Vols embrace renewed 'fun' (with video)

Vols embrace renewed 'fun' (with video)

April 21st, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

UT coach Butch Jones signs autographs before the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - An elevated stage, built for an in-house deejay, stood in the northeast tunnel of Neyland Stadium, barely 15 yards from one of the checkerboards end zones.

Two kids and one reality television star put on their coordinator headsets and called plays.

More than 500 former players were welcomed back to their alma mater with open arms, while fans lined up five-plus hours before kickoff for autographs with coaches and players.

If it wasn't already obvious, the point became clearer Saturday: There's a different atmosphere around the Tennessee football program under Butch Jones.

And now that the Volunteers wrapped up his maiden spring practice with Saturday's Orange and White Game, the focus turns toward an important offseason.

"Coach Jones has just established an environment to where football is fun for us," defensive end Jacques Smith said after his defense took bragging rights in the glorified scrimmage with the modified scoring system. "It's no longer like a job, or just something you must do, or you're coming to work just to get put down, you know what I mean? He's boosted our confidence, our team's confidence, and he's made it fun again.

"You can definitely see it, and you can see it the atmosphere from the fans. Everyone was excited today. Everyone that I shook hands with and talked to, they were really excited to see what Coach Jones was bringing to this spring game."

The announced crowd of 61,076 was the second-highest attendance for the Vols' annual spring game, indicating a revitalization at least around the program that's had three losing seasons in a row and won two SEC games the past two.

As Saturday's play proved, Tennessee has a long way to go in its quest to return to glory, but the day was more about the showcase than the on-field product.

"I think the message is loud and clear, that there's no other place in the country like Tennessee," Jones said. "All you have to do is look at the evidence: the success of the program, the leadership -- people are your greatest resource -- the leadership of our administration, our fan base, our coaching staff. We're going to attract the right players to come play football here at Tennessee.

"Why would you not want to come here, when you see this environment, when you see the chance to build something special? It takes a little bit more from an individual to come here. It's easy for somebody who maybe lacks some competitiveness to say, 'Hey, I want to go to a program that's already established.' I can come here and leave a legacy of getting this storied program back to where it belongs."

The early recruiting efforts of Jones and his staff appear to have fans believing their beloved program is back on track, and Saturday was their first chance to see Jones on display.

"Everything we want to do, especially in events like this, is fan-friendly," he said.

A hoard of former players, including Arian Foster, Al Wilson and Eric Berry, were in attendance. Jones took an eight-play chart to two young fans to select which play Tennessee's offense would run next, and later Justin Martin, one of the stars of A&E's "Duck Dynasty," called for a screen play that went 19 yards. Foster took over the deejay duties at one point.

"I had a pretty good time today, to be honest," said quarterback Nathan Peterman, who finished 9-of-23 passing for 98 yards. "Everybody dreams of getting opportunities in front of maybe 40,000 people. When you had 60,000 today, just for a spring game, it was awesome. To get that opportunity, you just have to enjoy it."

The bulk of the coaches' evaluations and the hardest of the hard work were completed Wednesday, the last full-pads practice of the spring, and the Vols had to balance playing in a relaxed atmosphere while trying to put on a good show and improve.

Quarterback Justin Worley, who was 8-of-18 passing for 123 yards with one touchdown and one interception, said Saturday's game "wasn't about the competition" with Peterman.

"This is what, my fourth spring game? I was trying to have as much fun as possible," senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "I only have seven more [home] games up here. I was just trying to soak it in, but it's still business between the lines.

"I was trying to have fun with it and still focus at the same time."

With the spring showcase in the past, the Vols can turn their focus toward the offseason and the grueling summer workout program that awaits them. Jones said team is not in game shape and wants its tempo, physical play and endurance to increase. The season opener is 132 days away.

"I'm encouraged with our leadership and I can feel this football team growing closer and closer together," Jones said, "but we have to get a lot better over the summer months."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.