Tennessee's spring game featured a little bit of everything Saturday: live game action, one-on-one drills, quarterback competitions and even a Peyton Manning pass recreation. The announced crowd of 67,027 — the third-highest Orange and White Game attendance in program history — got its first glimpse of Team 120 as the Vols wrapped up spring practice in style. Some observations:
A whopping 24 players missed this year's spring game due to injury, with other players like Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Darrin Kirkland limited in their participation. In the past, that could have been a major problem for even having an event like the Orange and White Game. This year, though, Tennessee has the depth across the board to make a competitive game despite the host of injuries.
"In year's past, we would have had to cancel the spring game," Jones said. "A lot of those were pre-existing injuries from the fall, and we held individuals out that maybe could have possibly played, but we didn't want to risk anything. I think the overall depth now (is there). We just have to continue to compete in all that we do. You want competition across the board. That's what makes individuals improve."
The wide receiving corps was hit especially hard by mounting injuries, putting even more pressure on rising sophomore Preston Williams to develop into a premier target for Josh Dobbs this spring. The former Scout five-star flashed his skills and showed how he's grown during the offseason, hauling in 77 yards on three catches to lead all receivers.
"Big spring and remarkable progress," Jones said. "It all started with his mentality and his attitude and inner drive to be the best. He'd be in the training room at 6 am on off days getting treatment and in the cold tub. It's a byproduct of his investment in the receiver position, the program and in himself."
Jones said he still has strides to make in his route-running and high-pointing the ball, but Williams' attitude has been transformed through the spring.
Photo by Danny Parker
John Kelly certainly didn't look like Tennessee's third-string running back Saturday. With Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara limited, the rising sophomore stepped up in a big way, rushing for 65 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Kelly finally got his chance to shine and didn't disappoint, but he still understands his niche on the team as a healthy third option behind Hurd and Kamara as he bides his time to take the reins.
"I've never seen any impatience or whatever word you want to term impatient in terms of him," Jones said. "He's an individual who understands his role, accepts his role and competes every single day, and never says two words about it. John Kelly is a great, great team player, and he's learned so much from those other two individuals, but he's going to compete against them now. John Kelly is going to walk in and he's going to expect to play and start. He's just a competitor."
The surprise announcement Butch Jones hinted at turned out to be naming permanent captains for the 2016 season that were voted on by the players. Cornerback Cam Sutton, running back Alvin Kamara, quarterback Josh Dobbs and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin were all named captains by their teammates to create the veteran nucleus of a Tennessee team primed for an SEC title run in the fall.
"It's an honor," Sutton said. "It's a blessing as well. I just do what I can on and off the field to lead this team and lead this program. I try to let my game and what I do out there on the field speak for itself."
Kamara, the only captain who did not come to Tennessee in Butch Jones' inaugural 2013 class, earned the honor through his devotion to the program both on the field and in the recruiting room.
"Alvin, from Day One coming in here, just worked, and he earned the respect immediately of his peers by his work ethic," Jones said. "He's invested in the program. He's invested in everything. When you look from a recruiting standpoint, he always wants to host recruits. He wants to be involved. He understands playing at Tennessee."
Quart'e Sapp concluded his impressive spring with a team-high nine tackles, including a tackle for loss. Sapp may have been the most impressive defensive player of the day as he develops into a viable third option at linebacker for a unit that features two of the best in the SEC in Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr.
"With all the video film I've been watching with (defensive coordinator Bob) Shoop, things have definitely slowed down," Sapp said. "Basically, I just want to be more aggressive and do what I can do. Don't think too much. When I think too much, I slow up, and my biggest asset is my speed, so when I'm thinking too much, I'm not going to be able to show my speed."