UT Vols enjoy playing in front of 40,000

UT Vols enjoy playing in front of 40,000

August 17th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee coach Butch Jones, center, gets a cooler of ice dumped on him while participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge at the conclusion of the Tennessee football team's open practice at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Von Pearson took his official recruiting visit to Tennessee last year for the Volunteers' upset win against South Carolina.

The junior college transfer receiver played in front of an announced crowd of nearly 69,000 at Neyland Stadium for Tennessee's Orange and White game in April.

This, however, was a practice, not even the Vols' first of the day, but that didn't stop Tennessee fans from coming out in droves.

Pearson played in front of crowds of 200 people at Feather River College in California the last two years, but he and the Vols practiced in front of an estimated crowd of 40,000 at Neyland on Saturday night.

"I know they're hungry for us to win some games," he said. "I know if we win some games, this whole town is going to go erupt. I'm very happy about that.

"We all talk about that, especially our seniors," Pearson added. "Curt [Maggitt], A.J. [Johnson] and [Justin] Worley, we all talk about, 'Man, we need to start winning.' This town wants us to win so they can erupt."

The fans present for the nearly two-hour practice likely came away with mixed reviews. The Vols clearly are flashier and more athletic at receiver and tight end than they were entering 2013, but questions remain about the defense, particularly at the line of scrimmage and in the secondary.

"We needed this for the overall development of our football team," second-year coach Butch Jones said. "Half our team walked in here tonight, and they're like, 'Boy, this is the largest crowd I've ever played in front of.'"

Freshman linebacker Dillon Bates has been to his share of Tennessee games at the 102,455-seat fortress, but Saturday night was his first chance to play on the field where his dad, Bill, starred in the 1980s.

"I definitely got those butterflies coming in," he said. "I don't know how many people were here, but to come out with all these fans just coming to watch practice and just to show how important this team is to the community and the Vol nation, it's just great to see this kind of turnout."

Amid Tennessee's typical practice routine, Jones, always the showman, made sure the crowd got involved.

Citing a new SEC rule allowing piped-in music between plays, the coach made nearly every play in the Vols' few team periods a third down and encouraged the fans to amp up the volume while a remix of a popular rap song -- titled "Third Down for What," no less -- blared over the speakers.

Jones put Tennessee's kicking trio of George Bullock, freshman Aaron Medley and Derrick Brodus on the spot with a series of kicks. Medley line-drived in a 50-yarder, but the three combined to miss six from 51 yards. Each was more accurate from shorter distances, though.

"Kicking 51-yard field goals is a challenge in and of itself, but we just want consistency," Jones said. "They continue to get better and better. It was invaluable for them to come in here and kick in front of a great crowd.

"You can't simulate that in practice, so that was big for us, and it'll be a great evaluation tool. It's one of those competitions that'll go right down to game day."

For Worley, named the Vols' starting quarterback Thursday, it was business as usual.

Tailback Marlin Lane said the senior's been "the same ol' Justin" since Thursday.

"To me, Justin's the same guy whether he's starting or not," Lane added. "He still has the same demanding voice. He still comes to practice and workouts high and energetic, just ready to go."

In front of a crowd craving success, the Vols moved closer to the season opener against Utah State in two weeks.

"It just shows how excited these people are to watch us play," Bates said. "We've been practicing for weeks, and to finally come out here and show them what we've been working on, what we've been doing behind closed doors and for them to actually watch us do what we do on a daily basis, it's really just exciting for us and for them, too."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.