UT football scrimmage on Saturday at Neyland Stadium
Defensive players and coaches could smile and cheer about Saturday’s resounding scrimmage victory at Neyland Stadium, but for head coach Butch Jones, any optimism about one unit is always tempered by concern about the other.
“It’s different when you’re the head coach,” he said. “You want the offense to do well and you want the defense to do well.”
On Saturday, the defense did very well, pressuring the quarterbacks, winning the battle at the line of scrimmage and keeping the offense from finding any rhythm by registering a long run of three-and-outs.
The final score was Defense 86, Offense 63. Unlike two weeks ago — when the point system sometimes seemed gerrymandered by the coaches — the result on the scoreboard was an accurate reflection of what took place on the field.
On Friday night, senior defensive back and team Twitter humorist Byron Moore did some mild trash-talking to offensive coaches, saying Neyland Stadium would be a “no-fly zone” for the Vols’ offense.
The defense backed up that talk, as there were few pass plays of any significance and neither junior quarterback Justin Worley nor redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman looked particularly sharp.
But Jones said he was just as pleased with the front seven as he was the secondary, particularly a linebacking corps that he challenged to be more productive.
Junior A.J. Johnson had a couple of loud hits and Jones raved about senior Dontavis Sapp, who is fighting for serious playing time this year after spending much of his career as a role player.
“He’s been amazing,” Jones said. “He’s done everything right. He’s been a joy to coach so far.”
The defense, among the nation’s worst in 2012, has been in need of some good news. Senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood said Saturday’s scrimmage affirmed that the Vols are better than they showed a year ago.
“It’s a big confidence boost just to know we’re able to go out there and shut down offenses and beat an offense like ours,” Hood said. “Although we lost some players, it’s still the same talent there. So it’s good to go out there and prove we can play.”
Hood said new defensive coordinator John Jancek tore down the defense to its simplest level on the first day of spring, and has started building it up from there.
“Coach Jancek has done a great job of simplifying things down for us, making it so we can play faster, know what we’re doing, and be efficient,” Hood said.
Jones said he could see some of that “instinctualness” in the scrimmage, with defenders playing fast and racing to the ball.
“Vol piles,” Jones’ term for the swarm of defenders around a ball carrier, were frequent on Saturday.
While the defensive play was heartening, the offense left Jones wanting more. He said he wanted to see someone take “ownership” during the last two weeks of spring.
As for the hunt for “playmakers,” which offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said would be the primary goal of the scrimmage, Jones could offer only a few.
Redshirt freshman receiver Jason Croom has played well, Jones said, and sophomore Alton “Pig” Howard could be a factor if he continues to progress “mentally and physically.”
But as a whole, Jones said, “Our receivers are not what we expect at all in our offense.”
The head coach also wants the running backs to “trust their eyes.” Jones yanked one back for head-down running. He even took a playful shot at the first-team offensive line, which most consider the strength of the team. After one sack, Jones yelled into his mic at the group of future NFL draft picks, “Where’s that high-priced O-line?”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.