One week ago, the Tennessee offense resembled a kid mistakenly invited to the wrong party. The one who sits unassumingly, fiddling with his glass, watching others share inside jokes.
In last week’s scrimmage at Neyland Stadium, the offense watched the defense party on for two hours. The orange defenders cheered. They shared mid-air collisions — the modern day high-five. They spilled off the sideline onto the field celebrating every stop.
A stone-faced offense watched the festivities, searching for its jacket and a side-door exit.
All praise after that scrimmage was directed toward the revelers. All questions centered on UT’s wayward, unproductive offense.
Both units returned to Neyland on Saturday.
With only two practices remaining until next weekend’s Orange and White Game, coach Butch Jones needed to see some celebrating from his offense. The unit needed to get out on the dance floor.
It was about 11:30 a.m. when a series of red-zone scenarios finally turned up the music.
Lining up for “game-winning play” from the 15-yard line, quarterback Justin Worley dropped back and whistled a pass to tight end Alex Ellis near the goal line. A pass interference call gave the offense life. Wideout Pig Howard reeled in a Worley touchdown pass on the left sideline to capitalize.
Heads seemed to raise on the offensive sideline.
On the next play, in a similar situation, but from the 9-yard line, Howard caught a screen pass. He juked and dove for another touchdown.
The sideline began to bounce.
In came the second-team offense, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Peterman. A touchdown pass to wideout Cody Blanc across the middle was followed by another touchdown pass to wide receiver Drae Bowles in the back corner of the end zone.
The offensive sideline was one piñata short of a full-blown fiesta.
“When the defense makes a play they are going to hoot and holler,” Peterman said. “So as an offense we decided that when we make a play we are going to hoot and holler. Competition is awesome. I am a competitor. Everyone on offense is a competitor. We love it, we thrive off of it.”
The touchdowns were a sight for bored eyes, but the defense didn’t sit idly. Aggressive play forced four offensive turnovers. Even given last week’s dominating performance, the defense couldn’t force one change of possession.
“We tried to put our defense in some really challenging situations today,” Jones said. “We generated some turnovers in the red zone, which is great. I think the greatest teaching point of the spring came true when we finally swarmed the football.”
That’s the bright side for the defense.
For the offense, just being at the right party is a step forward.
Those aforementioned touchdown receptions came despite wide receivers Jacob Carter, Jason Croom, Vincent Dallas and Paul Harris all missing the scrimmage with injuries. The lack of wideout depth and other injuries has been a continuing cloud over UT’s spring activities. In addition to those who have missed most of the spring, tight end Brendan Downs and defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry each sat out Saturday with unknown injuries.
Cornerback Riyahd Jones injured his left knee early in the scrimmage and did not return. He later posted on Twitter, “i assure you that im fine.. hope to see you all at the Spring game saturday!”
The head coach is slightly less cheerful.
“I’m a little concerned from our injury situation of really what we’re going to be able to do for the spring football game,” Butch Jones said. “It’s a balancing act for the football coach. Obviously, you want to give your fan base something to see, but you need to keep in mind the health of our football team and having a healthy team going into spring.”
This update, on both the Vols’ punt returner competition and the program’s evolving collection of migraine-inducing distraction noises, goes hand in hand.
Told to corral five straight punts, Howard settled under booted balls while Neyland’s speaker pulsated. The sound of a snarling hog filled the air.
“That was (UT video coordinator) Joe Harrington’s (idea),” Jones said of the impromptu sound effect. “That was kind of a surprise. He got me on that one. I didn’t know he was doing that.”
Howard dropped two punts before fielding five straight. Devrin Young, who appears to be emerging as the leading punt returner candidate, caught his first five as a jet engine pumped from the speakers.