KNOXVILLE – It took five practice sessions, but Tennessee coach Butch Jones is beginning to see some progress from his first team in Knoxville.
The Vols went through their fifth of 15 allotted spring practices on Tuesday. In just the third time they’ve donned full pads, Jones liked a lot of what he saw in Tuesday’s indoor workout.
“I thought today, overall, probably our best practice of the spring, but it’s obviously very early,” Jones said. “I really liked the mental effort, the intensity, the focus of our team. I was really waiting to see how we’d respond as a team on a Tuesday after a long Saturday practice – still a lot of work to do, but for the first time I could see some things coming together.”
That doesn’t mean they’re even close to where he wants them to be, though. After reviewing film of Saturday’s situational scrimmage held in Neyland Stadium, Jones saw plenty his team needs to work on as they set their sights towards the 2013 opener against Austin Peay on Aug. 31.
“We’re not executing on offense or defense,” he said. “We weren’t very good in our gap assignments defensively. Offensively, our throwing game has to improve. The overall efficiency and tempo [needs to improve]. But I started to see some small steps. You start to see individuals doing what we coach them to do.”
Palardy working on focus: Senior kicker Michael Palardy hit 9-of-12 field goals in 2012, but missed a couple of important kicks and didn’t make any longer than 38 yards.
Jones and the new staff are making sure he gets plenty of opportunities to feel pressure in practice this spring.
“I think Coach Jones has done a good job keeping me focused,” Palardy said. “It’s positive pressure – my teammates support me.”
Sometimes the methods are a little unorthodox, but kicking in front of 100,000 fans means anything could happen.
“They’re spraying water on me, coaches are throwing hats at me,” Palardy said. “Coach Jones put his finger in my ear hole in my helmet today, it was fun. He’s just basically trying to keep me concentrated.”
Blanc stepping up: One of the players regularly drawing praise is sophomore wide receiver Cody Blanc, who has been working with the first team a fair amount and has been used as an example by coaches for proper technique.
“He’s an individual who continues to get better,” said Jones. “He brings a level of consistency each and every day. He’s fairly new to the position, but he’s taking coaching, he’s doing a great job, he made some big plays for us on Saturday. Now it’s carrying that over to Tuesday and Thursday.”
Blanc, a Knoxville native, saw action as a true freshman in 2012, but did not record any statistics. He played primarily defense and running back at Knoxville Central High School before switching to receiver at UT.
Injuries/absences: Cornerback Eric Gordon, who missed Saturday’s scrimmage, was not at practice Tuesday.
“Eric’s on campus, he’s taking classes, but Eric’s taking care of some things that occurred off the field, so we’re working through that,” Jones said. “He has some things he has to do in order to get back practicing.”
Cornerback Daniel Gray was on the sideline with a walking book on his right foot, but Jones listed asthma as the reason he didn’t work on Tuesday.
Defensive tackle Maurice Couch and cornerback Tino Thomas remained in non-contact jerseys. Linebacker Curt Maggitt (ACL) was not seen during the open portion of practice as he continues his rehabilitation.
• Jones let the offense and defense go against each other live for about 12 plays at one point during the open part of practice. Quarterback Justin Worley took the first-team snaps with Nathan Peterman running the second unit. At one point, Jones was happy enough with the defense that he took the hitting restriction off the quarterback for the following three plays.
• Alex Bullard took some starting left tackle repetitions with Tiny Richardson (shoulder) still limited.
• Linebackers A.J. Johnson and Channing Fugate were impressive in one-on-one tackling drills.
• Pig Howard, Cody Blanc and Drae Bowles all made nice catches in one-on-one drills against defensive backs. Justin Coleman looks like one of the most complete cornerbacks right now.
• Redshirt sophomore tight end Alex Ellis, a 6-4, 222-pound walk-on from Del Mar, Del., has been impressive in practice and is getting some looks with the second-team offense.
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga