KNOXVILLE – Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has consistently preached that the running game would be the No. 1 priority throughout Vols’ spring practice.
The first intrasquad scrimmage of the spring, held Friday at Neyland Stadium, provided an early glance at the fruits of their labor.
“Like most scrimmages, some good things and some things we need to work on,” Dooley said. “I felt like we really showed a lot of improvement running the ball and that’s been our emphasis. The line was coming off the ball and we generated a lot of run yards.”
Two-hundred and fifty-eight rushing yards to be exact. Though it was only a spring scrimmage, the 258 yards on 52 carries averaged out to 4.9 yards per carry. That was more than 2 yards per carry better than 2011’s season average of 2.8.
Dooley indicated that rising junior Rajion Neal (15 carries, 100 yards) and rising sophomore Devrin Young (8 carries, 60 yards) both excelled during the scrimmage.
“The guys that showed some explosive plays-Devrin and Rajion did a really nice job,” Dooley said. “I think Devrin has proved he can get out there and generate some explosion. Rajion showed some good promise today.”
Rising sophomore Marlin Lane, the team’s leading returning rusher with 280 yards in 2011, had a quiet day with seven carries for only 8 yards.
Despite Lane’s less-than-stellar performance, center Alex Bullard liked what he saw from the running game, but added it’s far from a finished product.
“I was really encouraged because I felt like we moved the ball on the ground well-pretty efficient in the run game,” Bullard said. “Also, what was encouraging is there’s a lot of room for improvement. We need to improve on finishing down in the red zone.”
Dooley continued to praise his newly constructed left side of the offensive line of guard Dallas Thomas and tackle Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson.
“I think it’s a pretty good combination,” Dooley said. “Of course with Antonio, a lot of the freshman stuff showed today, with some penalties and you get a little emotional when things aren’t going right that’s just going to take time to build continuity. I think we made a good move there. I think it’s going to pay off.”
Richardson, a rising sophomore, said he felt comfortable in his first live action as a left tackle, but was thankful to have Thomas, a rising senior, directly to his left.
Thomas had 25 career starts at left tackle before sliding over to left guard at the beginning of spring practice.
“I did pretty well, had a few missed assignments here and there,” Richardson said. “I thought I did a good job communicating. I give a lot of credit to Dallas for helping me out.”
While the running game showed some progress Friday, the passing game lacked production. Wide receiver Justin Hunter did not participate as he continues to recover from his torn ACL, leaving the Vols with only three receivers-Zach Rogers, Da’Rick Roger and Vincent Dallas-that have ever caught a collegiate pass.
Quarterbacks Tyler Bray, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman combined to go 28 of 60 (46.6 percent) through the air for 265 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
“We’re just not as polished right now,” Dooley said of the passing game. “Of course it hurts not having Justin (Hunter) out there and having some new guys, but we’re just not where we need to be.”
Da’Rick Rogers, the SEC’s leading returning receiver, was held without a catch. He didn’t seem too concerned, saying that helping out the run game was his focus.
“It was all blocking for me,” the 6-foot-3, 210-pound rising junior said. “That’s just the work and the unselfishness you have to have to have a good run game.”
Randolph, Gordon making plays
Rising sophomore safety Brian Randolph played beyond his years in Friday’s scrimmage. The Kennesaw, Ga., native had three tackles, an interception and a blocked extra-point attempt.
“Brian is a true sophomore, still in his freshman year (in school), but he looks like a junior out there from a maturity standpoint,” Dooley said. “He’s been a steady hand out there.”
Rising junior Eric Gordon also flashed some big-play potential with three tackles, an interception and a sack. Perhaps the big numbers put up by Gordon and Randolph exemplify the aggressive mindset Dooley credited the defense with.
“I’m just excited we’re demanding a little more aggressiveness back there and making the offense work,” Dooley said. “We’re going to challenge them and get our hands on the wide receivers. Once they start believing in the technique, they’re going to play better and better.”
Mixed results from special teams
Kicker Michael Palardy hit a 37-yard field goal, but had a 32-yard kick and an extra point blocked.
Punter Matt Darr averaged 41.5 yards per punt on four attempts with a long of 50 yards. Darr finished last among qualifying punters in the SEC last season after averaging 38.1 yards per punt.
No statistics were released on kickoffs or kickoff returns, but Dooley liked what he saw from Palardy on kickoffs.
