Daniel Bituli (35), Cortez McDowell (20) and Nigel Warrior stop Carlin Fils-aime (27) close to the goalline. The annual Spring Orange and White Football game was held at Neyland Stadium on April 22, 2017.
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Dormady, Guarantano shine in Vols' shortened showcase

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KNOXVILLE — The second half got rained out.

That might have been the best ending possible for Tennessee's Orange and White football game at Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon. Especially for the scoreboard operator, given that the halftime total under coach Butch Jones' Modified Neyland Scoring System was already 44-29 in favor of the White.

Then again, the White (offense) won the 2014 game by a 129-100 total, so maybe what's best to make of this odd exercise in fan appreciation is that the defense may be at least somewhat better than the unit that gave up 45 points at Vanderbilt in last year's regular-season finale loss to the Commodores.

Or maybe Jones has decided to turn Team 121's season into a video game. If so, he just might want to make senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson his offensive coordinator instead of Larry Scott.

It seems Robertson recently beat fellow offensive lineman Trey Smith 52-51 in overtime during a video-game competition, able to claim victory when Smith attempted a two-point conversion after his first overtime score because, according to Robertson, "It was late and we needed to get to bed."

Nevertheless, a win is a win and if Jones expects the Vols to win enough games for him to still to be the coach in 2018, points might be at a premium. For however much second-year coordinator Bob Shoop's defense might be improved in its knowledge of his reportedly complex scheme, to quote defensive lineman Darrell Taylor after the Orange and White game: "I think the mentality is different because we don't have the same type of talent we had before, but I think the expectations are the same."

Put another way, though All-SEC defensive lineman and potential first-round NFL draft choice Derek Barnett happily walked onto Neyland's natural grass Saturday to a standing ovation from the 20,000 or so fans in attendance, Barnett won't be running through the "T" come September. Neither will Cam Sutton nor Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

This will be a season — beginning with the difficult opener against Georgia Tech in Atlanta's new $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Labor Day — that will require a much sharper mentality from Taylor and his defensive mates than was often exhibited throughout the back end of a 2016 season. Besides the 45 points surrendered at Vanderbilt, 37 were yielded to Missouri, 36 to Kentucky, 49 to Alabama and 45 to Texas A&M.

The good news for the Big Orange Nation is that the defense seems ready to embrace that need to be not only sharper but stronger.

Start, for instance, with junior defensive lineman Quay Picou, who won the John Stucky Award for strength and conditioning.

"If you look at Quay Picou, his momentum started right from the time Coach Rock (Gullickson) got here in the weight room," Jones said. "That process started in January, and he's now pound-for-pound one of the strongest players we have on our football team. We wanted to see if that would translate to the football field. We saw that start to occur."

Said Picou of the Stucky award: "That shows a lot, shows how much the guys care about you. When you think no one is paying attention, someone is always watching. I've always been taught that, that someone is always watching."

Then there's redshirt sophomore linebacker Austin Smith.

Highlighting a desire as much as a need to play smarter, crisper, cleaner football, Smith said of the hoped-for transformation from his freshman year to this season:

"Freshman year I was just playing off of pure talent. Playing off pure talent and really not taken seriously. Now I am in the film room almost every day with Colton (Jumper) or Cortez McDowell asking questions. Asking questions like, 'Why are we doing this? Why are we setting the front that way?' Pretty much everything."

Pretty much everything is seemingly on the table this year, starting with the head coach's job. Anything less than 8-4 could make Jones a dead coach walking. Then again, a 9-3 mark might make him a hero.

"This team has taken major steps (this spring)," Jones said. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

But at least, according to Picou, this team seems to be enjoying its work to this point.

"We had fun out there together," he said of the spring game. "We competed and had a good time. You can never go wrong with having a good time."

At least as long as your fan base goes home after four quarters instead of a rain-shortened two having had a similar similar good time watching you compete in a real game against a real Southeastern Conference foe. Because at that point, to borrow a line from Picou, everyone in the Big Orange Nation will be paying attention to everything Team 121 does.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at