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August 16, 2014
'Goosebumps,' crowd show Vols' draw
A couple of days ago, Tennessee freshman safety Todd Kelly Jr. joked about how often the Vols hear from head coach Butch Jones about "102-455."
That's the way Jones most often refers to the capacity of Neyland Stadium; a reminder to his players of the magnitude of Tennessee football.
"We probably hear it 102-455 times a day," Kelly Jr. joked.
The Vols didn't have a capacity crowd Saturday night under the lights of Neyland, but they did have a 40,000-person reminder of what Tennessee football represents --- and how much this fan base wants to embrace a program widely viewed as on its way back.
"Goosebumps. Goosebumps when I came in," Jones told VolQuest.com. "And again, just a great illustration that this is a very, very special place. Football is very important, but there's also responsibility that comes along with it from players to coaches to everyone associated with Tennessee football.
"Tremendous turnout, and it will prove to be a great evaluation tool for us but also a great learning experience for a lot of these young players."
A novelty a year ago, the open practice this time might have been all the more revealing while simultaneously being all the more vanilla. Jones admittedly didn't show much --- except the first public viewing of his entire 2014 "Team 118."
When some 43 guys are going through their first-ever pre-season camp, that's peeling back a pretty big layer.
"I know they are hungry for us to win," junior college wideout Von Pearson said. "When we win some games this whole town is going to erupt. I had 200 people at my JUCO games so to have 69,000 at the spring game was amazing.
"We talk about it. Especially the seniors, because we want to win and make the town erupt."
Pearson is the 23-year-old with the meandering path, from McDonald's to Bojangles to amusement park to junior college and, finally, Tennessee. He's seen a few things, but readily admits very little like under the lights of Neyland Stadium.
Dillon Bates is plenty familiar with UT and its heritage; his dad, Bill, is a Vols legend, and the younger Bates can spin stories of his previous forays into Neyland Stadium with ease.
Those, however, were not wearing a Tennessee uniform.
"It's amazing to have this kind of turnout just for practice," said Bates, who continues to impress and earn increasing first-team defense and special teams reps. "We have been working all summer and to get to show off what we are doing is a great feeling.
"A little bit [surprised by the turnout]. I didn't expect that many people to be here. It's great. It just shows how much love the Vol Nation has for this team."
Senior quarterback Justin Worley, minted the Vols' starter a mere 48 hours ago, knows as well as anyone the difficult depths from which this program is trying to rise up. Worley, after all, took his first-ever college snap pinned up against his own goal line at Alabama.
That game was a loss, and the Vols have had too many in recent years. Worley, however, sees the fan base's passion even during a rebuilding project.
"It's awesome; these fans are awesome. Every year, whether we go 5-7 or 13-1, they're coming out and supporting us with their full heart and soul and everything," he said. "They pour it all into this program. Each year there's a newfound excitement for the team. Having this many people out here is great.
"I think Coach Jones has done a great job reaching out to former guys, and in turn reaching out to the whole Vol Nation. He's created a new excitement around this program."
Much of that excitement, Jones knows, emanates from a star-studded 2014 signing class that confidently but not arrogantly bills itself as the group to bring back Tennessee football.
This night was, Jones explained, an invaluable experience for them. It also is a reminder to Jones, the Vols' evangelist whose tent is the open-air Neyland Stadium and any other venue in which his team plays a game, of Tennessee's need for a healthy, successful football program.
"Yes. I understand that, and I'm a Tennessean," Jones said. "We want to get this done, and it's going to take some patience, it's going to take a lot of hard work. But I'm looking forward to it, and I know our players are, too. It's one step at a time, and embrace the process. We're going through that process, but there's no other place like Tennessee. This is an extremely special place, and it's bonded by great people.
"Not very many [places could get this crowd for a practice], and again it shows you the magnitude, the relevance of Tennessee football, but also the standard and expectation behind it as well."