First fall practice goes well despite heat
As an experienced, trained sports journalist, I'm capable of detecting the most subtle changes between one preseason football camp and another.
One example: Last year's Tennessee preseason camp was open to the media.
This year's isn't - at least, not for the most part.
Another example: Last year's preseason camp was hot. This one is hotter. A lot hotter.
The media got to watch the first 45 minutes of Wednesday's opening practice, which is sufficient time to evaluate a team's warm-up skills. Suffice to say, it rarely has been so easy to warm up for a practice.
Players seemed to be lifting their helmets more so than usual, perhaps just to make sure their heads hadn't melted in the 97-degree heat. How hot was it?
It was Louisiana hot, according to South Louisiana native Jarrod Shaw.
The senior offensive guard declared the first practice of this preseason as the hottest ever.
"It was ridiculous," said Shaw, who had developed a cramp in his right leg by the end of practice.
But don't get the wrong idea. I didn't use my allotted 45 minutes of viewing time to determine it was hot.
I also noticed that quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray were throwing accurately. Of course, against no rush and no coverage, anything less than accuracy from the quarterbacks would be downright terrifying to Vols fans.
Another observation: If Bray has gained weight since the spring, professional models would like to know his secret for hiding it. The thickest thing about him is his hair.
But when the ball leaves the hand of UT's skinniest freshman since Peyton Manning, you forget how thin he is. As you saw in the spring game, he can fling it.
The offensive line didn't go unnoticed, either - perhaps because it was the last unit to leave the field, and also because it didn't leave quietly. "One-two-three, O-line pride," they shout in unison.
I just counted myself, all the way to 11. That's how many paragraphs I have gone without mentioning what a problem UT's inexperienced offensive line will be. That's a personal record for any column with so much as a cursory reference to the Vols' 2010 offense.
The problem loomed less large on the hottest day of the summer.
Just a day earlier, coach Derek Dooley spoke positively about his starting line of center Cody Pope, guards JerQuari Schofield and Shaw, and tackles Dallas Thomas and Ja'Wuan James. Talent isn't the problem, he emphasized. It's strictly a matter of how fast they come together as a unit.
"I feel good about the talent of the starting five," he reiterated Wednesday. "I feel good about their willingness, their attitude. I feel good about their being a good line. But you can't be a good line without experience.
"How much experience do we need before we're good? That, I don't know."
Based on their comments, they won't fail for lack of unity. To a man, they tell you how close-knit they are. For a unit in which cohesiveness is so critical, that's progress.
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand was preaching "O-line pride," in the spring, but Shaw said the unit didn't appreciate the significance until this summer.
"The whole group just bonded," Shaw said. "Bonding with those guys, I feel way more confident in the unit. I know what Cody is going to do. I know what JerQuari is going to do."
Pope continued the togetherness theme.
"We all hang out together," he said. "We eat together. It's really cool because we didn't get to know each other like this a couple of years ago. Now, we're really coming together."
They look OK individually, too.
The starters average almost 6-foot-6, and 312 pounds. Schofield, at 6-6, 331, looks much stouter than he did last preseason. Shaw has lost weight but looks stronger, and has improved his bench press to 420 pounds.
They have grown stronger and closer. Now, in the heat of August, their goal is to form a stronger bond.
"That's what camp is for," Shaw said. "Getting our plays down, getting our techniques down.
"And keep on building on that togetherness."
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.