University of Tennessee NCAA college football coach Butch Jones, center, poses with his signing class' midterm enrollees in Knoxville. The players are, from left to right: Daniel Helm, Neiko Creamer, Josh Malone, Von Pearson, Emmanuel Moseley, Dontavius Blair, Owen Williams, Ethan Wolf, D'Andre Payne, Coleman Thomas, Dimarya Mixon, Jalen Hurd, Jakob Johnson, and Ray Raulerson.AP Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Saul Young
KNOXVILLE — A few of Tennessee's spring football practices have run a little long for Owen Williams.
On more than one occasion, the defensive tackle, a junior college transfer who joined the Volunteers in January, has come inside after practice and jogged in full gear the length of the indoor field inside the Anderson Training Center.
There's a rather obvious motive to the extra work.
"Owen was really going strong early, then kind of hit the wall -- due to his background a little bit, due to his conditioning level a little bit," defensive line coach Steve Stripling said following Tuesday's practice.
"He's got a little bit of [Corey] Vereen in him," the veteran assistant added, referring to the Vols' hard-working sophomore defensive end. "A lot of times you'll find Owen up on the treadmills with his knee braces on. He's got a little bit of that Vereen-ism in him that nobody's going to outwork him. He's got a long way to go, and he knows that, but I like his attitude."
The Vols lost the top five players off their defensive line from 2013, which made a juco addition paramount for the 2014 class. In the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Williams, Tennessee found a bowling bowl of a lineman who earned second-team All-American honors last season for Butler Community College in Kansas. He had seven sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2013.
Yet as for many linemen going from the relatively lax atmosphere of junior college to the rigorous demands of a big-time college football program, the transition takes time, and the Vols are glad to get that out of the way now with Williams.
"That's the real advantage in a junior college player coming at midyear, because his spring ball's been invaluable," Stripling said. "Coach [Butch] Jones was telling the guys today, 'Hey, if we took this number of practices, we'd be halfway through preseason camp.'
"By being here now, Owen, hopefully, will get his conditioning level, his mental reps and all those aspects up to speed earlier."
With Trevarris Saulsberry out for spring, Williams has gotten a handful of first-team repetitions at tackle alongside Danny O'Brien, though rising senior Jordan Williams has been shifting inside from end for the past couple of practices.
None of that changes the fact that the Vols will need the newer Williams to be a contributor this season.
"He's one of the strongest guys in the weight room," Stripling said. "He doesn't say boo. The kids like him. Tremendous worker. Typical in that he's got a little bit of a journey to go."
Tennessee's three spring scrimmages have provided the best glimpse into the four-man quarterback race, and one of the common themes has been inconsistency.
With every good play or nice throw, there's been a missed receiver or a turnover or other mistake to counter it.
"We're always hoping to see more consistency," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said Tuesday. "We want to continually improve. We don't want to take two steps forward and one step back. To be a great quarterback, you have to have it.
"Sure, you'll have your errant throws and a couple of stumbles here and there, but you'd rather it be once every 400 plays as opposed to once every 20 plays."
Asked where the Vols quarterbacks fell between those two poles, Bajakian chuckled.
"I threw out some vague numbers," he replied. "We're making too many mistakes. We're missing too many open receivers. We've got to be able to play pitch-and-catch. We just have to continue to play with consistency."
During a brief team period during the open viewing part of Tuesday's practice, Justin Worley and Riley Ferguson took first- and second-team reps, respectively. That furthered the notion that those two are ahead of Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman, which appeared to be the case on Saturday.
Yet the Vols don't appear close to naming a starter or even revealing a pecking order.
"To have a clear-cut starter who we can maximize reps for would be ideal," Bajakian said, "but the good part is they're all competing."
The Vols have been high on freshman tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm even since before they stepped on campus in January, and both were always going to have to play and contribute as first-year players given the lack of depth and quality at the position.
Yet the two have shown more than expected.
"They surprised me," Bajakian said. "We knew they were very athletic. We knew they had great ball skills. They've come in and have played with a level of physicality that's been encouraging.
"They lack a little bit in their physical development, and that's obviously the job of Coach [Dave] Lawson and our strength staff, and I know those guys are going to do a good job in the weight room. They're eager and willing to learn. These tight ends, their futures are very bright."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...