Tennessee’s first scrimmage under Butch Jones goes down to the wire

Thumbnail image for butch-jones-presser.JPGKNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A lengthy “situational scrimmage” Saturday at Neyland Stadium featured live tackling on everyone except quarterbacks, offering a glimpse at Tennessee’s progress through one week of practice under new coach Butch Jones.

Officially, the offense won 90-89. Or something like that. We’ll try to offer as much detail on the scoring system as possible in the notes below, but to the naked eye, the points seemed a bit…uh…arbitrary. UPDATE: Maybe the defense actually won! See the notes on the controversial final play below.

The weather was gorgeous — sunny and about 65 degrees — but a stiff wind at the stadium played havoc with the kicking and passing games.

That said, both quarterbacks — junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman — seemed to have a pretty solid day.

My unofficial MVP of Saturday? Receiver Cody Blanc, who seemed to be pulling down passes every time we looked up. More on him later.

Let’s get to the observations….

* This was Family Day and a huge recruiting day. Many of Tennessee’s 2013 commitments signees were also on hand.

* Here’s how the stadium was organized: Family members of current players on one side; Former UT players, high school coaches and other visitors on the other side; and visiting prospects on the sidelines watching their future position group during drills.

* “Family” was a buzzword. It was “Family Day” of course, but that’s clearly a theme that UT is pitching to recruits.

* Former quarterback Tyler Bray, tight end Mychal Rivera and possibly others watched practice. UT’s pro day is Wednesday and all the seniors and early entrants are expected to participate in some way.

Now for the real football stuff…

* Defensive lineman Mo Couch was in a non-contact jersey, joining the players who are missing all spring and tight end Justin Meredith, who’s been out since Thursday.

* In the early practice drills, I noticed that receivers coach Zach Azzanni frequently used Blanc as an example to demonstrate proper technique. (Foreshadowing!)

* Offensive line coach Don Mahoney told his group before the start of the scrimmage, “Today’s too important to take a step back!” and “Be violent!”

* My favorite part of practice: Butch grabs the mic and screams “Sudden change!” That means they throw out the practice script and start doing something totally different than planned. Apparently it’s a surprise for coaches and managers, too.

* We saw some pretty extensive scrimmaging in various situations. There was ostensibly a first and second team on both offense and defense, but there was a fair amount of switching around. Remember: This is only the fourth practice.

* That said, coaches aren’t lying when they say Worley and Peterman split first-team reps equally. It was pretty close to 50-50.

* Other notable depth chart stuff: Junior Marques Pair is at first-team left tackle. Yes, that’s because Antonio “Tiny” Richardson is limited this spring, but it’s still an impressive jump for a guy who’s been buried on the depth chart for most of his career. We’ll have more on him later today.

I’m not sure you should read anything into it just yet, but in the only real offensive line battle, senior Alex Bullard got the nod at first team guard while junior Marcus Jackson worked with the second group. (Bullard was banged up at some point but left the field under his own power).

* On the second-team line, I saw Jackson, Mack Crowder, Kyler Kerbyson, Alan Posey and walk-on Jacob Gilliam.

* The first-team defense changed around a bit, especially up front, so this is hardly set in stone. But I did see Riyahd Jones, Byron Moore, Justin Coleman and Jaron Toney most often with that group.

* Back to the quarterbacks: If you only saw the pre-scrimmage portion, you’d probably give the edge to Worley. He made some really nice throws, including a BOMB to Dylan West and a crisp intermediate completion to Paul Harris.

* Peterman seemed frustrated with his performance in the receiver/DB drills. He missed an open receiver badly on a roll-out. Jones called for a water break and Peterman spent the whole time throwing passes.

* It paid off! Peterman seemed to play really well in the scrimmage portion. At one point, he completed four or five consecutive passes, including one that Alton “Pig” Howard turned into a big gain. He later threw a tightly threaded crossing route to Devrin Young for a touchdown.

* Peterman did throw one interception (to Geraldo Orta) but it may have been tipped at the line of scrimmage. There was also a fumbled hand-off transition to Alden Hill that Riyahd Jones scooped and ran back for a touchdown. (I don’t know whose fault that was, but coaches didn’t seem to freak out at Peterman, so maybe it was on Hill).

* Worley probably didn’t put up the same stats in the scrimmage portion, but that’s because UT gave a lot of carries to Rajion Neal when Worley was in the game. Worley did have three impressive completions to Blanc, including a highlight-worthy jumping catch by Blanc.

* It was not a great day to kick into the wind. Senior Michael Palardy and freshman George Bullock were both well short on field goal attempts into the wind.

At the end of practice, facing the other direction, they were much better. Palardy, Bullock and Ryan Ault all hit from about 42 yards. (Derrick Brodus missed from that distance).

Then Palardy nailed about a 47-yarder that allegedly tied up the game for the offense.

* On the final play of the game, Worley hit tight end Brendan Downs for a short touchdown pass to “win” it for the offense. (There was a scary moment when Downs appeared to injure his knee on the play, but he was up and moving around later). 

But wait!

Worley, like all quarterbacks, was wearing a non-contact jersey and so a quick whistle might have given the defense a “sack” before he released his touchdown pass.
In that case, the defense actually won. I think.

* I can’t really explain the point system, as there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way points were added or deleted from each team. Butch promised afterwards that there was a “method to the madness,” and I don’t doubt it. But I also suspect that he wanted a “close game” to fit his narrative for the scrimmage and the final score conveniently met that goal.

* Finally, I shot perhaps the most compelling practice video of my fledgling career as a YouTube filmmaker. We had real hits, real competition, real action. It sure beats last year, when I had stretching video pretty much nonstop from August through November. It’s going to take a while to upload and edit all the video, however. I hope to have something by later this afternoon.

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