KNOXVILLE – In his pre-spring press conference, Tennessee coach Butch Jones promised that he would find ways to test his team’s focus this spring.
He delivered on that guarantee on Tuesday during the team’s 10th session of the spring.
Crying babies, sirens, airplane engines, insects buzzing – Jones pulled out all of the annoying stops while the Vols worked through 11-on-11 red-zone drills Thursday morning at Haslam Field.
The piped-in noises all served to help keep the players focused on the task at hand.
“It may be corny, but it is what it is – it’s being able to focus and ex out [distractions].” Jones said. “Playing in the SEC and obviously at Oregon, you have to learn how to sort those distractions out. You have to focus on your communication skills, your non-verbal communication skills and your command presence.”
It won’t be a one-time gimmick. Jones, who has used this technique at prior jobs, conceded that the players had to be taught the basics of the system before they were ready for this challenge, but with just a few more sessions remaining this spring, it was time to give it a shot.
“I wanted to make sure we had a foundation and a basis and now we’ll involve more into that and obviously that’ll be a staple of training camp, but I also like to do it when they’re not expecting it,” he explained.
The players were caught off guard, but quickly picked up on what was going on and tried to work through it.
The Vols play one of the toughest road schedules in the nation in 2013 with trips to Oregon, Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Kentucky on the schedule. Jones hopes the mental conditioning will prepare them for the coming gauntlet.
“It just helped you stay focused,” said senior offensive lineman Alex Bullard. “When we first heard it we were like ‘what is going on’, but then we realized that was Coach Jones’ way to help us stay locked in and focused. It really helped because at first the noise was a distraction, but we learned how to clear it out and focus on what we needed to do.”
Added freshman receiver Jason Croom: "The first thing I thought of was if this is how it's going to be in the game, we're not going to be able to hear each other. [Jones] tries to surprise us with everything, so right away I just started looking to the sideline and I knew he was trying to make us focus on communicating today."
Punt returner still a work in progess: Junior wide receiver Devrin Young has been a relatively consistent option at punt returner the last two seasons, but Jones isn’t conceding the spot to him – or anybody else – at this point in the spring.
“I’m very concerned about who are punt returners are,” Jones said. “I think that’s the hardest skill in sports, in football. You have to catch the punt and you have 10 guys running down the field trying to tackle you. We’re looking for the individual who can get 10 yards and also secure the football.
“Right now I couldn’t tell you who are punt return is going to be, but thank God we don’t have to play a game tomorrow.”
Jones identified receiver Jacob Carter, who is currently out with an ankle sprain, as the most consistent he’s seen thus far. Young, receiver Pig Howard, cornerback Riyahd Jones and running back Marlin Lane are some other options at punt returner.
Injuries/absences: Linebacker Curt Maggitt, tight end Justin Meredith, safety Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Carter, defensive tackle Maurice Couch and left tackle Tiny Richardson all continue to be limited to non-contact work.
Jones, receiver Paul Harris, receiver Vincent Dallas and safety Geraldo Orta are all new additions to the injury list after Saturday’s scrimmage.
Cornerback Eric Gordon remains absent from practice and linebacker John Propst was not present during the open period.
• Practice began with a surprise two-point conversion drill simulating a game-winning situation. The first-team offense failed to convert, while the second team scored on a reception by tight end Justin King.
• Defensive end Corey Miller was working as the first-team defensive end during team drills in place of Jacques Smith, who worked with the second team.
• Jones said that quarterback Nathan Peterman, who has been primarily working with the second team, got some reps with the first unit Tuesday. The lack of depth and injuries at wide receiver has made it difficult for Peterman to have a solid group to throw to when working with the second team.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga