (on occasion), but they weren't sparing much when it came to getting physical. A couple of times, players got a little pushy-shovey after the play was over, but it never amounted to more than just blowing a little steam. It's easy to see why Brown had to sit out for a light concussion after yesterday's work, and why Poole might have had cramps (or, God forbid, a worse injury) and had to be carted off. They were working really hard out there and there wasn't any let up in intensity throughout. If there's one thing that's going to come out of this preseason practice session, it's that our defense will hit and our offense will be able to take hits. Ouch.
Sacks, turnovers, forced fumbles.
Quarterbacks were given special treatment in that a 'sack' was a defender getting close enough to touch the quarterback. They wisely allowed those plays to continue so the pass could be made and the receivers and defensive backs could get more work. But. Either our defensive line is getting really, really good at pash rushing or our offensive line is in need of a lot of work. There were a lot of sacks registered in that time, and it wasn't uncommon for multiple defenders to make it through.
Some interceptions were thrown as well by both quarterbacks. (Note: Mike Rozier and Nick Lamaison did not participate in these drills due to not having the playbook down enough.) I don't have a trained eye to judge quarterbacks, but I can't say that I would necessarily give an edge to either guy today. For the throws that I was paying close attention to, it seemed that Crompton was a little more accurate. However, both tended to telegraph a little bit, as a couple of their interceptions were obvious to even me before they threw the pass. But a lot of that was that the secondary was in great shape throughout the day and they never got lost.
And lastly, our defense is being trained very heavily to strip the ball and to go after turnovers. Even after the whistle blew, they'd often continue to try to strip the ball; if it came out, they'd chase it down like a live ball with the defensive coaches egging them on. Oh, and turnovers meant a lap for the guilty offensive squad. Mmm... such a lovely field to jog on.
Yeah, we're thin at receiver. But. There is some scary good talent available. Brandon Warren had a terrific day out there; his size makes him a very difficult matchup when he's out wide and he can certainly catch a ball in traffic. I'm guessing he had more catches in that hour and a half than all last season. Probably more yards, too. Nu'Keese Richardson is going to be a lot of fun for Vols fans as well. He's as fast as advertised and very maneuverable. He seemed very confident in his route running (as far as I could tell) and made a lot of very nice catches. Jones had some really athletic grabs, as you'd expect, and the tight ends had mostly good days. Cottam is huge. I was pleasantly surprised when I had to read through my roster sheet to figure out who #23 was, only to find out it was fullback Sam Edgmon running along the sideline for a 30-yard pass pattern. He'd have had a touchdown if the ball hadn't been overthrown by about 3 yards. The running backs had really nice pass-catching days as well. And speaking of the running backs...
You're going to love the running game.
The offensive line still needs some work in pass protection. It wasn't all bad, but it's not their strong suit. The offensive line, however, is looking really good in run schemes. A clear majority of running plays went for good positive yardage, and quite a few runs broke open deep into the secondary. Hardesty had an absolutely terrific day out there and looks like he's determined to have a strong farewell campaign. With Brown and Poole out, he and Oku shared the load, but they didn't seem to mind.
Oku will surprise you as well. Don't let the 'still looks like a skinny freshman' comments fool you; he runs very hard between the tackles and he's a fighter. But he's also quick and crisp and is clearly a good open-space option. In pass defense, he's willing to commit himself to block the bigger guys; it'll be interesting to see how well he can hold up to some of the bigger pass rushers in the league, but I do think he'll give it his best shot.
To be blunt about it, I can't tell which had a better day. Like I mentioned earlier, I think Jonathan Crompton had better accuracy on the day, but that's not necessarily saying much. Both he and Nick Stephens threw the ball with a lot of energy. They had their fair share of mistakes, with multiple interceptions by each quarterback, but it was never because they didn't know what they were supposed to doing. Sometimes they telegraphed, but they weren't confused.
Freshmen were everywhere. Honestly, if you didn't know who the freshmen were, you wouldn't have figured it out by watching them play. They must have put in a lot of time learning the playbook over the summer because they didn't need much instruction during the drills. They made a lot of nice plays on both sides of the ball (Janzen Jackson is surprisingly tall, by the way), and it really does appear that we'll see a fair amount of them this coming year.
The one thing I realized is that, no matter if it's a 6, 8, or 11-win season, this is going to be a fun team to watch. They were high-energy, high-motor, and completely absorbed in the practice today. Once the pads go on for real and they're running through the T to a packed out Neyland Stadium with the band playing Rocky Top, it's going to be a fun show to watch. I seriously don't think we'll have to worry about reports that the team gives up during plays this year (Florida 2007). The Wild Boys had a wild time today, and it'll be a wild time when Western Kentucky rolls into town.