Butch Jones saw a faster team when Tennessee opened its pre-season practice Friday night on Haslam Field, but then again Jones also saw a Vols' squad in the NCAA-mandatory helmets only.
So UT's second-year coach didn't draw too many conclusions, noting he'll learn a great deal more about his team following Saturday's daylong slate of football activities.
"Yeah, I did. I saw a much faster football team in all areas in moving around," Jones said just after 10 following the conclusion of a nearly three-hour opening session. "But now it's being able to get off blocks and make plays. But just our overall team speed I could see much improvement.
"Our older players did a great job of coaching our younger players. Everything is about habits, and we're forming our identity, we're forming our style of play. So every rep is critical. Now the challenge for this football team comes about in which you've had one practice, and you can never simulate being in football condition. You can have the greatest summer that you can possibly have, but it never simulates actual football conditioning. And football rewards those who are in great condition so now how do we bounce back. Tomorrow what type of mindset do we have walking in at 7:30 for that team meeting? What's our mental approach in everything that we do? Everything is about the habits, and football is a lifestyle. That's where that lifestyle kind of comes into play right now. Working through the aches and the pains and the adversities that football brings about. Going to be critical moving forward. Thought we did some good things, and obviously a lot of things to correct. But also, you're still (just) in helmets. There's only so much you can do. When the pads go on, we'll know a little bit more and then we'll see how our players can retain the information and move on to much more install (Saturday) as well."
Players and Jones all said they felt the camp lid-lifted moved at a better pace and with more knowledge in the system than both last pre-season or in spring camp, with Jones noting that's the way it should be.
"On offense, everything was tempo and just one play at a time, go out there and try to execute that play. We've got a lot of freshmen, some newcomers in, and as veterans we tried to go out there and help them through the plays as we go fast," senior tailback Marlin Lane said. "I think we met their expectations. Just think we've got to step it up a little bit more."
Defensive tackle Danny O'Brien quickly dismissed any notion that the Vols tip-toed into the start of camp.
"In the SEC there's no taking it easy. We went after it," said O'Brien, a potential starter along the Vols' interior. "Just because we didn't have pads on it doesn't mean we're not running hard to the ball and getting after each other on the field. That's all competition. It doesn't matter if we have pads on or not."
While Jones said every player is being challenged from a retention standpoint, both in meeting rooms and on the field, he candidly described being displeased with his quarterbacks' sharpness for the first day.
"I saw retention from our quarterbacks, but was not pleased with our accuracy," Jones said. "We count balls on the ground, dropped passes, anytime the football touches the ground. We click it, we count it. We had 62 footballs on the ground today all throughout the course of practice. The great teams I've been around, you have about 18 to 20 on the ground. So we have a lot of improvement to do, but I thought our accuracy needs to improve greatly. Our anticipation.
"But a lot of time that happens with full-speed and game-speed repetitions. But we need to continue to get better at that position and all positions."
The Vols return to Haslam Field Saturday afternoon for the second of five-straight days of practices. They'll break Wednesday and also don full pads next week.
Tennessee's defenders are pointing to a series of summer cookouts poolside as keys to their coming together entering the 2014 season. Danny O'Brien, the Michigan native and noted outdoorsman, even provided the entree for one cookout --- from the woods to the table.
"Off the field, we're always getting extra work in together. And then on the weekends, I think there was probably six or seven weekends where we had defensive cookouts out by the pool," said O'Brien, who admitted he had dropped the deer that he eventually cooked for his teammates. "I think that helps out the young guys out. I cooked up some venison for them one day and they liked that a lot. We just had a good time hanging out, getting comfortable around us. That's what makes defenses great is really just feeling comfortable with each other and knowing that the guy next to you has your back as well as you have his.
"Entire defense [gathered]. We've gotten together as a defensive line multiple times, but the entire defense we've had cookouts all summer long."
Redshirt-junior safety Brian Randolph said the Vols' veteran defenders placed a priority on doing all that they could to help ensure a quick start out of the gates for the team's defensive rookies.
"We put them under our wing," said Randolph. "They are easy to work with. They picked up everything every quickly. Sometimes you have to remind them a little more, but for the most part they've been easy to work with."
Converted linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, the team's special teams star a year ago in his freshman season, praised the newcomers' ability to grasp the system but also noted this Tennessee group had taken a greater interest in fostering a relationship during the summer.
"They caught on kind of fast, all the guys that were linebackers and that I can speak for, they looked pretty good out there," Reeves-Maybin said. "They've got to get used to some of the practice habits and things like that, but they're catching on.
"I feel like we're a lot more ready to go. I feel like we did a lot more this summer than last year preparing the young guys so when they get in there they will be ready to go."
For redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson Friday night was the evening he had been waiting on. To open fall camp as a starter on the offensive line after waiting three years for his opportunity. Kerbyson knows everyone is doubting the line's ability and it's a notion the Knoxville native loves.
"I like the fact that people think we are going to be the weak spot. It motivates me everyday," Kerbyson said. "It keeps me going. I think we are more experienced than people think we are.
"I have gotten snaps in games before. It's not like I've never been in a game. I got snaps in every game last year. Marcus Jackson has gotten a lot of starts. Mack (Crowder) has gotten starts. People think we have never played and have no idea what it's like but we really do."
Kerbyson also notes that the chemistry on the interior offensive line is better than anyone knows.
"The past two years whenever the other guys were starting in front of us," Kerbyson said. "Me, Mack and Marcus held ourselves accountable. We called ourselves the best #2's in America. We said that everyday. 'The best 2's in America lets go out there and whip some ass. The chemistry between us is great. We mess together really, really well."
With no pads on, the Vols were full-go from a health standpoint to start practice, but junior wide receiver Cody Blanc did leave practice on crutches with a lower leg injury.
"We will know a little bit more about him after he sees the doctor and has an MRI," Jones said. "That's the one individual that was injured today. We don't know it might be his ankle. It might be his Achilles tendon we are just waiting to see right now."
Blanc had one catch a season ago with a 43-yard reception at Alabama.
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