KNOXVILLE — First-year University of Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley was glad to see his offense, particularly quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray, leave Tuesday’s Neyland Stadium scrimmage in a pleasant mood.
The offense, including the youngsters and walk-ons, didn’t lose a single turnover. Simms and Bray combined to complete 20 of 43 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. The Volunteers’ top four tailbacks combined for 127 yards and a touchdown on just 20 carries.
“It was a good day,” Simms said. “Obviously we’re not where we need to be, but we got better today.”
Dooley didn’t want the offense too pleased, though. And he didn’t want the defense too discouraged. The coach hoped Wednesday’s brief walk-through and extended meetings would put the scrimmage in its proper perspective.
The bottom line, according to Dooley, is that the Vols have a long way to go and precious little time to get there.
But confident quarterbacks are never a bad thing, he added.
“I hope they gained a little bit (of confidence),” Dooley said. “They should have. They did a good job. But here’s what’s going to happen, and it always does. You look at the film, and you go, ‘Ugh, man.’ You always leave feeling a little better, and then you look at the film, and it’s worse. Then on the other side, you leave feeling bad, and you look at the film and go, ‘Oh, OK.’ That’s why you kind of have to be (level).
“But I hope Matt and Tyler got a little more confident. That’s why I have a lot of scrimmages. Even though we didn’t have a lot (of plays), let’s get out there and play. We need it. We’ve got a lot of pups.”
Dooley hoped Wednesday’s recovery day provided enough rest for nicked-up players like sophomore safety Janzen Jackson (hamstring), junior cornerback Art Evans (twisted ankle) and sophomore linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton (muscle strain) to return for today’s two practices.
The Vols will practice at 9:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Dooley also hopes to see senior fullback Kevin Cooper, a former Baylor School star, back on the field soon. Trainers forced Cooper out of the scrimmage with what Dooley called a non-concussion headache.
Sophomore safety Prentiss Waggner also missed a practice this week with a non-concussion headache.
“If you get a headache nowadays, you’ve got to be out for a week,” Dooley joked. “Remember, we err on safety here, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. But ... do you ever see what we ask them to do? Of course you’re going to get a headache. I get a headache out here. I’m going to ask (trainer Jason) McVeigh if I can take a day off for a concussion.
“But we’re doing a good thing.”
Athletically, the Vols think they have a potentially special player in freshman tailback Rajion Neal.
Dooley described everything else as a work in progress — possibly a long process.
“He’s got no idea what he’s doing,” Dooley said. “He doesn’t know one formation. He doesn’t understand what a protection is. A pass route is out of the question. But every now and then, and he just does all that stuff, and you think, ‘OK, we’ve got something to work with here.’ He is as true freshman as a true freshman can be from a football standpoint. But physically, he’s not. He’s got good physical skills. He’s an instinctive runner.
“We’ve just got to go work on him a little bit.”
Neal, a 5-foot-11, 215-pound runner from the Atlanta area, finished the scrimmage with 14 yards on six carries. But his athletic ability has consistently impressed several teammates and coaches, making him a prime candidate for special teams duty.
Special teams update
Dooley said he’s still impressed with all four of his kickers, seniors Daniel Lincoln and Chad Cunningham and freshmen Michael Palardy and Matt Darr.
Palardy went 0-for-2 on Tuesday and had one kick blocked, but Dooley said the second-team protection unit didn’t do his freshman any favors. Palardy also punted twice, averaging 44.6 yards — an identical average to Cunningham’s three attempts. Darr’s two punts averaged 49.5 yards.
Lincoln made both extra-point attempts and connected on a 30-yard field goal.
Dooley has been so pleased with the kickers that he corrected his statement earlier in the week that UT “had zero depth anywhere except the training staff.”
“They’re doing a good job. That’s the update,” Dooley said of his specialists. “It’s going to be hard on me. We’ve got four guys ready to go. We do. And that’s good.
“We’re deep at kicker, so I misspoke the other day — training staff, media, and now you can add kickers and punters to that list.”
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