Ja'Wuan James on the Vols' effort this spring
Four-and-a-half months after becoming the new head coach at Tennessee, Butch Jones will enter Neyland Stadium, look up into the stands and see, for the first time, tens of thousands of orange-clad fans staring back at him.
A busy schedule of interviews, speaking engagements and tweeting has made it seem as if Jones has been here for years rather than months, but for many Tennessee fans, his real debut as the Vols’ 24th head coach will be today.
The Orange and White Game kicks off at 2:05 p.m. at Neyland Stadium. The game will be broadcast on many of the Vol Network’s radio affiliates. The television broadcast will be streamed by ESPN3.com but will not be available on traditional network or cable TV. ESPNU will replay the game five times with the first showing Monday at 9 p.m.
Even if the most ambitious expectations for attendance don’t pan out entirely, a combination of sunny skies and first-year enthusiasm should help make this one of the most-watched spring games in almost three decades.
“Anytime we get to compete in that venue, it’s special,” Jones said.
Aside from the new coaching staff, it’s unlikely there will be anything remarkably different about this year’s game compared to past seasons.
The Vols will try to emerge without injuries and without revealing too much about their new schemes on offense and defense.
But the game does offer the first and only opportunity to test players in a high-pressure setting with thousands of eyeballs
watching every move.
“There are still so many questions that need to be addressed, and a lot of them won’t be answered until (the season opener against) Austin Peay, but this gives us a better gauge moving forward,” Jones said.
Breaking the attendance record of 73,801 set in 1986 may be a long shot, but a strong showing by fans could easily push the crowd into the top five. The second-most fans to see a UT spring game was 51,488 in 2009, Lane Kiffin’s first season. The No. 3 crowd was Derek Dooley’s debut in 2010 (35,891). The 2012 game (34,421) and the 1988 game (31,500) round out the top five.
Jones and players have pushed the #FillNeyland hashtag on Twitter, and Jones said a record number of former players have committed to coming back to campus. It’s also a significant recruiting weekend, with dozens of high-level prospects and perhaps hundreds of other unofficial visitors expected to attend.
Even beyond current players, future players and fans in the stands, Jones said the game will be a trial run for his coaching staff.
The Vols spent Thursday walking through the tiniest details at the stadium, even down to the pregame hand-slapping.
“There are little things that maybe people take for granted — the way you do pregame in your locker room, the way you do pregame in warmups, the way your team takes the field, areas on the field for pregame, all of those little things,” Jones said. “This is basically a dress rehearsal for Austin Peay, so it’s important that we have our coaches connecting in the press box.”
From a practical standpoint, there will be a few differences on Saturday. Without enough depth to draft a full team, Jones is splitting the teams into offense and defense, as he’s done during spring scrimmages. The defense will wear orange; the offense and special teams will be in white.
Some of the scoring system will be familiar. Touchdowns count for six points, field goals for three and extra points for one.
The offense can add two points each with first downs, 20-yard passes, 15-yard rushes and fourth-down conversions.
The defense gets six points for a turnover, four points for a three-and-out and three points each for a fourth-down stop or a missed field goal. Stopping a drive under any scenario will add two points, and a pass break-up, tackle for loss or sack adds one point each.
Multiple scores can be recorded on a single play, so presumably the defense could earn 12 points by intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown.
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.