Tennessee spring football practice No. 8: Observations from the sidelines


KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Thursday morning’s practice started with excitement.

“This one is for soft-batch cookies!” Tennessee coach Butch Jones shouted into the microphone during one of the pre-practice player battles that occurs when players gather in a circle at midfield.

Our ears perked up! Cookies? Alas, it was a metaphor, and there were no actual cookies.

I won’t mention who was in that battle for the soft-batch cookies, but I’ll give you a hint. He’s a freshman who the coaches have ridden hard from Day 1.

On a completely unrelated saga, freshman receiver Paul Harris is back to wearing No. 91. He had briefly regained the right to wear his No. 1 on Tuesday, but was demoted back to 91 today. We’ll have ongoing coverage of that issue throughout the spring.

More observations….

* The defensive linemen have a drill in which they fully extend and dive belly-first onto a mat. As they leapt, coach Steve Stripling told them to yell the name of their favorite movie or video game. Among the choices, “Free Willy” and “Lion King.”

* Junior Justin Worley worked with the ones again during the first team portion (disclaimer: may not necessarily mean anything) and made a nice completion to Cody Blanc, one of his favorite targets. The second pass was also to Blanc, but it appeared to be deflected at the line of scrimmage, setting up a perfect interception opportunity for Jaron Toney. He dropped the ball.

* Maxim 1 was again the team today. The team with the fewest mistakes would win the practice, Jones said.

* Working out on “Muscle Beach,” the weight area set up on the sideline for injured players, we saw the regulars, including tight end Justin Meredith, who has missed all or most of the spring. A notable addition was receiver Jacob Carter and defensive back LaDarrell McNeil.

* In one-on-one drills, receiver Alton “Pig” Howard absolutely blew by Toney and caught a touchdown in stride. Drae Bowles also made a heck of a catch running toward the sidelines on a nice throw by Worley. Harris had at least one drop and one ball that was broken up in the end zone that could have been caught.

* Jones is big on body language. He yelled at one point during a drill, “I see (Daniel) McCullers with his hands on his hips!”

Post-practice update

* I neglected to mention that running back Marlin Lane was back in action after missing Tuesday’s practice due to a family illness.

* For whatever reason, we haven’t talked a lot about defensive end Corey Vereen this spring. Line coach Steve Stripling heaped on the praise, calling him the most dedicated freshman he had ever coached. And he’s been coaching for a minute (about 30 years, actually).

“But he never smiles,” Stripling said, “and that’s kind of scary.”

* Stripling also singled out Jacques Smith as the best — or perhaps only — player on the team with a “third down mentality.” Stipling said third down is the “money down” because that’s when big plays are made.

* Defensive coordinator John Jancek singled out linebacker Dontavis Sapp for praise.

* Running backs coach Robert Gillespie said he constantly harps on blocking with his backs. “Anybody can run through a hole…I could still run through a hole,” he said.

* How does receivers coach Zach Azzanni keep his group positive even while being hard on the youngsters? He compares it to an average golfer who hits one great shot for every 50 bad ones. “It’s that one that keeps you coming back,” he said.

* We talk to assistant coaches but no players today. We’ll have some more stories, photos and video on GoVolsXtra later this afternoon. Hopefully my practice photos turn out better than Tuesday’s botched version. We’ll find out.

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