The challenges facing the Tennessee Volunteers heading into 2013 are enormous, with a heap of offensive playmakers to replace and an entirely new system to execute. Saturday’s Orange and White Game, the official ending of spring practice and beginning of the Butch Jones era, made that point well and clear.
It all unfolded in front of 61,076 fans, the second most ever at a Vols spring game.
Jones, who has already done much to win over a once-skeptical fanbase, thought the team showed encouraging signs but acknowledged there’s work left to do.
“Our tempo has to increase, our physicality, our overall timing in the throw game and our overall endurance,” Jones said. “I am very encouraged by what I see, but obviously there is a lot of work that needs to be done over the next couple of months.”
After the departures of six starters on offense, all of whom may be headed to the NFL, Jones and his coaching staff are desperately searching for big-play performers before the season. He wasted no time picking out Devrin Young and Alton Howard.
“We have to have the ability to spit a five-yard throw out and turn it into a 25-yard gain,” Jones said. “The only way you do it is with our slot receivers. Every time we have had success in our offense, our slot receivers have been dominant.”
“That’s what we need from Devrin and that’s what we need from Alton. They have to play themselves in a great physical shape.”
It’s no secret that the defense has a leg up personnel-wise so far. Jones talked up his defense, which starts with 6'8", 360-pound lineman Daniel McCullers.
“We need (McCullers) to be a dominant defensive tackle. We need him,” Jones said. “He has the ability, but we have to get his motor running on every snap.”
He admitted even as the team’s largest player, McCullers can be just as much of a playmaker as any other player.
“When it’s 4th-and-1 and it’s the seventh play of the drive, McCullers can be a playmaker,” Jones said. “You don’t have to be a playmaker just offensively, we need those defensively too.”
Playmakers emerged Saturday from the defense, as the team picked up eight sacks on a solid pass rush. Rising senior defensive end Jacques Smith saw huge improvements in that aspect.
“The defensive line showed up today and we're just getting better,” Smith said. “We're taking it a day at a time and it was a good day for us. Coming in from last year, that was one of the goals of the defensive line and (defensive line coach Steve Stripling) definitely made that a goal for us as a unit."
A year removed from the unsuccessful implementation of a 3-4 defensive scheme, Smith and the Vols seem excited and better suited for the traditional 4-3.
“I think we are very comfortable because of the scheme,” Smith said. “It's a 4-3, something that we're used to, and a lot of guys played in while they were in high school. You know it's just a natural fit.”
Redshirt freshman Alden Hill stood out offensively with 101 rushing yards on 18 carries, but he wasn’t ready to gloat about the performance.
“I came out here and did some good things, but you have to go watch film,” Hill said. “It's not always as good or bad as it looks and I know there are some things I know I need to work on out there—conditioning and some little things like that.”
- All quotes were gathered by Steven Cook at the press conference following the 2013 Orange and White Game