Wiedmer: UT Vols fans exited public practice with smiles

Wiedmer: UT Vols fans exited public practice with smiles

August 20th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

UT Vols

KNOXVILLE -- Change.

That's all lifelong Tennessee football fan Brad Hemphill was looking for as he walked into Neyland Stadium for the Volunteers' public practice Saturday evening.

"I don't have great expectations for this season," the Sevierville resident said. "I'd be thrilled with 7-5. I think we're all just hungry for a change from how we've played the last two or three years."

Change isn't always for the better. Just ask any Kentucky basketball fan who suffered through two years of Billy Gillispie after begging for Tubby Smith to leave.

And when you're on your fourth head coach in six years -- as UT football is with the arrival of Butch Jones -- it's ludicrous to believe growing pains are a thing of the past. However sharp Jones and his staff may be, they're still coaching at least a few players who are on their third head coach and scheme in five years. Not exactly a formula for reaching the SEC title game for the first time since 2007.

But that doesn't mean the 36-year-old Hemphill -- given 48 hours to digest Saturday's workout -- wasn't still impressed Monday.

"I think we're doing better," he said. "We've still got improving to do, but I also think we'll be sitting pretty in two or three years. Just the passion Jones has, the way he can get his players fired up. I liked what I saw."

Jason LaFollette has been going to Big Orange games since he was 5 years old. Now 37, he entered Neyland on Saturday wanting to see "some sort of consistency and discipline. I think that's been lacking the last few years."

His thoughts Monday: "I thought they looked a whole lot different than under [former coach Derek] Dooley. I'm still worried about quarterback and running back, but I think we've got more playmakers than I thought we might have. I definitely think we looked like we were more organized and more intense. It wasn't a three-ring circus out there for a change."

In other words, two weeks from the season opener against Austin Peay, the Vols didn't look like a team likely to be penalized for too many players on the field on the final snap of the game (at LSU, 2010), or forced to call a timeout before a punt at Mississippi State last season because there were ... sing along with me ... too many men on the field.

If your players can't tell the difference between 11 and 12, how can you possibly expect to win more games than you lose?

Even the fact that Jones -- with a little prodding from Peyton Manning -- chose to open Neyland to more than 39,000 fans two weeks from the season opener should open a lot of potential recruits' minds about the passion and loyalty of Big Orange Nation.

A quick side story to illustrate the point: While covering the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, I was approached by a member of Georgia Tech's athletic department. When I told him I was at UT's practice the night before, he asked, "Did they really have 39,000 there?"

When I replied that most media types thought it was closer to 30,000, he shook his head and said, "That's still amazing. It's unbelievable, really."

A second side story to underscore the Tech administrator's remarks: Though Hemphill has season tickets under the overhang, he chose to watch the entire 90-minute practice two rows from the field, never deterred by the constant, often heavy rain.

"I wanted to sit where I could like into Tiny Richardson's eyes," he said of the Vols' 327-pound offensive tackle. "My gosh, he's big. He's his own zip code."

Neither Hemphill nor LaFollette believes Justin Worley will be named the starting quarterback after Saturday's showing.

"I think [redshirt freshman Nathan] Peterman will be the starting quarterback," Hemphill said.

Countered LaFollette: "I really thought [true freshman] Josh Dobbs looked the best."

But they both believe the Vols still look like a team destined to finish around .500, capable of a 7-5, 6-6 or 5-7 record depending on which way the oblong ball bounces.

"I'd say .500," LaFollette predicted.

Said Hemphill: "If they go 7-5, Jones has done an amazing job."

After three straight losing seasons and only five Southeastern Conference wins in their past 24 games, 7-5 would be a change any Big Orange fan should believe in.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com