KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Let the Butch Jones era for Tennessee football begin.
Actually, it began when he was hired last December to become the fourth Volunteers head coach in six seasons, inheriting a once-proud football program that has produced three-straight losing seasons for the first time in more than a century.
While Jones hit the ground running from Day 1 and has been on display in a variety of ways since, the annual Orange & White Game played here Saturday at Neyland Stadium offered the first glance of the 2013 model of Volunteers for a wins-starved fanbase.
As for the game, the Orange team of defensive players defeated the White team of offensive and special teams players by a basketball-like final score of 95-71. A sophisticated scoring system was implemented and brought about by the team’s lack of depth on both sides of the ball.
“Our tempo has to increase, our physicality, our overall timing in the throw game and our overall endurance as well,” Jones said after the game. “I am very encouraged by what I see. But, obviously, there is a lot of work that needs to be done over the next couple months.”
As for the day, it had to be considered a resounding success. More than 500 former Volunteers players were among the 61,076 who attended. Earlier in the day, more than 25,000 fans participated in Fan Appreciation Day festivities on the stadium field along with Jones, staff and players.
The lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball was evident throughout spring drills and the spring game Saturday, thanks largely to an injury-decimated receiving corps and lack of quality depth across the board.
“What we have to find is playmakers,” said Jones, whose team opens the season Aug. 31 against visiting Austin Peay. “You can’t be perfect in today’s world of football, especially in the SEC. You need individuals that can step up.”
1. If the Volunteers had a team strength last season, it was quarterback Tyler Bray passing to wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter. But that trio departed Tennessee a year early for the NFL.
Just who will emerge as starting quarterback won’t be decided until preseason drills in August, according to Jones. The leading candidates through spring have been junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman.
During Saturday’s spring game, Worley looked to be in most control of the offense, completing 8 of 18 passes for 123 yards and one touchdown. Peterman went 9-for-23 for 98 yards.
“It was a little sloppy, too many penalties, too many (missed assignments),” Worley said. “Those are things we can easily fix. They are just little small things. This summer is going to be huge for us.”
Worley played in five games last season as a backup to Bray after playing in four — starting three — as a true freshman in 2011. At 6-foot-4 and 213 pounds, Worley is more of a traditional pocket passer. The athletic Peterman redshirted last season after being the No. 18-rated prep quarterback in the country by Scout.com out of Fruit Cove, Fla.
2. The defense has no where to go but up after giving up the most points (35.7) and yards (471.4) per game in the SEC last season. The move to a 3-4 alignment in 2012 under former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri never took hold. The Vols have moved back to the 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator John Jancek, who followed Jones to UT from the same gig at Cincinnati the past three seasons.
“I definitely take last year as motivation for this year,” said junior defensive back Brian Randolph, who had three tackles Saturday and an interception with a return of 37 yards. He played only three games last year after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Florida.
“Everything we are doing this year, we are doing it with 10 times more effort,” Randolph added. “ … Last year, we didn’t have any real leaders. This year, we have had some leaders to step up.”
There are some playmakers on that side of the ball, including junior linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
3. The past few weeks, Jones and players, as well as the school’s athletic marketing machine, have made a big deal of attracting fans to the spring game. The Twitter hashtag of #FillNeyland was used, as well as individual player accounts, to help promote the game.
The Volunteers didn’t think they could break the spring game attendance record of 73,801 set in 1986, but they did want to challenge the second-best showing of 51,488 set in former head coach Lane Kiffin’s first and only season of 2009.
Call it mission accomplished for the penultimate spring attendance mark. On a sun-splashed and breezy day along the Tennessee River, the attendance for Saturday’s game was announced at 61,076.
“I would like to thank all of our great fans,” Jones said after the game. “Sixty-one thousand-plus (in attendance) is what makes this the best place in all of college football.”
Senior running back Rajion Neal is currently the only active running back on the roster with any discernible game experience. That came about a few weeks ago with the indefinite suspension of junior running back Marlin Lane for the last four practices and spring game for violation of team rules.
With inexperience at quarterback and receiver, the Volunteers will surely try to run the ball more behind its talented and experienced offensive line. That’s where Neal must come through this season.
On Saturday, he had 34 yards on 11 carries, including a long of 13 yards. He also caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 39-yard gain on a screen pass from Worley. The top rusher was redshirt freshman Alden Hill with 101 yards on 18 carries.
Last season, Neal earned the starting nod at the outset and, despite missing two games because of an ankle injury, rushed for a team-high 708 yards with an average of 4.5 yards per carry. For his career, he has 1,039 yards and seven touchdowns.
If only by size and strength alone, senior defensive tackle Daniel McCullers is one player who has to reap havoc up front for the Tennessee defense to be successful. After all, the former junior-college transfer carries a listed 360 pounds on his 6-foot-8 frame.
In Saturday’s spring game, McCullers got a strong and aggressive push up front, even when facing double-team blocking by opposing offensive linemen. Even so, he still shared the team-high of six tackles, including one for lost yardage.
“I was really encouraged by Dan McCullers today,” Jones said. “I think we have probably pushed him the hardest because we need him to be a dominating defensive tackle. We need him, and he has that ability.”
Last season, McCullers played in all 12 games, starting seven, and led Vols defensive linemen with 39 tackles. After a slow start, he made 35 of those stops in the final eight games.
“We have to get his motor running on every snap,” Jones said of McCullers, who transferred to UT from Georgia Military College. “ … Daniel McCullers can be a playmaker.”