KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee's football team divided into three groups on the turf field inside Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex early Tuesday morning.
The drill was simple for the Volunteers' linebackers and defensive backs.
Wearing orange jerseys after winning Saturday's scrimmage, Tennessee's defenders lined up across their white-clad offensive teammates.
The whistle sounded, following by helmets cracking, pads popping and players hollering.
"We're definitely doing a lot more tackling and just more physical drills overall," safety Byron Moore said after practice. "Coach [Butch] Jones wants us to be a physical team, so we do that every day in practice with 'T-tough' drills and tackling drills. That's definitely been a big emphasis every day."
The Vols missed countless tackles and surrendered long play after long play in the 2012 season. Jones and his new assistants have used practice to set their foundation of expectations, including basic tackling technique. Tennessee's new coach wants his defense swarming to the ball and rewarded the unit for doing so during one brief team period Tuesday.
For three plays and three plays only, the quarterback, typically untouchable in their red noncontact jerseys was live and free to be hit.
"It's a little bit different feeling when you're standing in the pocket and you know you're live," Jones said. "We have to find out who our quarterback is, so they'll be times throughout the spring that we'll make them live. I also wanted to see not only how the defense would respond, but how the offense would respond, our offensive line, and in particular our quarterback, to see if he'd flinch at all, and he didn't."
When Nathan Peterman rolled out and took off scrambling when no receiver came open downfield, linebacker A.J. Johnson ran him out of bounds.
The Vols' defense got the chance to get their hits on their skill-player teammates later during an open-field one-on-one tackling drill.
"It's the same mentality any staff would bring," Moore said. "To line up and play defense, you've got to be great tacklers, so that's a big emphasis. If we can't tackle, it don't matter what scheme we put in or what play we call, if we can't get the man on the ground.
"Last year I think everything went bad, so anything could be considered a weakness."
Seeing 'small steps'
Jones called Tuesday's session his team's "best overall practice" through five spring workouts.
"Still a lot of work to do," he said, "but for the first time, I could see some things coming together in terms of swarming to the football [and] the overall physicality of practice. A long way to go, but I think the big thing as we continue to progress is focusing now on what it takes to play winning football. There's so much that goes into it."
While unhappy with execution on both offense and defense, Jones said he saw some good things in reviewing Saturday's scrimmage.
"We weren't very good in our gap assignments defensively, and offensively, still our throw game has to improve [with] the overall efficiency and the tempo, but I started to see small steps," he said. "We're taking those incremental small steps, but you start to see individuals doing what we're coaching. We have to generate more turnovers on defense, and our quarterbacks have to do a better job of taking care of the football.
"We had the costly turnover that six points the other way. That's again playing winning football. I see it happening, but like I said, in small dosages. But it's there and it's encouraging to see that."
Rising sophomore Cody Blanc perhaps stood out the most among Tennessee's young receiving corps during Saturday's scrimmage with two first-down conversion catches on third down, and the Knoxville native again showed some nice things during Tuesday's one-on-one period against the Vols' defensive backs.
At Knoxville's Central High School, the 6-foot-3, 202-pound Blanc played tailback and safety, and as a freshman he played in three games but didn't catch any passes.
"Cody Blanc's an individual who continues to get better, and I think the biggest thing is he brings a level of consistency each and every day," Jones said. "He's fairly new to the position. He's taking coaching, and he's doing a great job.
"He made some big plays for us on Saturday, but now it's carrying that over to Tuesday and then to Thursday, just that consistency in performance, which we talk about every day."
Redshirt freshman Drae Bowles made a couple of nice catches in tight coverage, and Devrin Young bested freshman safety Lemond Johnson with his speed on a couple of routes out the slot. Defensively, cornerback Justin Coleman broke up a pass and made an impressive diving interception on a pass he deflected away from a receiver. Junior college transfer Riyahd Jones continues to get first-team work at the corner opposite Coleman.
Jones said he'd yet to see much separation among his wideouts.
"It's a process by which the style and manner we want to play," he said, "but I do see strides, I do see progress being made."
Rising fifth-year senior nickelback Eric Gordon missed his second consecutive practice Tuesday. "Eric's on campus, and he's taking classes, but Eric's taking care of some things off the field that occurred, so we're working through that," Jones said. "He has some things that he has to do in order to get back practicing." ... Though Jones said Daniel Gray suffered an asthma attack Tuesday morning, the cornerback watched practice from the sideline with a boot on his right foot. ... Alex Bullard worked at left tackle, next to Marcus Jackson at guard, with the first-team offense Tuesday. Antonio Richardson continues to be limited this spring. Marques Pair, who's played in one game in three seasons, filled Richardson's spot Saturday. ... During Tuesday's early-practice team period, Dontavis Sapp and Channing Fugate were the first-team linebackers ahead of Johnson and Brent Brewer, who ran with the second team.
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter 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 ...