The Vols hit Shields-Watkins field in Neyland Stadium tonight for the first and only open practice of the preseason. Roughly 40,000 fans made their way to the stadium to watch Tennessee go through about two hours of work that featured a lot of drills and very little “live” football. Here are some quick takeaways from tonight:
More Darr: I know I have been waiving the Matt Darr flag throughout the summer, but he continues to look like a real weapon for Tennessee. They allowed Darr to get a lot of kicks in tonight and he performed extremely well in front of the crowd. Darr was consistently kicking the ball 45-55 yards in the air with a few sprinkled in that went even further than that. His release is quick and his hang time has been outstanding all camp; he really looks poised for a big year.
Gaulden Making a Move: Rashaan Gaulden kept his streak of solid practices going by putting together another strong night’s work. Gaulden had an interception off of Justin Worley in one on one drills and had another pass break up on a later play. Butch Jones said after practice that Rashaan has really stood out over the last three or four practices as a player who is beginning to understand what it takes to play at this level. Gaulden missed some time early in camp with some minor injuries but looks to have bounced back just fine. With all of the recent shuffling in the secondary recently there may be a chance for Gaulden to make a strong move up the depth chart.
Weatherd Finding a Role: One thing is extremely clear when watching Chris Weatherd work during blitz drills: this guy is FAST. Weatherd just has such an explosive burst when making his first move to the quarterback and he often gets to the offensive lineman before the player is even out of his stance. He has a very strong punch&swim move that has a tendency to leave blockers stunned, giving him a clear path to the quarterback where he arrives violently. It isn’t clear how much we can expect to see him in the base defensive packages, but he will certainly have a role on third downs or in obvious passing situations.
Malone Will be Fine: There has been some recent worry among some fans that Josh Malone has been struggling somewhat in practice. After seeing him perform tonight, it is clear that all of that worrying was pointless. Josh Malone is simply a gamer. Josh dials his intensity level up when the lights go on, and while that may not be what his coaches expect from him, it was certainly nice to see him turn it up a notch. Josh made a few very nice catches during one on one drills and again during the skeleton work against strong coverage and just looked much more focused tonight on the bigger stage. The coaches will want to see it in practice, but even they will be pleased with what they got out of Malone tonight.
Joe Henderson Showing Flashes: Lost in all of the success of freshmen Dewayne Hendrix and Derek barnett has been the efforts of fellow newcomer Joe Henderson. Henderson has been a little slower to pick things up thus far in fall camp, but made a few plays tonight that showed why he was such a highly rated recruit. During the third down scrimmage setting Henderson was getting an incredible first step off of the ball on the snap and was getting some strong pressure on the quarterbacks. Much like Gaulden, Henderson has been a little bit late in putting things together but has really come on strong in recent practices and looks like he may still have a chance to earn a role on this team.
Kick From 50, Not 51: It was a pretty solid night for the place kickers tonight considering it was the first time that two of the three have kicked in front of a crowd. George Bullock, Aaron Medley and Derrick Brodus all looked strong on kicks from 42 and 50, going a combined 7/10 from that range. It was a different story, however, when the ball was backed up to make it a 51-yard kick, as the kickers went 0/6 from deep. Keep that in mind when we get into the season and we are faced with a long field goal attempt.
Jones the Showman: It’s no secret that Butch Jones comes off a little dry when he goes on the radio or television, but put that man on a practice field with his team and he is a different person. Jones just has a completely different demeanor when he is getting after guys and teaching his team about football, it really is refreshing to see. He had some fun with the crowd tonight as well, encouraging those in attendance to get loud during their third down work and during the field goal attempts. Jones told the crowd that due to a new SEC rule prohibiting music on third downs this fall he wants “…everyone in the great state of Tennessee to hear us in Knoxville” on Saturday nights.
Saulsberry Goes Down: At the start of the eleven on eleven work the Vols got a scare as junior Trevarris Saulsberry went down on the play and stayed down on the field for a few minutes. Saulsberry was eventually helped off of the field by trainers and teammates and didn’t put any weight on his left leg. It appeared as if the training staff was looking at his knee which has been the unfortunate narrative for Sauslberry during his career at Tennessee. With the depth issues at defensive tackle, he would have certainly been in the rotation and has actually looked really good over the last week or so. The significance of his injury is unknown at this time, but the vibe after practice wasn’t a good one.
First Team Jashon: As we mentioned, Jashon Robertson is currently running with the first team offensive line and has looked very strong in his first week at the position. After the practice, Butch Jones as raving about his freshman guard and said that he has been a “real blessing” for this team. Robertson has made a seamless transition from his initial defensive tackle position and looks like a four-year starter in the making. He came in as one of the strongest players in his class and simply looks like he belongs on an SEC offensive line. He definitely has a bright future ahead of him in the trenches for Tennessee.
Hurd’s Progress: Jalen Hurd continues to put together an absolutely fantastic camp. Hurd ran well tonight and his progress between where he was in the spring to where he is now has been tremendous. He is running with confidence, he is running with leverage and he is running with attitude. Some of the players on defense need to be thanking their lucky stars that it wasn’t a full tackling scrimmage tonight, because Hurd would have made a lot of them look foolish. Arm tackles simply don’t work on the freshman running back and he possesses the speed to outrun most defensive players to the edge and beyond. It’s safe to say that he and Marlin Lane are currently splitting first team reps at running back and Hurd looks like he has is mind set on taking the first snap.