KNOXVILLE – Though the product on the field proved to be a work-in-progress, the sights and sounds of Saturday’s Orange and White Game, the first under head coach Butch Jones, showed the start of a promising new era in Knoxville.
There was a DJ in the northeast corner of the field providing the music. Over 500 former players and hundreds of recruits lined the sidelines. Jones let a pair of young kids select plays during the game. In total, an announced crowd of 61,076 showed up – good for the second-largest crowd in Orange and White Game history.
NFL stars and former Vols Arian Foster and Eric Berry were there. Foster, making his first return to Knoxville since 2009, even took over the DJ booth and controlled the music for a few minutes.
It wasn’t always pretty, but it was fun for the players and fans.
It had the feel of a win for Jones.
“Coach Jones has made it where football is fun again,” said senior defensive end Jacques Smith, who is now playing for his third head coach.
There’s still plenty of work to do, though. The Orange (defense) defeated the White (offense) by a score of 95-71 using Jones’ modified scoring system, but there were plenty of mistakes on both sides.
The offense gave up nine sacks. There were four penalties on the offense. Wide receivers slipped and ran wrong routes. The defense had too many men on the field at one point, forcing a wasted timeout. The overall tempo and execution didn't look up to SEC standards yet.
“We’re not in game condition, any way you look at it – we played about a half of football today,” Jones said of the accelerated clock on Saturday. “Our tempo has to increase. Our physicality, our overall timing in the throw game, our endurance. I think there were a lot of teaching points that occurred [Saturday].”
But through the frustration and the clear issues this squad still must face and improve upon, there were a few encouraging signs of progress.
Despite shaky numbers (9-of-23 passing, 98 yards), quarterback Nathan Peterman threw a 48-yard strike to receiver Vincent Dallas to set the offense up for a field-goal opportunity in the second half. Running back Alden Hill, filling in for the suspended Marlin Lane, rushed 18 times for 101 yards.
Receiver Cody Blanc, one of the pleasant surprises of the spring, had perhaps the best offensive play of the game when he took a short pass from Justin Worley and sprinted past the defense for a 58-yard touchdown.
“Just ran my route and caught it, used my vision and ran,” said Blanc, a sophomore. “It was made to be a 12-yard play and I turned it into a touchdown. It was definitely a relief. We were struggling to score a touchdown. It was big.”
On the defensive side, walk-on safety Max Arnold sealed a win for the defense with an interception and 62-yard return for a touchdown with 3:25 remaining in the game.
After collecting just 17 total sacks in 2012, the defense, led by four sacks from true freshman Corey Vereen, got to the quarterback regularly on its way to collecting nine sacks on the quarterback. Though aided by the fact that the quarterbacks only had to be touched for a sack, Vereen showed promise.
“He's young, but he's good,” defensive end LaTroy Lewis said of Vereen. “He can play. He's quick off the ball and he's good at getting up the field and getting to the quarterback.”
Added Jones: “He has a great motor and he is going to do nothing but get better and better and better. He is quick twitch, he is explosive, but now he needs to get bigger. When we start in August, and it’s about winning football games for real, his level of play has to increase to be able to compete day-in and day-out, at this level.”
Jones and his staff will use Saturday as a teaching and evaluation tool, but everything from the attendance to the festivities to the masses of recruits and former players made the biggest statement for the first-year head coach looking to rally momentum for a struggling program.
“The message is loud and clear: There is no other place in the country like Tennessee," said Jones, who also said it was his best weekend in Knoxville yet. "All you have to do is look at the evidence—the success of the program, the leadership from our administration, the fan base and our coaching staff.
“We are going to attract the right players to come play football here at Tennessee. Why would you not want to come here? You see the environment, the chance to build something special. I think that today spoke volumes.”
• Kicker Michael Palardy hit 3-of-3 field goals, including a 52-yarder. His long in 2012 was 38 yards.
• Spring awards were given to center Mack Crowder (offense), linebacker Dontavis Sapp (defense) and running back Alden Hill, tight end Alex Ellis and defensive back Max Arnold (general improvement).
• Though the game followed mostly normal football procedures, there were no live punt returns and no kickoffs. The punting situations consisted of just the long snapper, punter and a punt returner who called fair catch each time.
• Defensive back Byron Moore and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers tied for the lead in tackles (6).
• Tackle Tiny Richardson, linebacker Curt Maggitt, receiver Jacob Carter, receiver Jason Croom, receiver Paul Harris, cornerback Riyahd Jones, defensive tackle Maurice Couch, defensive tackle Daniel Hood, tight end Justin Meredith, tight end Brendan Downs, running back Marlin Lane (discipline) and corner Eric Gordon (discipline) all did not play.
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Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga