Tennessee ran out of the tunnel at Neyland Stadium Saturday to the screams of thousands as the Pride of the Southland fired up the familiar notes of Rocky Top under a hazy blue sky.
It sounds like any other normal game day in Knoxville, and there was plenty of competition to be found, only it was between two squads that both wore orange and white.
Tennessee’s only open practice of fall camp drew an announced crowd of 40,000 scattered throughout Neyland Stadium’s lower bowl, giving fans their first fall glimpse of Team 119 as it prepares for the 2015 season.
“Tonight was absolutely invaluable, any time you’re able to come out and practice and be able to compete in front of your fans,” Butch Jones said. “It was 40,000, so again, very, very special for a practice. It is a tremendous evaluation tool to see how our players perform when there’s people in the stands.”
Jones made sure those who made the trek to campus weren’t disappointed. The third-year Vols head coach started the day with the Circle of Life drill, pitting two players against each other in an intense and physical one-on-one blocking battle.
Afterwards, Jones called for an array of different scenarios to foster competitiveness, evaluate his team and entertain the thousands in attendance.
The crowd especially enjoyed the offensive line going up against its defensive counterpart one-on-one. Jones is still trying to sort out his front five and their backups on the offense, and drills such as that in front of a crowd play into his desire for competitiveness as he continues to shuffle his ever-changing O-line.
“Right now we want competitiveness,” Jones said. “We’re trying to identify the top seven individuals.”
It helped that key pieces to the offense returned after missing earlier practices with injuries. Among those who came back was starting tight end Ethan Wolf, who allowed the offense to be more dynamic with his 6-foot-5, 243-pound presence.
“[The passing game] was better tonight. I think it’s a byproduct, again, of getting everyone back on the field,” he said. “Having Ethan Wolf in practice I thought was obviously a benefit for our offense.”
Wolf, who was also held out earlier in the week with an unspecified injury, slipped behind the defense during skeleton work to haul in a big play and also did well in one-on-one drills in the red zone.
“You never really realize how much it sucks to sit out until you do,” Wolf said. “I got a taste of it last year … but I certainly wanted to be out there with the rest of the team. My brother’s out there, so it felt great to be back and everything feels great.”
“We’ve got a really talented room. A lot of guys are coming along,” hybrid defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said. “A lot of guys got experience. We’ve got a really good unit.”
The practice featured a little bit of everything, from situational scrimmaging to a quarterback competition to see who could hit the field goal crossbar first. Through it all, the announced 40,000 in attendance stayed engaged and excited as they watched Tennessee in person.
The large crowd and fanfare surrounding the practice session was a nice boost of energy for the players, but to Butch Jones’ “team CEO,” Saturday was simply another day at the office.
"It's always full-go for us,” quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “We don't really take any days off, so anytime we step on the field we're working to get better. We talk about it all the time, so it's just another opportunity for us to perfect our craft, work on our timing, and for the young guys to get exposed to Neyland Stadium, under the lights, in front of our great fans."
— Linebackers Dillon Bates and Cortez McDowell, offensive lineman Jack Jones, cornerback Justin Martin, defensive back Stephen Griffin, wide receiver Marquez North, offensive lineman Jashon Robertson, safety Todd Kelly Jr. and wide receiver Jason Croom did not participate.— Running back Alvin Kamara and defensive back Evan Berry wore green limited contact jerseys.