<strong>KNOXVILLE —</strong> Tennessee’s quarterbacks are back in the red jerseys.
Friday’s practice was the first of training camp, and it likely won’t make or break who starts the season under center, and the Volunteers are glad that’s the case.
The Vols regularly chart the number of footballs that hit the Haslam Field turf in practice and aim for an efficient 15 to 18.
First-year coach Butch Jones counted 66 for the August debut.
“There’s always tomorrow,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “It’s like a baseball player that may have a bad day at the play. Well, tomorrow he has the opportunity to step up to the plate and go 3-for-3 with two home rins and a couple of stolen bases or something.
“For our guys, hey, tomorrow’s performance does not depend on today’s performance. We have a snap-and-clear mentality whether you had a great day or a poor day. You’re going to come out tomorrow with the goal of executing consistency.”
Jones said he still wants more leadership and assertiveness from his quarterback quartet of junior Justin Worley, redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
“The reps have been a little bit different,” said Worley, the clubhouse leader, “but everybody’s getting them.”
Compared to the elder duo, the two newcomers, with their wiry statures, looked like freshmen.
In how they managed their first full speed college practice? “They looked like freshmen,” Jones said.
As for Worley and Peterman, they’ve impressed Bajakian off the field, but it’s too early to tell much of anything on it.
“In the meeting room, they are so sharp,” the coordinator said. “It’s almost to a point where I have to find ways to challenge them in the meeting room. On the field, with such limited install in without pads, it’s hard to get a feel for where they are right now compared to the end of spring.
"Mentally, I thought the guys did a great job. We didn't have many [missed assignments]. Guys were overall in the right positions. It was our execution, it was our pitch-and-catch, the gimme plays that I wasn't happy with and where we need to improve."
Tennessee’s running backs are using the first three days of non-padded practices to sharpen the details.
“Like Coach [Jones] says, we’ll find out who the real running backs are when we get pads on,” redshirt freshman Alden Hill said, “but right now [there’s] no room for error. We can’t be making mistakes now, because once the pads get on it gets real, and that’s when we see who the real guys are and who the warriors are. Right now, we’re just making sure we’re making no mistakes, taking reps and staying in the playbook.”
The Vols have a couple of proven options in Rajion Neal, last season’s leading rusher, and Marlin Lane, who’s back from a spring suspension.
“It’s wide open,” Neal said. “Coach says there’s no depth chart, and you’ve pretty much got to go out there and compete every day and just enjoy competing. I think competition brings out the best in everybody.”
Hill, a solid between-the-tackles runner at 215 pounds, is carrying over confidence from his strong end to spring practice.
“I’m confident that I can do it,” he said. “Now I know I can do what I can and what’s asked of me, but I’m not content where my position is or where we’re at right now as a group. I’m still hungry, and it’s still the same thing — play as if I’m on scout team — so nothing’s changed.”
Though he’s a senior about to play his third season for the Vols, defensive tackle Maurice Couch felt he was making a debut Friday after he missed spring practice while he recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
“The coaches never saw me do anything, and I was at 100 percent today,” he said. “Overall I felt real good. I made mistakes, but overall I felt like practice was good.”
The 6-foot-2, 304-pounder doesn’t feel he’s behind after missing every rep of spring football, but he also knows he must prove himself to a new coaching staff.
“We work on technique and we do extra things after practice alone, so I feel like I’m on pace with the team,” Couch said. “[The coaches] only watched me in the past. Me being in this system and a whole new coaching staff — everything’s different. That’s something I use to help push me.”
Tennessee’s first-year players are pretty easy to spot, as the thick black stripes on the crisp white helmets stick out in plain sight. As with many seemingly odd or minute aspects of Jones’ program, though, there’s meaning.
“They have to earn their stripes in our football program,” the coach explained.
Yet stripe removal isn’t in the coaching staff’s hands. Each newcomer has a “big brother” on the team, an older player in the same position group. They decide when the stripes come off.
“When they earn their stripes,” Jones said, “they’ll come up and they’ll pull that stripe off their helmet because they’ve earned that.”
Players’ names have returned to the back of the practice jerseys, too.