As with a typical opening day of football practice, Tennessee’s format at Haslem Field on Tuesday was no pads and no contact.
The Vols were, for the record, not wearing pads, but that didn’t prevent anyone from getting physical in a steamy three-hour session supervised by coach Lane Kiffin and his staff.
“They want everything full speed,’’ said defensive end Chris Walker, “and full speed and no contact, that kind of doesn’t mix, so there’s going to be a little contact.’’
Kiffin, who has until Sept. 5 to get his first UT squad ready to open the season against Western Kentucky, said wall-to-wall intensity will pay dividends.
“I just don’t know another way to do it,’’ he said. “We got in trouble (with the NFL) in Oakland for doing that. We actually lost some offseason time for having too much contact.
“I just think that’s how you build a team that’s going to be physical and is going to be able to run the ball and is going to be able to play such a tough schedule.’’
The Vols got through the day with no apparent serious injuries. Defensive end Willie Bohannon was helped off the field but was later walking on his own.
Everyone was accounted for except freshmen Marlon Walls and James Green, who have yet to get a green light from the NCAA Clearinghouse.
There was one notable position experiment. Dennis Rogan worked the entire day a free safety rather than cornerback.
“We know he can go back over there (to cornerback),’’ Kiffin said. “We’re going to give him a chance at free safety to pair up with Eric (Berry) and see how that looks.’’
Freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku had impressive moments at tailback, as did Marsalis Teague and Nu’Keese Richardson at receiver.
“There are always high expectations for young guys to do stuff,’’ Kiffin said, “but you have to remember their heart is beating so fast they can barely line up sometimes.
“We’ll continue to push and challenge them. I thought we did a good job of putting a ton on them for day one.’’
Pushing and challenging is the only mindset this staff tolerates, even on opening day.
“It’s much faster paced now than it was in the spring,’’ said senior tailback Montario Hardesty.
“We pretty much know the offense and most of the defense is in so the pace is much faster.’’
Several players said they welcomed the physical approach to opening day.
Any offensive player who had a football in his hands had to contend with grabbing, slapping, bumping defenders intent on ripping the ball away from him.
Even when the offensive player was far down field running out the play he had to be wary of a defender flying at him from behind in ambush.
“It’s so-o-o-o annoying,’’ receiver Gerald Jones said with a chuckle. “But like coach said, it will get on our nerves but by the time the game comes you’ll be keeping the ball high and tight.’’
Hardesty concurred, on both the annoyance factor and the long-term benefit:
“Our coach told us in the meeting the defense was going to be going after the ball real hard and he didn’t want any complaining about it at all.
“He told us last year in the (BCS) championship game the top two teams, Oklahoma and Florida, were both one and two in turnover margin so that’s what we’re getting at.’’
“We will,’’ said Kiffin, “have relentless pursuit after the ball because the number one thing is turnover margin.
“That’s how you win and lose games faster than anything else, turning the ball over and getting it back on defense.’’
The Vols have three more sessions before the full pads go on Saturday.
Wednesday will again be helmets and shorts. Thursday and Friday will also include shoulder pads.
But the first thing to go on after the opening practice was the video projector.
“We’ll be here all night,’’ Kiffin said. “There’s so much film to watch, so much to learn about these guys, and so many new guys that we don’t know that much about.’’