“He kicked the ball off really well today,” Dooley said. “It was popping off his leg a little better than I’ve seen.”
Safety/linebacker Brent Brewer (ACL), wide receiver Justin Hunter (ACL), linebacker Curt Maggitt (shoulder), defensive tackle Daniel Hood (shoulder), guard Zach Fulton (foot), cornerback Prentiss Waggner (shoulder), LB Christian Harris (ACL) tight end Justin Meredith (hamstring) and safety Geraldo Orta (shoulder) were all held out of Friday’s scrimmage as expected.
Defensive tackle Maurice Couch was a late scratch as Dooley announced he recently suffered a concussion.
After missing all of 2011 with a broken ankle, linebacker Herman Lathers got the green light to go full speed in the scrimmage.
“We let him go,” Dooley said. “I think a lot of his concerns are mental, he’s got to get out there and take the licks and recover from it and see that his body can do it.”
TD – Mychal Rivera 5-yard rec from Tyler Bray (Michael Palardy PAT miss) – 6-0
TD – Devrin Young 5-yard rush (No PAT) – 12-0
TD – Marlin Lane 1-yard rush (No PAT) – 18-0
FG – Derrick Brodus 35-yard field goal – 21-0
FG – Michael Palardy 37-yard field goal – 24-0
Tyler Bray – 13-32-1, 142 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Justin Worley – 11-20-1, 110 yards
Nathan Peterman – 4-8-0, 13 yards
Tyler Page – 2-2-0, 11 yards
Rajion Neal – 15-100-23
Alden Hill – 9-39-15
Devrin Young – 8-60-24, TD
Marlin Lane – 7-8-7, TD
Tom Smith – 6-18-5
Jaron Toney – 5-17-6
Deanthonie Summerhill – 2-16-6
Mychal Rivera – 4-45-16, TD
Jacob Carter – 4-38-18
Cody Blanc – 4-27-12
Devrin Young – 3-59-35
Zach Rogers – 3-35-18
Cam Clear – 2-20-16
Rajion Neal – 2-16-11
Alex Ellis – 2-11-6
Marlin Lane – 2-7-8
Brendan Downs – 1-5-5
Tyler Drummer – 1-4-4
Dakota Summers – 1-4-4
Jaron Toney – 1-4-4
Matt Darr – 4-166-41.5-50
Michael Palardy – 2-82-41.0-42
Michael Palardy – 1-2 (32 blocked, 37 good)
Derrick Brodus – 1-2 (33 wide left, 35 good)
Greg King – 4-3-7
AJ Johnson – 4-2-6, 1 TFL
Marsalis Teague – 3-3-6, PBU
Tino Thomas – 4-1-5
Willie Bohannon – 1-4-5
Byron Moore – 3-2-5, 1 TFL
Herman Lathers – 4-0-4, PBU
Rod Wilks – 3-1-4, 2 PBU
John Propst – 0-4-4
Raiques Crump – 3-0-3, FF
Steven Fowlkes – 2-1-3, 1.5 sacks-4 yards, 3 TFLs
Logan Honeycutt – 1-2-3
Max Arnold – 1-2-3
Eric Gordon – 2-1-3, FR, 1 sack-6 yards
Brian Randolph – 2-1-3, INT, FG block
Izauea Lanier – 2-1-3
Jordan Williams – 1-2-3, PBU
Justin Coleman – 1-2-3, PBU
Corey Alexander – 0-3-3
Tyrin Fairman – 2-0-2
Channing Fugate – 1-1-2
Dontavis Sapp – 0-2-2, 0.5 sack-3 yards
Nigel Mitchell-Thornton – 0-2-2, TFL
Joseph Ayres – 1-0-1
Jacques Smith – 0-1-1, 2 PBU
Allan Carson – 1-0-1, FR
Darrington Sentimore – 1-0-1
Marlon Walls – 0-1-1, TFL
Trent Taylor – 0-1-1, TFL
Gregory Clark – 0-1-1
Michael Cantwell – 0-0-0, PBU
Steven Fowlkes – 1.5-4 yards
Eric Gordon – 1-6 yards
Dontavis Sapp – 0.5-3 yards
Brian Randolph – 1-8 yards
Allan Carson – Fumble recovery
Eric Gordon – Fumble recovery
Raiques Crump – Forced fumble