KNOXVILLE – Thursday’s practice marked the halfway point of Tennessee’s first spring under coach Butch Jones.
There have been the typical early struggles such as dropped passes and missed tackles. There has been progress as well. Players are hustling, jumping on fumbles, blocking to the whistle and learning to play at the pace Jones and his staff expect.
Saturday’s scrimmage will be the next test to see how far the team has come.
“It’ll be situational,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said of the scrimmage scheduled for Saturday morning at Neyland Stadium. “We’re going to put them in a bunch of different situations coming out, red zone, overtime, things like that – things we haven’t been able to address this spring.
“I’m continuing to evaluate who the playmakers are going to be – how much volume of the offense we’ve mastered. How much we execute so we can focus on moving forward and how much we can put in.”
For defensive coordinator John Jancek, Saturday will be an opportunity for him to see his unit in a more realistic setting.
“I put a lot into the scrimmage,” Jancek said. “That’s football – when you don’t know if it’s run or pass. A lot of times we do an inside drill and they all know it’s run. That’s advantage defense. When you go 11-on-11, it could be a screen, a run, a pass, a boot – those are the things you want to see your guys react to.”
It’ll also be a chance for Jancek to evaluate how well the team is tackling, a skill that was severely lacking in 2012 and has, at times, been a problem thus far in the spring.
He wants his players to have an approximate success rate of 90 percent in tackling. That’s what he’ll be looking for in the scrimmage.
“We’ve been working on it pretty hard,” Jancek said. “Saturday, we’ll find out if all those drills and things we’re doing are paying off.”
Good and bad offensive line depth: Offensive line coach Don Mahoney said he is very pleased with the work of reserve linemen Kyler Kerbyson and Mack Crowder. He said Crowder might be a touch ahead of Kerbyson at this point, but he likes Kerbyson’s effort.
“Kyler is making strides,” Mahoney said. “I’m really encouraged by him. He’s understanding the offense, playing fast.”
Mahoney wasn’t as optimistic sounding about reserves Alan Posey and Marques Pair, saying they both have a “ways to go” at this point. Tennessee could potentially lose all five starting offensive linemen in 2014, meaning the likes of Kerbyson and Crowder could make up the core of the starting unit in two years.
Injury update: Linebacker Curt Maggitt, receiver Jacob Carter, tight end Justin Meredith, running back Tom Smith, defensive tackle Allan Carson, safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin, defensive tackle Maurice Couch and safety LaDarrell McNeil were all in non-contact jerseys.
Cornerback Riyahd Jones appeared to pull up in a drill with a hamstring injury, but he got it wrapped up and continued to practice. Cornerbacks Daniel Gray and Tino Thomas were both going full contact after missing time recently.
Marlin Lane was back at practice after missing Tuesday for a family issue. Cornerback Eric Gordon remains away from practice.
• After working exclusively from the nickel package thus far in spring, the defense worked out of the true 4-3 some for the first time in open practice. A.J. Johnson (middle), Dontavis Sapp (strongside) and Brent Brewer (weakside) were the three starters in that look. Channing Fugate, Kenny Bynum and Greg were the second trio.
• True freshman receiver Paul Harris continues to bounce between No. 1 and No. 91. The coaches take away his normal No. 1 jersey when he’s not playing well. He was back in No. 91 on Thursday.
• Receiver Pig Howard, cornerback Jaron Toney, Jones and Lane were all working at kick returner.
• Defensive end LaTroy Lewis had a nice play to break up an attempted screen pass against the second-team offense during team drills. Receiver Jason Croom beat corner Justin Coleman on a skinny post for a long touchdown reception during receiver vs. cornerback drills. Croom worked as the second starting receiver with Cody Blanc with Carter limited with his injury.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga