Postgame audio by Dave Hooker
A little of the old, but more of the new. That's how Tennessee's annual Orange and White Game broke down Saturday afternoon inside Neyland Stadium.
Like last year, the offense had an impressive day as the White team scored in every quarter but the third in a 41-23 victory over the Orange squad in an offense vs. defense scrimmage. But unlike a year ago, when the Vols struggled offensively all season long, the Vols leave behind spring practice with a more complete understanding of a new scheme.
And a lot more confidence.
"We all came in and picked up the offense," tailback Montario Hardesty said. "All the guys that's here know the offense. Coming out of spring last year, we still didn't know the offense yet. We were still scrambling to know the offense. We definitely made some real good progress."
On Saturday, UT's three quarterbacks combined for 434 yards and four touchdowns, while eight different players combined for 231 rushing yards on 52 carries.
The Vols' running game carried the day in front of 51,488 fans, the second largest crowd for a spring game in UT history.
"I think we ran the ball good, but we should have run the ball good because the defense, they weren't really doing a lot of things. They weren't doing a lot of blitzes," said Hardesty, who rushed for 45 yards on 11 carries and gave the offense a 7-0 lead with the only rushing touchdown of the day. "It was kind of set up for us. We knew where they were going to be."
From that standpoint, Saturday's scrimmage was vanilla for a reason.
"We wanted the offense to play well today," coach Lane Kiffin said. "I kind of knew the answers to the test."
Defensive end Chris Walker said the Orange team, made up of UT's defense, ran just two fronts all days. According to Kiffin, the offense used only about 20 percent of its playbook.
The reason? Saturday's scrimmage will be re-broadcast on regional television, and Kiffin didn't want to give away too much before the season begins on Sept. 5 against Western Kentucky.
"That's a powerful tool for our opponents," Kiffin said.
This spring, Tennessee's most potent weapon appears to be its running game, which should get an added boost in fall camp with the arrival of highly rated tailback prospects David Oku and Bryce Brown.
UT's top three tailbacks - Hardesty, Tauren Poole and Toney Williams - all reeled off runs of 15 yards or longer Saturday afternoon. Those three players accounted for 201 rushing yards on 42 carries for an average of nearly 4.8 yards a carry.
"Coach, he's such a competitor, he loves smacking people in the mouth," guard Vladimir Richard said. "He loves getting people tired to the point where they want to quit. That said, I feel that we might hang our hat on the running game until it's proven otherwise that we can't do it."
UT's quarterbacks all had solid, if unspectacular performances.
B.J. Coleman led the way with 160 yards on 13-for-22 passing with two touchdowns, including one that sealed the win for UT's offense after the defense closed the gap to 27-23 at the end of the third quarter.
His 4-yard pass to Quintin Hancock, who led all receivers with eight catches for 96 yards, capped an 80-yard drive that took 8:54 and gave the offense a 34-23 lead.
Nick Stephens, limited for much of the spring with a broken wrist, was 11-for-21 for 131 yards and a touchdown to Brandon Warren at the end of the first half.
Jonathan Crompton, who leaves spring practice as the leader for the starting job, completed 14 of his 27 passes for 143 yards and a 16-yard touchdown to Austin Rogers on his last drive of the game. He was also responsible for the offense's lone turnover - an interception that went right to linebacker Rico McCoy.
Crompton felt good about the offense's performance, although he acknowledged the restrictions placed on both sides of the ball.
"It was a mixture of both," Crompton said when asked if the offense's performance was more due to its own ability or restrictions placed on the defense for the scrimmage. "We are getting more comfortable with the offense and with each other within the offense. I think that helps a tremendous amount. I think moreso we're getting more comfortable with each other."
And while last year's spring game produced big numbers from the offense, UT's players entered the summer still trying to understand its new offense. This year, players say they feel more comfortable and prepared for fall camp.
"I think that our confidence is really up there," Richard said. "We're not feeling down at all as a unit right now. We feel like whoever we line up against, we're going to go and run the ball because we have the people to do it. We're physical enough. We know our assignments."
And despite giving up lots of points and yards to the offense, Kiffin said UT's defense is better than it showed on Saturday.
"Don't let today make you feel any different about the defense," he said. "We're going to have a great defense."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.