TaxSlayer Bowl Offensive Practice Notes: 12/29

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    JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Team 118 took to the practice field for the first time since their arrival in Jacksonville on Monday afternoon at the University of North Florida’s Hodges Stadium. The conditions were slightly different that what the team left behind in Knoxville; with sunny skies, 75 degree weather and 76-percent humidity greeting the Vols as they took the field.

    Butch Jones said that getting his team some work in the heat, humidity and wind was “critical” heading into Friday’s matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes at 2:20pm in EverBank Stadium.

    The media were given four open periods of practice to observe on Monday. Here are some notes from the offensive side of the ball:

    Quarterbacks: Early returns on Joshua Dobbs‘ ability to throw the football in northern Florida are very favorable for the Vols’ sophomore signal caller. Dobbs opened practice by throwing some 50-yard passes with ease as his “warmup” before transitioning into a game-like setting with his tight ends and receivers.

    Dobbs was a touch rusty to start the skeleton work with his tight ends and receivers, but he settled down quickly and really looked sharp throughout the remainder of the open periods. It is difficult to know for sure, but based on how much coaching and explaining offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian was giving to his skill-position players, it would appear that the Vols were working on some new concepts in the passing game specifically for Iowa.

    Receivers/tight ends: The most notable item from this group was that Von Pearson was without any type of apparatus on his ankle for the first time since he injured it against Arkansas State. Pearson looked smoother and more confident than he has in months and made a few very acrobatic catches in the end zone that drew praise from both receivers coach Zach Azzanni and head coach Butch Jones. I’m not ready to announce my MVP prediction for Friday just yet, but Pearson could be in for a huge day if his ankle is truly 100-percent – he is just a different level of athlete when healthy.

    Outside of Pearson it was business as usual for the receivers and tight ends. Josh Malone had a toe-tapping touchdown reception on a high pass from Nathan Peterman and Johnathon Johnson also made a similar play on a ball from Joshua Dobbs that caused Mike Bajakian to shout with excitement. Pig Howard looked explosive on his routes and made a few nice snags, as did Ryan Jenkins and Vic Wharton.

    Running backs: It was strictly drill work and fundamentals for Robert Gillespie’s group during the open portion of practice. The skeleton crew of Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young worked on ball security, pad leverage and blocking as Gillespie looked on. With one game to play it shouldn’t be too much of a problem, but that is a group that really needs to add some depth in a hurry. Luckily for them it appears that help is on the way in 2015, because they barely have enough guys to complete certain drills and coach Gillespie frequently has to serve as the second or fourth man in certain drills that involve multiple players.

    It may also be worth watching them on Friday to see how they respond to contact early in the game. Due to injury concerns and in attempt to keep them fresh, all of the players mentioned above have been wearing green, no contact jerseys for the last month or so. How they react to a physical Iowa defense could be a huge factor in this game.

    Offensive line: It was a typical day for Don Mahoney’s group as they also worked mostly on fundamentals and technique. This is a group that appears to be on the verge of being totally healthy for the bowl game – or, at least as healthy as they can expect to be at this point. Jacob Gilliam appeared to be moving well on his torn ACL and Mack Crowder looks to be close to full-go after suffering a nasty injury against Kentucky that caused him to miss the final two games of the regular season.

    Injury notes: With the exception of Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Devrin Young all wearing green jerseys, there didn’t appear to be any other ‘injury’ notes to report…just the ‘healthy’ notes on Crowder, Gilliam and Pearson.