JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Some notes and observations from the defensive side of the ball as Tennessee held its first practice at the University of North Florida in preparation for Friday’s practice:
Jones Happy with UNF Facilities: Tennessee is practicing at the University of North Florida, a school that doesn’t have a football program. But it’s a nice facility located approximately 20 minutes from downtown Jacksonville that has lined the soccer stadium as a football field for the Vols, and has provided the baseball field as an auxiliary field. Butch Jones was satisfied with UT’s temporary practice facility that will host three practices this week.
“Tremendous,” Jones said. “I just walked the fields. They’re in great, great shape – great practice facilities. Hats off to the grounds crew. Again, it’s the TaxSlayer Bowl, it’s first-class, it’s a January bowl game and they’ve done a great job with it.”
Adjusting to the heat: It was a fairly balmy 80 degrees in the Jacksonville area when the Vols arrived on Sunday. Monday’s practice was being held in approximately 75-degree weather with scattered clouds and a fair amount of sunshine. The forecast for Friday’s game calls for temperatures in the low 70s, meaning the Vols will need these practices to acclimate to a climate that’s about 30-35 degrees warmer than what UT has been practicing and playing in over the past couple of months.
“We need this,” Jones said. “We need the sun, we need the humidity, we need the wind elements, we need all that.”
Two players gone: Butch Jones confirmed that two scholarship players – defensive end Jaylen Miller and cornerback D’Andre Payne are not with the team in Florida and indicated that they will help those two find collegiate homes, meaning both are transferring. Miller, a sophomore from Gaffney, S.C., moves on after appearing in 12 games as a defensive end. He saw some meaningful playing time towards the end of the 2014 season and drew positive reviews from the coaching staff multiple times during his two-year UT career.
Payne, a four-star recruit in the 2014 signing class, leaves UT after appearing in eight games this season, primarily on special teams. Payne is the sixth member of the 2014 class to leave the program for various reasons, joining RB Treyvon Paulk, RB Derrell Scott, DE Joe Henderson, DL Dewayne Hendrix and TE Daniel Helm.
Injury/absence update: Defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, who hasn’t played in several weeks due to a knee injury, continues to practice and went through some contact reps on Monday. Defensive end Curt Maggitt was practicing with a small brace on his ankle. As expected, no sign of suspended players DB Michael Williams and LB A.J. Johnson. LB Dillon Bates is with the team, but isn’t dressing out as he continues to rehab from his torn labrum.
Physical practice: While Butch Jones indicated that a lot of the game planning and prep had been done in the pre-Christmas practices in Knoxville, he said Monday’s practice would still be a physical one with the Vols working in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. There were some good pops during the open periods of practice as the defense rotated through various technique drills with a lot of the focus being on hand placement and tackling.
Special teams notes: Punter Matt Darr was killing the ball during the open portion of practice, sending off some of the best punts we’ve seen in practice all year. That’s a good sign for the redshirt senior who will be playing in his final game on Friday. The Vols have a lot of options at kickoff returner, but it looks like Evan Berry, who is currently fifth in the nation in kickoff return average, will be the starter with Malik Foreman joining him as the up-back. Devrin Young, who is returning from a rib injury, worked with the second team along with receiver Johnathon Johnson.
Henderson in attendance: Former Vol and Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle John Henderson was a spectator at practice and spoke to the team on Monday. We’ll have more about what Henderson told the team later on RockyTopInsider.com.