KNOXVILLE — Unseasonably warm weather wasn’t the only Haslam Field oddity Tuesday afternoon.
For nearly three hours on a nearly 80-degree day, Lane Kiffin directed the University of Tennessee football team.
The new head coach and his new staff conducted the Volunteers through a padless practice, and everyone involved tried to treat it like a normal day. It wasn’t, but they acted otherwise.
“Overall, I’m pretty pleased,” Kiffin said. “Knock on wood ... I thought it was a great start.”
Less than 10 minutes after practice, Kiffin rattled off precise statistics to reinforce that satisfaction. Rising senior Jonathan Crompton and sophomore-to-be B.J Coleman completed 78 and 75 percent of their passes. No fumbled snaps. Two false-start penalties. Two dropped passes. One defensive offside call.
“For two brand-new systems, I was pretty excited about that,” Kiffin said. “I thought they did well. Usually what happens (on the first day) is you get a lot of false starts and dropped balls, but we didn’t do that.
“I don’t know what you guys think, but I thought it looked like we’d been out there a long time. We threw a lot of stuff at them that you wouldn’t normally throw at them until day four.”
Big glitches were hard to spot, other than Demetrice Morley’s unexpected absence. Kiffin held Morley from practice after the senior safety arrived late to a team meeting earlier in the day.
As expected, All-America safety Eric Berry (shoulder surgery) and rising junior quarterback Nick Stephens (broken right wrist) were held from contact. Berry said he’ll have to avoid hitting until preseason camp, while Stephens hopes to return in three or four weeks.
Guard Vladimir Richard said the offense and defense have been competing against each other in scrimmage-like drills, hoping to get a head start under the regime.
Richard said Tuesday was “very high-tempo,” just as coaches promised.
“When Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was here, we had great intensity and great practices ... so it’s not like we’re new to working hard,” said Richard, a rising senior starter. “Now it’s just like we have 20 minutes here, then the horn blows and we’re running over there. It’s kind of like we’re practicing and, at the same time, doing an agility circuit. It was high-tempo, but it was good. Guys were out here working hard. There was a lot of competing.
“I think Coach Kiffin hit it on the head when he had us out here really learning how to compete against each other. That’s how practice has been going a whole lot more smoothly. It was a battle today at the end of practice, and everyone was into it.”
Kiffin said the offense took an early lead and kept it for most of the full-team periods, but the defense came back to win on the last play. Cornerback Brent Vinson had a big play late in the day, diving in to wrestle an interception away from receiver Gerald Jones.
The offense won plays by completing a pass or gaining more than 3 yards on a play. The defense gained points by preventing those things, with incentives for turnovers.
“It was very intense but very upbeat, with a lot of competing,” Crompton said. “It was cool. That made it more competitive and more fun.”
He tried taking Kiffin’s compliments in stride.
“This was the first day,” Crompton said. “Right now, it’s just about the basics. We’ll come back and watch the film and get back out here Thursday. It’s always a good thing to start well, but we need to come back out here and compete Thursday.”
Tuesday was an unprecedented challenge for UT’s defenders. Jim Chaney is the team’s third offensive coordinator in three seasons, but Monte Kiffin is the Vols’ first new defensive coordinator since 1995.
“It was a constant push the whole practice,” rising senior defensive end Wes Brown said. “It was a lot of running, and a lot of mental stuff, too. You get tired, but you’ve got to keep pushing. Overall, it was a lot of fun. The coaches were real intense, and we were having a good time.
“You can line up different and the calls can be different, but in the end it’s all about running to the ball and tackling with high intensity and causing havoc. That’s what we’ve got to maintain.”
Brown either listened carefully to Kiffin or simply agreed with his new coach’s assessment.
“We’re a long ways away from a championship level. Don’t get me wrong,” Kiffin said. “But we’ll push them every day, and we’ll eventually get there.
“They gave us spurts of what we needed to be at a championship level, but then they don’t know how to keep going, so we’ll keep working on it and teach them how to finish.”