KNOXVILLE — Previously undisclosed alterations to Saturday’s Orange and White game made it look nothing like much of Tennessee’s spring practice.
The defense — playing without several starters, including All-America safety Eric Berry — was put at a decided schematic disadvantage when coaches opted to essentially eliminate blitzes from the game plan. The Volunteers were simple on offense, too, but coach Lane Kiffin admitted the setup tilted the scale to that side of the ball.
The offense’s 41-23 win was a tad misleading, but the defense wasn’t playing two-hand touch. Run-blocking was better than it had been for most of the past month, and the offense’s skill-position players made several big plays. The quarterbacks threw just one interception, no one fumbled and the receivers sprinkled in several tough catches.
“I’m sure you could tell this scrimmage was set up for the offense a little bit, because we didn’t want to show very much,” Kiffin said. “There’s obviously going to be a replay on TV, and that’s a powerful tool for our new opponents, especially early in the year. So our defense was very vanilla, and our offense was very vanilla today. And when you do that, it does help the offense.
“Our defense is going to be really good. Don’t let today make you think anything different about our defense. We’re going to have a great defense.”
Saturday’s lack of identity kept the masses from seeing many of the positives and negatives that came to light in spring drills. It wasn’t a waste, though, according to the coaches and players.
A few things emerged, and not just the clear fact that potential starting quarterbacks Jonathan Crompton, Nick Stephens and Chattanooga’s B.J. Coleman looked much better without defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s complex blitzes invading their backfield.
1. Warren might be ready
Warren, a Florida State transfer who starred at Alcoa High School, finished the spring much better than he started it.
The former tight end asked coaches to move him to wide receiver, but he initially struggled at the new position. Those problems extended off the field, apparently, as Lane Kiffin stripped the player of his No. 1 jersey until he “started acting like we demand our players act.”
Saturday was a different story. Warren, with the single digit back on his uniform, hauled in four passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns.
“Obviously, I needed to perform at a higher level,” Warren said. “I guess Coach expected a little bit more out of me, and I’ve just been putting my heart into it, giving it all I’ve got every day to practice.
“It’s a new position for me. I’ve played a little bit split out but not as much — not on this level. It’s taken a little time for me to get comfortable, but I feel like I’m starting to come into my own a little bit.”
Kiffin praised Warren’s recent turnaround, noting that tailback Lennon Creer left the team with similar struggles.
“Single-digit numbers are very powerful here to have, and so we took it away from him,” Kiffin said. “I think it’s a pretty powerful story. We took Lennon Creer’s away from him, too. One guy responded one way, coming out and having a great spring game, and the other guy quit.”
2. Defensive-line depth still an issue
UT’s injury-depleted defensive tackle corps didn’t seem nearly as dominant Saturday as it’s been most of this spring. Much of that was caused by the rule changes, but the offense also simply took better care of the ball and extended more drives.
Tackles Dan Williams and Montori Hughes, who had generally controlled the line of scrimmage against in ones-versus-ones work this spring, were noticeably winded on a few occasions.
“On those long drives today, you saw our defensive linemen who had been making a lot of plays, all of a sudden ... they’re tired, and they’re not making any plays,” Kiffin said. “It’s a great lesson for our guys to see.”
3. Berry makes a big difference
Not surprisingly, UT’s pass-catchers were more productive with Berry out of the lineup.
Berry has been forbidden from full contact since offseason shoulder surgery, but he practiced every day and left the field only during hitting periods.
Several Vols left their feet to make tough catches, sometimes over the middle of the field.
Quintin Hancock, UT’s biggest receiver, capped a sterling spring Saturday by leading the team with eight catches for 96 yards. He showed nimble feet several times, tiptoeing the sideline and staying in bounds to extend or finish possessions.
“He just continues to make play after play, and that’s great to see,” Lane Kiffin said of Hancock.
4. New tailbacks better be ready
Montario Hardesty, Tauren Poole and Toney Williams — the team’s three scholarship tailbacks this spring — each averaged at least 4.1 yards per carry Saturday.
Hardesty had 45 yards on 11 carries, and Poole and Williams piled up bigger numbers against mostly the reserve defense. Poole had 78 yards on 18 carries, while Williams collected his 78 on just 13 attempts.
That trio combined for 207 yards gained and just 6 yards lost. Hardesty was never stopped behind the line, and Williams lost 1 yard once.
Highly touted signees Bryce Brown and David Oku will get their chances to earn playing time early in preseason camp, but it won’t be easy to top what UT’s current trio did this spring.
“I think we got after it today on the ground,” offensive guard Vladimir Richard said. “You get tired of hearing everybody say you can’t run the ball as an offense, but the only way to end all that is to go out and bust your tail and get it done.”
5. Lincoln not penned in to start
Kicker Daniel Lincoln, a who responded rather inconsistently last season after being a Freshman All-American, continued his erratic spring by missing his only Saturday field-goal attempt (from 30 yards). Walk-on Ethan Ingram was true from 44 and 31 yards.
Kiffin said earlier spring that no one’s job was secured “other than Eric Berry’s.” Lincoln, despite being the only place-kicker on scholarship, would do well to improve before preseason camp.