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Tennessee Athletics photo by Kate Luffman / Tennessee defenders mob Warren Burrell after his 34-yard interception return for a touchdown during Saturday's Orange & White spring game in Neyland Stadium. Burrell's score served as a defensive bright spot on a day when offenses compiled 821 yards.

A good time was had by all.

Tennessee's Orange & White football game Saturday afternoon inside Neyland Stadium provided big-play excitement and was free of significant injuries. Even the rain took a hiatus so new Volunteers coach Josh Heupel and his staff could stage their 15th and final spring practice.

Though the eventual outcome was a 42-37 triumph by the Orange, there were no dejected faces, but now the task is capitalizing on the fun day in an otherwise troublesome stretch for the program.

"It starts by staying locked in," sixth-year senior receiver Velus Jones said Saturday evening. "This summer, we're going to put in the work that we need to put in going into fall camp. Everybody is going to stay together and stay in contact.

"This team is bonding."

To hear the energetic and optimistic Jones speak, one would think Tennessee is just months away from a 10-2 regular season and a trip to the Sugar Bowl, but the reality is the Vols are coming off a 3-7 debacle that was followed by a slew of proven players heading to the NCAA transfer portal. The Vols are likely facing NCAA sanctions after admitting to Level I and II violations that transpired under predecessor Jeremy Pruitt, and Heupel knows the process of picking up the pieces has just started.

"We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," Heupel said. "We're learning how to have the locker room be accountable to each other, and there is starting to be a sense of ownership with some of our guys. When we get back this summer, we've got to continue to build ourselves personally as far as the strength and conditioning side of it.

"We've got to get stronger, and we've got to develop our speed. We've got to play with better pad level, and all that comes from what we do inside the strength and conditioning. The third quarter of our offseason is going to be absolutely critical."

With the transfer portal as busy as ever, Heupel could look to add to a roster that is low on experienced linebackers. Inside linebackers Quavaris Crouch and Henry To'o To'o put their names in the portal during the winter but have yet to reveal their plans for the 2021 season, and this past week former Michigan quarterback Joe Milton told the Orlando Sentinel he would be announcing whether Tennessee or Washington State would be his transfer destination.

Milton told his hometown paper that Saturday night would be the time of his likely locale reveal, but that date obviously has come and gone.

The past few months have been turbulent for Tennessee away from the field, but those who have weathered the rough times are motivated to keep going — even though more rough times are likely on the way.

"We're going to evaluate this spring game and look at the stuff we did well and didn't do so well," junior safety Jaylen McCollough said. "We're going to continue to put our heads down and work."

 

Still no update

Tennessee's spring practices transpired without freshman quarterback Kaidon Salter, freshman defensive lineman Isaac Washington, redshirt freshman linebacker Martavius French and freshman linebacker Aaron Willis competing due to a suspension that stemmed from an incident at Stokely Hall in early March that yielded an arrest on marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges.

Heupel had expressed optimism earlier this spring that the situation would be resolved before the spring game.

"I don't have anything final on that situation," Heupel said Saturday night. "As soon as we do have something finalized, you guys will be notified of that."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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