KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – An impressive 40,000 Tennessee football fans turned out for Saturday’s open practice to show their support and love for 2014 Vols. More than anything, the coaches and players appreciated the opportunity to have a game-like atmosphere to practice to with just over two weeks until the first game.
"Thank you to the fans for coming out and creating a game atmosphere," coach Butch Jones said.
"We needed that for our development. Feeding off the crowd's energy is what our football team needed."
As seniors, linebacker A.J. Johnson and running back Marlin Lane know the feeling of a great crowd.
"There was a lot of energy," said Johnson. "It felt real good. It felt like a game environment. We came running out and there were people everywhere."
"It's a great experience for the freshmen. When they get to the game it's going to be ten times better, but they still get the great feeling of being in a game environment."
Lane realizes that not many programs have the chance to practice in front of such a large crowd.
"There's nothing like practicing in front of a live crowd. Everybody wishes to practice like this with 50,000 people there. Seeing the energy of the crowd keeps us motivated and going."
With the band playing and good ole Rocky Top in the back, the energy of the crowd served as a gift for the team.
"It definitely gets us ready for the game and reminds us of a game like environment," said Brain Randolph. "It was a good rejuvenation. Our legs are dead. Some of us just need an extra spark, and I think that did the trick."
Freshman linebacker Dillon Bates felt the intensity of a crowd that he grew up being a fan of and shared the experience with his fellow newcomers.
"It was amazing," Bates said. "To come out with all these fans coming just to watch practice and just to show how important this team is to the community and to Vol Nation--it's just great to see this kind of turnout."
WORLEY HAS FAITH IN O-LINE, OFFENSE
Starting quarterback Justin Worley praised his offense after the open practice at Neyland Stadium, as the group ran through basic offense drills.
"I think everybody showed up," said Worley. "I mean, it's always incredible to get in front of these fans and there was a little bit more energy, a little bit more bouncing around. The defense got fired up on third downs. I think everybody responded well and came here and competed."
Among points of interest for Jones, the chemistry of the offense and the strength of the offensive line were both put to the test. During a seven-on-seven series, Worley completed a third down conversion pass to wide receiver Marquez North, which reassured the quarterback that the offensive schemes are starting to gel.
"Just being able to throw routes with Marquez [North] and Jason (Croom) and all those guys, every rep counts," added Worley. "Both of those guys have done a great job in the offseason, first of all, and are now taking it into fall camp and developing. They've done a great job."
Worley is also gaining more and more confidence in his young offensive line, which faced a fast and energized Vol defense in scrimmage situations.
"I don't need to worry about the offensive line," said Worley. "As long as I can get myself protected, that's on me and my knowledge of the game, my knowledge of my protection and everything. I'd say each one of them has a chip on their shoulder and they want to go out and prove themselves.
"I have faith in these guys. They're going to step up and play hard for me, I know that."
BATES UNDER THE NEYLAND LIGHTS
The practice marked a first for freshman Bates, who had never performed at Neyland Stadium until Saturday.
“It was amazing," he said. "Definitely got those butterflies coming in, but you never get that anywhere else. It's the greatest feeling in the world."
Bates, who did not play in the spring Orange and White game, although he did attend the scrimmage, noted that the similar environments will help him for the regular season.
"Just to show and see all the fans here in a similar atmosphere, it definitely gets you acclimated to what it's like for game day," Bates said.
Not only did Volunteer fans give Bates a glimpse into what Neyland Stadium is like during game days, but they also provided him and the rest of the team with more energy during practice.
"When you come out in Neyland Stadium in front of thousands of people, the energy level does turn up a little bit, and everybody gets that much more excited," Bates said.
The big turnout came as a bit of a shock to the freshman.
"I didn't expect that many people to be here," Bates said. "But, it's great, and it just shows how in love the Vol Nation is with this team."
Bates is excited about the opportunity to see a packed Neyland Stadium for UT's season opener against Utah State.
"It's going to be double this, so just even with the lower bowl--and I don't know how many people were out here--it was still loud," Bates said. "You could still feel it in your chest. So, just imagining that times two and seeing these thousands of people coming out to watch us play, it'll be exciting."
RANDOLPH IMPRESSED WITH NEW-LOOK SECONDARY
Saturdays open practice marked the first "game-like" challenge for many players in the Volunteer defensive backfield. It was a test, according to Randolph, that greatly helped the secondary become more prepared for the upcoming season.
"It went well," he said. "With the crowd noise, there was some lack of communication out there. We still have to get better with our hand signals, but for the most part, I feel like we got more prepared for game one."
Freshmen D’Andre Payne and Rashaan Gaulden were especially impressive to the veteran safety.
"He was pretty much lockdown on the corner position tonight," he said about Payne. "He did good against the big receivers. And also, Rashaan Gaulden. He did good in the one-on-ones. He got him a pick, and he just came out with a lot of emotion tonight."
Freshman Todd Kelly Jr., and sophomore Michael Williams also earned Randolph’s praise.
"Mike Williams has great speed out there, and that's something that we need in the secondary, of course," said Randolph. "He can also get physical at times with the receivers, so he's got a good toolbox to use, and he's been doing well in practice."
"He's a football player," he said of Kelly Jr. "He loves the game - you can tell. He's always asking questions, he always wants to learn more, so he's just a hungry freshman. He's trying to get some playing time. You can tell with his background that football means a lot to him. You can tell he has an edge about him."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)