Tennessee wrapped up their first week of practice with a full-on scrimmage Saturday afternoon in Neyland Stadium following the NCAA-required “acclimation” period of practice, first in helmets and shorts, and then in shoulder pads and shorts. This week features two-a-day practices Monday, Wednesday and Friday of this week as the season opener September 5th against Western Kentucky approaches quickly.
I’ve enjoyed getting to go to the sites I normally go to for UT football coverage and reading accounts of the practices, and those accounts—mostly VolQuest and the News Sentinel—are what this post is going to be based off of, so I won’t go through linking stories you have more than likely already read. I haven’t had the opportunity to catch one in person myself, but I plan to change that this week, thanks to the precedent set by Hooper from Rocky Top Talk.
So, here’s a short recap of week one, with my thoughts and reactions from what I’ve read and watched.
Physical, Physical, Physical
Though Tennessee’s only had one official practice in full pads, they’ve apparently stopped just short of beating the crap out of each other, especially Friday’s shoulder-pads-and-shorts practice. Monte Kiffin even said Friday that his defense shouldn’t have been tackling, and the coaches allowed cut blocks in Saturday’s scrimmage. There’s obviously a risk-reward aspect of having physical practices before the season starts.
The risk is injuries of course, and the Vols absolutely cannot afford any more of those. This team’s depth—or rather it’s alarming lack thereof—is one of the biggest concerns I have with this 2009 team. A couple of injuries here or there, especially along the offensive and defensive lines, could be devastating.
However, the reward is the formation of a physical football team, something I don’t feel Tennessee’s had since at least 2005, if not before (though credit the 2007 team for its incredible resiliency). In other words, the last three teams have been on the soft side in my opinion. Much of that has to do with the inability to run the football with any consistency, whether that be due to ineptitude of doing so or simply the lack of willingness to run it. Another aspect is the overall lack of aggressiveness, perhaps mostly attributable to the previous staff. But my point is that we haven’t seen a physical, hit-the-other-team in the mouth Tennessee football team in too long.
Obviously, a big storyline every fall camp is the newcomers, even moreso this year. I’ve heard or read something on just about every one of the new faces, and most of its been positive. They’ve certainly been given the opportunities to stake their claims to earning serious playing time, and as the team enters the meat of its practice schedule (read, in full pads), it will be something to continue watching.
One area where I have almost no concerns about for the upcoming year, barring another injury or two (knock on wood). A healthy Montario Hardesty had a great week and appears to be on his way to nailing down the starting spot. I read Brent Hubbs on the VolQuest forum say he would consider backing off Hardesty’s work—as in that’s how ready he is to go. Taruen Poole was the stud from Saturday’s scrimmage and has probably been the most impressive to this point. The freshman—Bryce Brown and David Oku—have both gotten good reviews so far.
Many assumed Oku would be a redshirt candidate, but he showed that he may be a factor this season. Brown reportedly hasn't blown the world away, but part of that is him having to live up to the hype of being the top-ranked recruit from the last signing class (in other words, it’s not worth panicking about).
This is probably the primary concern because the QB play was so atrociously bad last year. Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens have both had their ups and downs through the first week, mixing quality throws with turnovers. However, it was encouraging to see Crompton show out in Saturday’s scrimmage, where he looked very sharp in throwing for two scores, no picks and just three incompletions. Let’s not give him the Heisman yet, but let’s see (and hope) how he does today. Can he put two together two good days in a row?
Another area of rather little concern, mostly because Eric Berry’s back there, but there’s been quite the buzz about the defensive backs, especially corner Art Evans and safety Prentiss Waggner. Dennis Rogan has been getting worked at safety, perhaps signaling the coaches’ confidence in Evans’ abilities opposite Brent Vinson at the CB spot.
Freshmen have also been making noise in the secondary, specifically Janzen Jackson, who appears to be the early leader for the most playing time. Other freshmen like Darren Myles Jr., Eric Gordon and Mike Edwards have all gotten relatively positive reviews so far.
Jones’ health was in question for the opener, but Jones has been practicing well, despite wearing a black cast on the wrist he had surgery on this offseason. He also appears to have regained his quickness and agility we saw late in his freshman season, according to WR coach Frank Wilson. I can’t not mention Brandon Warren here as well, as he’s made an impact in camp so far—much more than he made last season. Freshman Marsalis Teague has gotten his share of rave reviews, and Nu’keese Richardson’s quickness and speed has put him at a point where he absolutely must see the field in some manner (like returning punts).
The fifth-year senior is gutting it out on two bum knees, and who knows how long he’ll be able to go this year? If that's not far, then that will be unfortunate for the Vols. Brown obviously is crucial in terms of depth on the defensive line, but more importantly he’s one of the older guys on the team that you hate to see struggle with soreness from two knee surgeries. Rico McCoy and Brent Vinson were also held out of Saturday’s scrimmage, so hopefully there’s nothing serious there.
Pace and Energy
This is something I hope is evident when I do get the chance to watch a practice, but apparently the pace has been pretty quick. David Cutcliffe was known for running a very quick and specific (as in heavy attention to detail) practices while he was running the Vols offense, though the comparison between this staff’s practices and the last staff’s practices is muddled due to the access differences between the two.
Nothing more to this than just mentioning it because our fans—the ones on the message boards and in the blogosphere at least—seem obsessed with jersey news (i.e., black jerseys). I’ll just say I like the new look and leave it there…
Just my thoughts from what I’ve read, seen and heard—nothing ground-breaking, I know. My hope is to go to Wednesday afternoon’s practice, where hopefully I can gather my own observations and share them here.