KNOXVILLE – Butch Jones and the Tennessee players asked the fans to come.
They did, perhaps even more than some expected.
Tennessee announced a crowd of 39,000 at Saturday night’s open practice at Neyland Stadium. Whether that number was slightly inflated by UT officials is up for debate, but as it stands, that number is higher than the average home attendance of 60 FBS programs in 2012 – including UT’s in-state rival, Vanderbilt.
“It speaks volume,” Jones said when asked about the magnitude of the crowd in terms of recruiting and overall support for the program.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t start by thanking the best fan base in the country,” Jones said. “You have a practice and the crowd, the way they came out, it was a game-day-like atmosphere and I thought there were some great, great [teaching] lessons for our football team. A lot of those guys – walking down that tunnel and hearing the band play, that was the first time they’ve heard that.”
Saturday evening’s picturesque scene of fans filling in the lower bowl of Neyland Stadium and perfect weather conditions did deteriorate approximately 30 minutes into practice when the skies opened up and rain sent fans running for cover under Neyland’s overhangs.
But even with the lighter crowd after the downpour, Saturday’s practice was like no other this fall for the Vols. There were plenty of situational scrimmage scenarios along with pressure-packed 1-on-1 drills. At one point in practice, Jones called out a receiver and a defensive back over the microphone and had them go at each other man-to-man.
Jones indicated on Thursday that the Vols are expecting to play between 13-17 true freshmen in 2013. That youth will be evident at cornerback especially, where true freshman Cameron Sutton is expected to start at one spot. Saturday’s practice gave players such as him a chance to play under the lights and in front of thousands of eyes.
“It was basically a miniature game,” said offensive tackle Tiny Richardson. “To get some of our young guys, especially on the defensive side of the ball, some of our secondary guys who will probably be playing early – it was good for them to get in the game, those pressure situations.”
With the NCAA prohibiting preseason contests against other schools, Saturday’s experience was about as close as the Vols will get to a full-fledged preseason game.
“We didn’t have that last year,” redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman said. “I think it’s going to be great for the young guys, myself included, we don’t get a lot of opportunities to be in front of the crowd other than the games, so we really appreciated the fans.”
Injury update: Freshman guard/center Dylan Wiesman limped off the field late in Saturday’s injury with an apparent leg injury. Jones had no immediate update on his condition after practice.
. Out: DE Jacques Smith (thumb), TE Justin Meredith (hamstring), DE Corey Vereen (knee), CB Riyahd Jones (calf), CB Michael Williams (shoulder), WR Ryan Jenkins, WR Paul Harris, WR Johnathon Johnson, LB Justin King, RB Marlin Lane
. Limited: LB Curt Maggitt (ACL)
. Jones had the punt returners practice catching punts individually in front of the crowd. Devrin Young had a good night fielding the ball, while freshman Cam Sutton had the worst drop of the bunch.
. Quarterback Josh Dobbs hit receiver Drae Bowles for a long touchdown in 1-on-1 WR/DB drills. Newly-converted cornerback Vincent Dallas had a nice pass deflection while working against Jason Croom.
. The Vols began practice with a red zone drill that all four quarterbacks got a shot in.
– Rajion Neal took four carries to get the ball to the 1 for the first-team offense, but Justin Worley threw two incomplete passes and that unit had to settle for a short field goal.
– Nathan Peterman scored on the next drive on a four-yard quarterback keeper.
– Riley Ferguson found Devrin Young for a 12-yard reception and Tom Smith ran it in for a score from 4 yards out on the next series.
– Josh Dobbs hit tight end Woody Quinn for a 2-yard touchdown on the final series.
. Field goals still remain somewhat of an adventure. Michael Palardy and George Bullock both connected on several during practice, but each also had multiple misses.
. Perhaps the best play of the evening came in a drill when the Vols were practicing back-to-the-goal-line situations. Peterman found Devrin Young running down the seam for a gain of approximately 40 yards.
. Dobbs, Peterman and Ferguson all made some plays with their feet. Jones let the freshmen quarterbacks (Dobbs and Ferguson) get several live reps where the defense was allowed to hit the quarterback.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga