Bolstered by all 32 newcomers and eager to return the program to prominence, the Tennessee Volunteers took the practice field to get ready for the season opener against Utah State.
Finally, football is here.
A week into drills, things have gone about as expected as coach Butch Jones has walked the thin line between encouragement and outrage.
The positive vibes come from the newcomers, but for somebody as admittedly impatient as Jones, the surliness emerges when the Vols take too long catching on to fundamentals.
With Chuckie Keeton and the Aggies looming just 23 days away, there's no time to waste.
Jones banned his players from the privilege of speaking to the media Monday, and they responded with a strong practice in pads Tuesday. The tough-love approach is necessary to getting away from the losing mentality that has taken root in Knoxville.
GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required) talked to Jones about the tests of the first week:
They’re being challenged—not only on the field, but, again, this being the final week of classes, so they have papers due. They have final examinations coming up. So I think it's just a combination of a lot of things, but I was very pleased in the way they fought through it today. But (it's) not fighting through it. It's more in how you attack the day, and I thought that they attacked the day exceptionally well.
August is going to be full of bumps in the road for such a young, inexperienced team. But absorbing the frustrating news with the positive is going to be something Vols fans need to get used to.
After all, as many as 20-22 youngsters could suit up for UT, and in the SEC pressure cooker, things are going to heat up quickly. Let's take a look at the buzz surrounding the first week of practice.
A Shaky Start for Signal-Callers
No Tennessee quarterback has separated himself from the others yet. While that's hardly unexpected a week into fall camp, it's definitely a concern.
A familiar theme echoed throughout the complex—the players who are supposed to be the offensive leaders are far too inconsistent.
Timing isn't where it needs to be, passes aren't on-point and the Vols must elevate the level of play as soon as possible.
The Daily Times' Dargan Southard noted UT had 62 balls hit the ground in the first practice, a number that shrank to 45 in the second practice. Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said he would like to see that number "in the 20s."
"I need much more consistency at the quarterback position right now," Bajakian said.
Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman have gotten a lot of action, but it would be a major surprise if anybody beat Justin Worley for the starting job.
The media only get to watch a small portion of practice, and at least one practice observer—former UT receiver and Knoxville radio personality Jayson Swain—has been extremely impressed by the transformation of Worley from a season ago.
Still, Jones told Volquest.com's Brent Hubbs (subscription required) UT's signal-callers must make "monumental strides."
The Vols need for somebody to leave no doubt he's the starter. The longer the competition goes, the concern grows about the trio's inability to seize control of the job.
Youngsters Look Like Young Stars
As Jones allowed several of his prized freshmen to speak to the media—something uncommon from the past several seasons on Rocky Top—one thing became clear: Several of these kids are wise beyond their years.
The Vols just hope they play beyond them.
"It's gonna be a slow process," UT freshman safety Todd Kelly Jr. told GoVols247's Wes Rucker. "It's a learning process. We just got here. We've only been here for about a month and a half. Ultimately we just want to make this program [a] better place."
Kelly looks like he's going to be one of the players who will get that opportunity quickly. Rucker noted T.K. is now running with the second-team defense at one of the safety spots.
With former walk-on Devaun Swafford the only player blocking his path to starting, that could happen sooner rather than later.
Freshman running back Jalen Hurd also has been impressive, and he was made available for interviews this week as well. That is yet another clear indication of how much the Vols will be depending on him right away.
The 6'3", 221-pound freshman hasn't overtaken Marlin Lane for the starting spot, but he is firmly entrenched as the backup and will get plenty of carries.
At that height, it's common for detractors to question whether Hurd can get low enough to be effective. But the Hendersonville, Tennessee, native who idolizes Eddie George urged his doubters to come see him answer their concerns.
Hurd was electrifying during spring practice, and he has picked up right where he left off when fall drills started. JC Shurburtt of 247Sports has Hurd on his SEC true freshman All-American watch list.
Freshmen such as Ethan Wolf, Josh Malone and Dimarya Mixon, who arrived before spring practice, are continuing their strong surges toward the top of the depth chart.
Various reports have mentioned positive vibes from other freshmen summer arrivals. Slot receiver Vic Wharton, defensive linemen Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett as well as outside linebacker Dillon Bates all have drawn significant praise.
According to Rucker defensive line coach Steve Stripling said this about Hendrix and Barnett:
"I think Barnett and Hendrix have jumped out, and they’re showing that I think they’re mature enough and physical enough at this point to where we’ll see where they can end up on the depth chart."
The Vols are going to need them all, and even though they haven't been at UT long, the opportunity is there to play immediately. With no jobs safe, those kids are taking advantage.
Smith Surging and Updates on Other Position Battles
Like most true freshmen, receiver Josh Smith had no business playing a year ago. He finished a forgettable season with 12 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown, but he also had crucial drops at key times.
That's why he said he didn't really deserve to get on the field at all last year, especially after a knee injury hobbled him throughout the second half of the season.
This fall, the 6'1", 197-pound sophomore Knoxville native is making the most of a new year. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Patrick Brown, Smith has been starting in UT's base three-wide receiver sets along with Marquez North and Von Pearson.
In other words, in a crowded, talented Vols receiving corps, he is starting over stud freshman Josh Malone and redshirt sophomore Jason Croom. He has been extremely impressive so far.
As for other position battles:
- Pearson is getting all the first-team reps in the slot, in front of last year's starter, Alton "Pig" Howard, Johnathon Johnson and Wharton. Pearson hasn't minced words when talking to the media about UT's receivers, either.
- Swafford earned a scholarship this offseason, and thus far, he is the other starting safety alongside Brian Randolph, taking the place of incumbent LaDarrell McNeil. But Kelly is breathing down his neck.
- According to Volquest.com writer Paul Fortenberry's depth chart, Danny O'Brien and Jordan Williams are getting the first-team reps at defensive tackle. Trevarris Saulsberry missed the spring, but he will be a major factor once he gets in shape.
- The Knoxville News-Sentinel's Ben Frederickson (subscription required) reported that fifth-year senior and former walk-on Jacob Gilliam is still leading Dontavius Blair in the battle to be UT's starting left tackle. Blair has gotten in shape and looks much better than he did in the spring, however.
- Fortenberry's depth chart also notes freshman Emmanuel Moseley firmly entrenched as the No. 2 cornerback, and Justin Coleman is the nickel.
- If any freshmen are going to crack the starting rotation on the defensive line, it'll likely be Hendrix or Barnett. They've drawn huge praise from coaches so far, and Jones told Brown on Thursday that Barnett "has elevated the defensive line play."
Roundup From Rocky Top (News & Notes)
Tennessee received a major commitment over last weekend when 2016 4-star quarterback Austin Kendall of Waxhaw, N.C., pledged to the Vols. He is the nation's No. 9 pro-style passer in next year's cycle, according to the 247 Composite.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press' Brown, UT receiver Cody Blanc ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss the season. Blanc was not a factor for significant playing time.
Freshman lineman Jashon Robertson has shifted from the defensive line to offensive line, where he is practicing as a guard, according to a report from GoVols247's Ryan Callahan.
The Daily Beacon reported junior defensive tackle Allan Carson has graduated and "decided to move on," according to UT spokesman Jimmy Stanton. Carson has never played very much at UT and didn't figure into the rotation.
All recruiting rankings and statistics courtesy of 247Sports Composite. All statistics gathered from CFBStats.com.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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