KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – On a crystal clear day for Tennessee’s Orange and White spring football game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, the score(s) were a bit blurry, but had the same result.
A point system used to reward offensive defensive plays – big and bigger – came into play and the White finished with a 129-100 advantage.
With old-fashioned math applied, the White put up 66 points before an announced crowd of 65,548, second-largest turnout in the 54-year history of the game. The 1986 game drew 73,801 and folks close to the program had hoped for about 80,000 for this one.
The 66-0 score is misleading. The Orange played strictly defense. The White only played offense.
Regardless, it was a good day.
“Thank you Vol nation,” coach Butch Jones said. “Great environment and a great illustration to our players of what they represent on a daily basis.”
While fans wanted to see how the Vols looked in general, many of the 137,096 eyes in the stadium were trained on sun-splashed Shields-Watkins Field with hopes of seeing players that hopefully can help take the Vols’ football fortunes on a dramatic upward trajectory.
There were several standouts that caught the fans’ collective eye, none more so than freshman wide receiver Josh Malone, who was simply sensational.
Malone, a 6-foot-3-inch, 202-pounder from Gallatin, grabbed six passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns covering 49, 6 and 79 yards. He averaged 30.2 yards per catch.
“(Malone) adds a whole other dynamic to our offense,” Jones said. “He can be as good as he wants to be. I said in the offseason, we have to throw a 5-yard pass and turn it into a 20-yard gain. That was missing from our offense last year.”
The 49- and 79-yard scoring strikes to Malone were thrown by quarterback Josh Dobbs, who had a good day in a four-player battle for the starting job – Dobbs also hit Justus Pickett, a running back transfer from Maryland, on a 16-yard scoring play.
Nathan Peterman threw the 6-yard scoring toss to Malone.
Malone’s play caught the attention of defensive back Justin Coleman.
“I kind of seen it in Malone, but I didn’t really expect him to do that well,” Coleman said. “He did his thing out there and made a couple of plays.”
Sophomore receiver Marquez North is out to prove that his freshman season was no fluke.
North, a 6-4, 221-pounder from Charlotte, N.C., who made a significant impact on the Vols’ offense in his freshman season, caught five passes for 106 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown reception from Justin Worley to close the first-half scoring.
Malone and North were key figures in the Vols’ offense showing vastly improved explosiveness in the passing game, something the unit didn’t have on a consistent basis in 2013.
“I am confident in all of them (receivers),” North said. “They are freaky talented and I’m just excited to see where it goes.”
And what was North’s impression of Malone in a game-type situation?
“He is a humble guy and has a good work ethic,” he said. “But he is going to take off.”
Dobbs looked like he was in mid-season form. With a tough and challenging freshman campaign behind him, Dobbs appeared confident under center and displayed a strong, accurate arm and shiftiness when forced to run.
The 6-3, 203-pound sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., completed 6 of 9 passes for 199 yards. He rushed twice for 59 yards, all of them coming on a touchdown run where he bobbled a low snap, picked up the football and picked his way through the defense for the score.
“It was a good performance,” Dobbs said. “I felt like I did a good job executing the plays, and I have to make sure I continue to do that. (Throwing three TD passes) was good. I take pride in myself. This was a good day of taking steps forward and it was another great step forward for us as a unit.”
Said Jones, “Josh has had a productive spring, but I thought he really stepped it up today.”
And then there was Jalen Hurd, a highly touted freshman running back from Hendersonville. He looks like the real deal.
The 6-3, 221-pound Hurd ran like a veteran and led the White in rushing with 66 yards on 11 carries, with a long-gainer of 15 yards. He scored on a 4-yard burst in a 24-point first quarter.
“I thought he had some hard-earned yards,” Jones said of Hurd, who, like Malone, as a freshman is not made available to the media. “Jalen continues to progress, but I thought there were a couple of times he didn’t pick his heals up and went down on a shoestring tackle. In this league you can’t have that. Jalen is going to be a special player for us.”
Hurd had a 27-yard pass reception, giving him 93 all-purpose yards in the game.
All four quarterbacks – Dobbs, Justin Worley, Riley Ferguson and Peterman – got plenty of snaps throughout the game that dropped the curtain on spring practice.
The four combined to complete 32 of 45 for 514 yards and six touchdowns. The Vols averaged 16 yards per completion.
Worley went 11-of-13 for 151 yards, including the TD strike to North in the first half.
Ferguson was 7-of-12 for 83 yards and he connected with Cody Blanc for a 19-yard touchdown in the third quarter to cap an 88-yard, seven-play drive, third-longest on the day.
Ferguson was sacked three times.
The Worley-to-North score ended a 93-yard, nine-play drive that took 6 minutes and 7 seconds off the clock. Dobbs’ 59-yard touchdown run quickly ended a five-play, 89-yard march in the first quarter.
Peterman completed eight of 11 passes for 81 yards and the touchdown to Malone.
“Speaking for all four of us,” Worley said, “we’re just trying to take ownership of the offense.”
When asked for the umpteenth time about the quarterback competition, Jones said, “Ongoing. No timetable. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen, but we still have a long way to go.”
Consistency in the passing game was the primary reason the Vols’ offense amassed 762 yards of total offense.
Giddy fans watching have to be reminded this was a spring game. There are stern regular-season challenges ahead, starting with Utah State on Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. in the season opener.
Defensively, defensive back Riyahd Jones led the unit with eight tackles, all solo hits, and also broke up a pass. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin finished with seven and linebacker Kenny Bynum and freshman walk-on Colton Jumper of Chattanooga’s Baylor School, each had six.
Spring Game Notes
A moment of silence was held for legendary PA announcer Bobby Denton, who died earlier in the week at the age of 73 after a short battle with cancer. A the end, the crowd rose in unison and honored Denton with a standing ovation.
The White team, by winning, earned a steak dinner. The Orange settled for hotdogs and beans.
The White took a 26-25 lead in the Orange and White series. There have been three ties.
Fourteen receivers caught at least one pass and eight had multiple catches.
An estimated 25,000 fans came to the stadium early and took part in Fan Day activities.
Ex-Vol quarterback Sterling Henton kept the stadium hopping with his first-class DJ performance. The most surprising thing about Henton is that he was still screaming into the microphone and dancing on the stage as the game wound down.
Spring practice awards were handed out:
Al Wilson Leadership Award: Curt Maggitt.
Harvey Robinson Offensive Player Award: Kyler Kerbyson.
Andy Spiva Defensive Player Award: Corey Vereen.
John Stucky Award (Skill): Marquez North.
John Stucky Award (Power): Joe Stocstill.
Gen. Robert Neyland Award: Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who twice served as the Vols’ offensive coordinator.
Lindsey Nelson Award: CBS broadcaster Tim Brando.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)