Butch Jones loves to talk about the 102,455 that pack Neyland Stadium for a sold-out home game in Knoxville.
But 40,000 was the magic number Saturday night. That’s how many showed up to watch Tennessee’s open practice – barely topping the estimated 39,000 that showed up for the first open practice under Jones in 2013.
For context, 40,000 is approximately 5,000 more fans than Vanderbilt averaged per game in 2013. Jones was grateful for the opportunity it gave his young team to improve.
“We needed this for the overall development of our football team,” said Jones. “It will serve as a great evaluation tool moving forward, especially with the kicking game and a lot of our young players. A lot of these young players didn’t experience the spring game, so for them to come in here with this kind of environment was extremely beneficial for us moving forward.”
It was as close to a preseason contest as is possible for a college program. The band was there, there was a fair share of 11-on-11 action and the crowd worked to simulate the noise of an SEC stadium.
Jones even took some time to coach up the crowd, instructing it to get as loud as possible on third down when the cue song (a remix of Lil Jon and DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” that instead says “Third Down for What”) came on. With a rule change in effect this season that stadiums can pipe in crowd nose, Jones wants his team to be ready for anything.
“That’s going to be a big change for us, especially when we go on the road with the new rule change of piped-in crowd noise,” he said. “Our players need to learn to play with that and we need to learn to block out distractions. Half of our team walked in here tonight and they were like ‘boy, this is the largest crowd I’ve ever played in front of,’ so when they got the energy going on third down and kind of the new thing we’re going to do – that was great to see.”
“The crowd noise was loud,” added Brian Randolph. “We have to get used to playing in front of people and not worrying about the exterior – just worrying about what’s going on in the field.”
Focus on special teams: Jones used the open setting to put some heat on the specialists – especially the kickers.
There’s still clearly some work to be done. They were generally consistent from inside 50, though kickers Derrick Brodus, George Bullock and Aaron Medley combined to miss the final six attempts from 51 yards.
“We put them in some challenging situations – kicking 51-yard field goals is a challenge in itself,” Jones said. “We just want consistency. They’re continuing to get better and better and it was invaluable for them to come in here to kick in front of a great crowd. You can’t simulate that in practice, so that was big for us. It’ll be a big evaluation tool and it’s one of those competitions that will go right down to game day.”
Michael Williams steps up: Redshirt sophomore walk-on Michael Williams is making some noise at the cornerback spot opposite of Cam Sutton. Williams was seen taking first-team reps there during the practice Saturday morning, and he got extensive work with the starters in the open practice setting as well.
The dual-sport athlete (track/football) ran stride for stride with receiver Marquez North on the first play of live, 11-on-11 action and forced an incomplete pass.
“He was an individual that wasn’t around much in the spring and he’s a dual-sport athlete, which we take tremendous pride here in – track and football working hand in hand together,” Jones said of Williams. “We know the great tradition we have here with that. He’s come in and has worked exceptionally hard every day.”
Injury notes: Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry went down and had to be helped off the field with him unable to put weight on his left leg. Jones didn’t have an immediate update after the scrimmage on his status. DE Curt Maggitt, DE Jaylen Miller, S Geraldo Orta, TE Woody Quinn, WR Johnathon Johnson and WR Vic Wharton all did not participate. RBs Devrin Young, Justus Pickett and Derrell Scott all went through practice in a green, non-contact jersey. TE A.J. Branisel and LT Dontavius Blair were among the other players who trainers attended to at some point during the evening.
ALS Challenge: Jones and all of his assistants accepted the ALS Bucket Challenge and had a bucket of cold water poured over their head after the game to raise awareness for the campaign. Each assistant coach challenged a Vol legend such as Jason Witten, Jamal Lewis or Eric Berry to do the challenge while Jones challenged UT basketball coach Donnie Tyndall, Jon Gruden and Peyton Manning.