KNOXVILLE - Butch Jones typically is pretty upbeat, and he certainly appeared that way again Friday evening.
Tennessee's football coach had just completed the first session of his second spring with the Volunteers, and though he repeatedly noted it was just one practice in helmets, Jones said, "I liked what I saw" more than just a couple of times.
At the very least, it was an encouraging start in the eyes of Tennessee's coach.
"I really liked our energy," Jones said. "I liked our enthusiasm. I like our leadership. I joked around about it, but I was kind of serious: We may have completed more passes in one skelly [a 7-on-7 passing drill] than we did all of last year."
Tennessee will return to Haslam Field for practice at 9 this morning, giving the players a quick turnaround from an opening salvo that lasted roughly three hours on a gorgeous afternoon in Knoxville.
Jones noted that the arrival of 14 newcomers caused a "night and day" difference in the air of practice, and four of those new guys -- receiver Von Pearson, tight end Ethan Wolf, left tackle Dontavius Blair and right tackle Coleman Thomas -- ran out with the first-team offense during one open team period.
Also encouraging for Jones was an improvement in team speed and a greater playmaking ability by some of the new pieces on offense.
"There was an energy," he said. "There was a spirit. There was a competitiveness that I hadn't seen before. I thought our older players did a tremendous job of really taking leadership of going drill to drill. There was a competitive spirit.
"Again, it's easy for day one. Let's see day two, day three, day four."
Nearly 10 months removed from tearing his ACL, linebacker Curt Maggitt still felt like he wasn't himself four games into last season, so he sat down with Jones and made the decision to take a redshirt season.
In hindsight, Maggitt feels it was the right call.
"Leading up to the decision, it was stressful," he said. "It was a tough decision to make. After that decision, I feel like it helped me out a lot. I was able to focus on more schoolwork and focus on my rehab and treatment and become a better player on and off the field."
Jones has praised Maggitt countless times since last season for his leadership, even calling him the "heart and soul" of the team earlier this offseason, even though he's never seen the 6-foot-3, 239-pounder play in a game.
"He gets everything he deserves," Jones said. "He earns everything. He takes everything that you tell him, and he takes it to heart. He internalizes it. He's a thinker. He's extremely intelligent, and he has a lot of confidence. He has very high expectations for himself and demands a lot out of himself.
"It's one thing to be a leader and be a heart and soul, but really to be a leader, when you start holding others accountable, it starts with you. His level of accountability for himself is extremely high."
Maggitt said his teammates were supportive of his decision and noticed how he went about things even while out.
"If I could have been out there, they knew I would have been out there," he said.
"I feel like the guys know that I love the game, and it's not a show. I truly enjoy being here at the complex and I truly love Tennessee, so even though I wasn't on the field physically, I was on the sideline, at away games and on scout team. I gave my all. I feel like the guys see that, and I feel like they respect that."
Tennessee considered moving starting cornerback Justin Coleman to the nickel back spot at times last season, but the move never materialized, and the Vols stuck with the the duo of former walk-on JaRon Toney and freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford at the fifth defensive back spot.
With some better options at corner this spring, Coleman got some reps at nickel with the first-team defense during one of Friday's open team periods.
"I feel like I'm a linebacker," said the rising senior, who's started 25 games in three seasons. "I feel a little bit bigger. I am a little bit bigger, but I know you can make a lot of plays at nickel. You play a lot on the run and stop a lot of passes.
"Everybody relies on the nickel, and what they expect out of us is a lot of plays made."
The development of rising sophomore Malik Foreman and Riyahd Jones, in his second year in the program after transferring from junior college, and the arrivals of freshmen D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley, whose speed is noticeably impressive already, gives the Vols more options at corner.
Tennessee's coaches were frustrated by the lack of production at the nickel spot last season, and Coleman appears to be a big factor in addressing it.
"I was definitely paying attention," he said, "because I hear it every week: They needed help at the nickel. That's just something I was willing to step up to."
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Justin King missed Friday's practice because his mother underwent emergency surgery. ... Junior Devrin Young was working with Tennessee's tailbacks, though he'll continue to play receiver. The Knoxville native moved to wideout from the backfield last season. ... Offensive lineman Austin Sanders from Bradley Central, who redshirted last season, is working at guard.
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