KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones has been at Tennessee long enough to realize the importance of paying attention when Peyton Manning has something to say.
The first-year coach said a conversation with the Denver Broncos quarterback and former Tennessee star gave him the idea to make one training-camp practice open to the public. Tennessee held that open practice Saturday at Neyland Stadium in front of an announced crowd of 39,000 fans. Most of them stayed throughout the 90-minute session amid steady rain.
The open practice gave the Volunteers something of a dress rehearsal two weeks before the Aug. 31 season opener with Austin Peay. The band was in the stands playing “Rocky Top,” and cheerleaders were on the sidelines.
“It’s definitely not the atmosphere that it’s going to be (on Aug. 31), but it’s close to it,” junior cornerback Justin Coleman said. “It’s as close as you can get to a game.”
This also represented one more opportunity for Jones to re-energize a fan base that had grown weary from three straight losing seasons. Tennessee hadn’t opened any practices to the public under former coach Derek Dooley, who was fired after going 15-21 in three seasons.
“I think it’s great,” said Matt Harrell, who made the three-hour trip from his Murfreesboro home to watch the practice. “I’ve never seen a collegiate Division I practice, and it’s a good way to let the fans see what the guys do behind the curtain, the things we never get to see.”
They got to see Jones continue his preseason routine of carrying a microphone around the practice field and calling players by name to offer instruction.
“It’s officially football time in Tennessee!” Jones shouted amid applause as he introduced a red-zone drill.
Most of the fans stuck around even when it started raining about a half hour into practice, though they did run toward the covered area toward the back of the stands.
“When I saw the rain, I was afraid,” senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “I was (thinking), `Aw, man, everybody’s going to leave.’ But they stayed and they fought through it.”
When he announced before training camp that one practice would be open to the public, Jones said the topic arose during a discussion with Manning, who visited campus in April to speak at Tennessee’s coaches clinic.
Jones said Manning mentioned how the NFL had the luxury of exhibition games, allowing coaches to learn more about a team before the start of the season. Jones wanted to give his players a chance to perform before a big crowd at Neyland Stadium in an atmosphere that resembled a preseason game as much as possible.
The setting could prove particularly helpful for the freshmen who didn’t enroll early and participate in the spring game. Jones has said anywhere from 13 to 17 freshmen could end up playing this season.
“That’s the best thing about being able to practice in this type of environment,” Jones said. “Two weeks from today, it’s real. Like I told our football team, two weeks from today, there are no do-overs. There are no rewind buttons or reset buttons.”