KNOXVILLE — A familiar chant filled Neyland Stadium on a chilly Friday night.
“Eric Berry! Eric Berry!”
Tennessee’s All-America defensive back had just intercepted an errant Jonathan Crompton pass, eliciting the cheers from an estimated crowd of 1,500 who braved the cold and rain to watch the Tennessee football team cap its first week of spring practice.
No, it wasn’t the real thing, but it came close.
“It was pretty much a game atmosphere,” said Berry, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and avoiding contact in the spring drills.
The Volunteers ran plays in full pads at Neyland for about an hour and a half after an earlier workout that focused on individual drills at Haslam Field just across campus.
The atmosphere rubbed off on UT’s new coaching staff, too.
“It was really neat,” UT’s first-year head coach Lane Kiffin said. “Our players felt it and our coaches felt it. It helped us a lot to have an energetic practice.”
Tennessee running backs excelled Friday, highlighted by big runs from Montario Hardesty and Lennon Creer.
“He’s one of the first guys to buy into what we were doing,” Kiffin said of Hardesty, a rising senior. “He was out there leading groups in offseason conditioning. He’s really worked hard for this. He’s really studied the systems.”
Hardesty said he made a point of embracing the new offensive system.
“I was just excited coming into this season and getting last season out of my mind. (Former UT) Coach (Phillip) Fulmer was gone. I was upset that that happened. But we had to move on. I wanted to come out as a leader and show the guys to come out and work.
“This is my last season and I want to go out with a bang.”
Hardesty said he has liked the direction of UT’s running game under Kiffin.
“I think this offense is very running-back friendly. I think everything starts with the running back in play-action. This offense is definitely going to feature us.”
Before they can become the focal point, though, UT tailbacks need to concentrate on completing plays and not letting up, running backs coach Eddie Gran had said Thursday.
“Finish is a huge part of our football team,” Gran said. “We still have got to learn to finish on every single play. It looks like we started out really, really well, and then as the team goes on, you want to make sure that they’re doing the same thing that they were doing at the beginning of practice.”
But Hardesty, Gran said, may be an exception to that critique, at least early on.
“I like Montario’s quickness,” Gran said. “It looks like he’s being a senior and trying to lead. That’s something that’s really important. I love the way he finishes. That’s something everyone can learn from.”
Tennessee quarterbacks were far from flawless Friday night. Crompton and Chattanooga’s B.J. Coleman each threw at least one interception and had a fumble in the wet conditions.
In response to a botched exchange between Crompton and center Josh McNeil, both players had to run a lap around the field as punishment.
“The ball’s so valuable,” Kiffin said. “The turnover margin is how you win or lose games more than anything else that you do.”
Players will be on spring break next week and return to practice March 24.
“Overall, for the first week and three practices, I’m very pleased where we’re at,” Kiffin said. “It’s good to have this break now, so guys can get away and come back. We’re going to keep installing stuff and continue to grow as a team.”