KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Peyton Manning hasn’t played football at Tennessee since 1997, but the Super Bowl-winning quarterback still has a hand in helping the Vols in various ways.
One of his recent ides pitched to new coach Butch Jones was to invite loyal Vols fans to an open practice at Neyland Stadium.
Jones bought in to the idea.
On Saturday evening, 39,000 fans turned out to watch the various drills and stuck around through it all and a rain, which fell hard at times. None of the fans left, they just moved under protection of the upper-deck overhang.
“If anybody doesn’t realize the magnitude of Tennessee football, they should see this tonight,” said Jones, his words amped by a public address microphone. “I think it speaks volumes when you have an open practice and almost 40,000 people come.”
Some crowd estimates were in the 25,000 to 30,000 range, but no matter the size of the turnout it was pretty darn good for a team simply going through what would otherwise be a fairly blase weekday practice.
Tennessee players showed their appreciation by jogging around the stadium while high-fiving fans on the first row.
“Peyton Manning suggested this open practice,” Jones said. “We spoke about it, and talked about some situations we would do and then planned everything out as a staff of what the football team needed.”
And what was that?
“We needed to play football, we needed a one-minute drill, we needed last second clock situations, we needed to get some of our younger kids some reps. Also, I wanted to have some practice. There’s nothing like having your named called out on the loudspeaker and having to perform one-on-one against the other guy. I thought it was very productive.”
One of the guys called out was defensive back Justin Coleman.
“Honestly, it’s not that much pressure because that’s what I do every day – cover the receiver and try to lock them down, keep them from catching the pass,” Coleman said.
The secondary is showing a new attitude this preseason. Players are turning to find the football while covering receivers and going after the ball as if it belongs to them.
On several occasions, defensive backs undercut routes and either made interceptions or knocked the ball away from the receiver.
“I love our aggressiveness,” Coleman said. “Our defensive backs are showing they’re tough and willing to compete with anybody. I saw everybody taking good leverage toward the ball, everybody was making good tackles, breaking on the ball and trying to get turnovers.
“As a defense everybody wanted to see the orange swarm and that is what we did.”
Coleman, a junior from Brunswick, Ga., has gladly accepted the added responsibility of being a leader in the secondary with one objective being a mentor to younger players in the unit.
“Coaches have been telling me that if I slip up the younger guys are going to see it,” he said. “I’ve got responsibility on me and I’ve got to show them everything right, everything I can do so they can do things better.”
Coleman and his third-level defensive partners weren’t making it easy for any of the four quarterbacks – Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Riley Ferguson or Joshua Dobbs – to thread passes in to covered receivers.
“Coach Jones said he was going to put us in front of the fans and then single you out to see what kind of a man and competitor you are,” Peterman said. “That is a great learning opportunity and chance to get better. I appreciate coach Jones for doing that.”
Said Worley, “That is what it was meant to be – a pressure situation. All eyes are on the quarterback, the receiver and the DB. That put it in a game situation, the pressure you have on each and every play.”
Jones’ secondary review was mixed.
“I thought our first secondary made some plays, but we still missed too many tackles,” the coach said, “especially in the red zone. The big thing is overall depth. Where are we at with that.”
Each of the quarterbacks had an opportunity to run the offense early in team situations just before the rain started falling.
Worley was up first.
Worley completed a pass to running back Rajion Neal, who after being tackled tossed the ball to the ground. Jones was in his grill in a flash, scolding Neal for not handing the ball to a referee.
On third down, a Worley pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and the offense settled for an 18-yard field goal by Michael Palardy.
Peterman followed Worley.
Peterman threw a short touchdown pass.
With Ferguson in charge, running back Tom Smith capped a drive with a 3-yard touchdown run.
Finally, it was Dobbs’ time.
Aldon Hill ran twice, moving the ball to the defense’s 4-yard line.
On the next play, Dobbs, who later displayed his outstanding running skills, connected with junior college transfer Woody Quinn, a former volleyball player at Pepperdine and California Baptist University, on a touchdown strike in the end zone.
“I thought we made some plays, but we have to make the routine plays,” Jones said. “When we have somebody open in the secondary on a deep ball, that’s the difference between winning and losing. That’s why you practice. That’s why you put your team in those types of situations.”
Ja’Wuan James thought the offensive line turned in a stellar performance in the public practice, and hopes the 2013 season is setting up as a rousing bon voyage for himself and fellow seniors left guard Alex Bullard, center James Stone and right guard Zach Fulton.
“We have high standards,” said James, a right tackle, “and always have had that. We want to continue to work hard and not become complacent. We have to go out and perform and produce. All of us want to make the most of this because it’s our last four months playing on the same team together.
“It feels like we’ve been here forever.”
Junior offensive lineman Antonio Richardson, a preseason second-team All-America choice by various publications, addressed one aspect of the line’s play that he feels needs improvement.
“We’re a good line,” he said. “We have guys who have improved and will be good for us this year. You’ll see that when the season starts. Tonight we only ran about five (running) plays or so. We didn’t really show our hand too much. I thought we missed on a few of them and we’ll go back and watch the film and correct that.”
The line only gave up eight sacks in 2013 and James believes that number can go lower this season.
“We really want to play tough, smart and physical,” he said. “If we do all those things we’ll take care of the quarterback and we definitely want to beat last year’s number (of sacks).”
Fans had a rare chance Saturday to get a glimpse of what goes on every day in practices not open to the public.
Jones has preached ever since landing in Knoxville that after making a play, his offensive players should immediately get the ball an official so the next play gets underway quickly.
Twice that didn’t happen Saturday.
Running back Neal was guilty once, as was freshman wide receiver Marquez North.
Each saw how fast Jones could get in their grill, scolding them harshly on the miscues.
On another occasion the defense jogged out to the middle of the field to start a series. Jones loudly admonished the entire unit for the lethargic movement.
“Get off the field,” Jones screamed. “You don’t come on the field like that at Tennessee.”
After retreating to the sideline, the entire unit sprinted back on to the field.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)