KNOXVILLE — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones stepped onto the black platform bearing a silver metal podium and struggled through a hoarse, raspy voice to make his first words loud enough to be heard by the crowd of media.
Yep, it was the Volunteers’ first practice of the preseason.
There are three Saturdays after today before Tennessee’s season opener, and the spring practices that doubled as a feeling-out process between a new coaching staff and a new team are long gone.
The Vols’ coaching staff made the urgency evident Friday afternoon.
“It’s go time now,” left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said. “That’s what you want from your coaches, for them to push you. I know for me, that’s what I want from my coaches, is to push me every day.”
“We need to have that every day,” Jones said. “I think that’s the intensity it’s going to take to improve as a football team and a football program, and it starts with us as coaches. This is why you play the game. We’re getting ready to play a season, so everybody’s intensity should pick up.”
Compared to those initial 15 practices more than three months ago, Friday followed a similar script. The drills followed a similar pattern. Jones again was on his wireless microphone calling individual players, demanding more intensity and calling for one of a horde of team personnel to “make sure we’re charting the guys who cost the team.”
The guilty parties included defensive backs Riyahd Jones and Geraldo Orta, freshman defensive lineman Jason Carr and junior college transfer Woody Quinn. Freshman receiver MarQuez North drew a penalty flag for moving at the snap after backing up his stance to avoid lining up in the neutral zone. Execution was an issue in Tennessee’s passing game.
“There was more intensity from the coaches, demanding a little more out of us,” quarterback Justin Worley said. “We’re just trying to pick up where we left off. In the spring we were trying to figure everything out and see how they did things and how the practices were going to be run and the intensity and everything. Now it’s more we know what to expect and we need to meet those expectations and surpass them as well.”
Overall, the Vols were pleased with the opening practice, though they know it must be a starting point.
“We started off fast, but then it looked sloppy,” defensive tackle Daniel McCullers said. “We kind of picked it up at the end, but it’s got to be consistent to be a great team like we know we can be. We’re going to continue to get better.
“We’ve got 20-something days left, so each day we’re going to have to get better.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian called the Vols’ summer gains “remarkable,” noting the improved strength levels and better conditioning of the players. He added, though, that the first practice always delivers “a shock to the system.” Tennessee made improving its stamina a priority in the offseason, but a summer workout is different from a grueling two-plus-hour practice.
“It was an eye-opener,” tailback Rajion Neal said, echoing his summary from the Vols’ first spring practice in March. “I think with all the conditioning and all the lifting, there’s still nothing like that football shape. Today was still a little tough just knocking some of the rust off everybody, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
Time is dwindling for the Vols to reach that destination by the start of the season.
“Last night, I think I got three hours of sleep,” Richardson said. “I tried to sleep, but I just kept waking up. The anxiety levels were high — you just can’t wait to get on the field.
“I feel like we were able to get those first-day jitters out, and now we’re going to come back tomorrow and do even better.”
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...