Mike Strange: For Vol fans, optimism rules in April

Mike Strange
Former Volunteer Eric Berry, left, talks with UT head coach Butch Jones on the field during the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess

Former Volunteer Eric Berry, left, talks with UT head coach Butch Jones on the field during the Orange and White game at Neyland Stadium on Saturday, April 20, 2013. (AMY SMOTHERMAN BURGESS/NEWS SENTINEL)

Two touchdowns transpired Saturday at Neyland Stadium, one by the offense, the other by a walk-on defensive back. Yet the final score was 95-71.

These are unusual times for Tennessee football. Another new coach is selling another new vision. Score doesn’t make sense? Roll with it.

Here’s the bottom line: The mood at the Orange and White Game was rampant optimism. The harsh realities of autumns past have been washed away (again).

“It’s been struggling to watch the past few years, but if you love Tennessee it doesn’t matter.’’

That was lifelong Vol fan Jamie Kearney talking.

Kearney arrived outside the stadium at 5:30 a.m., more than eight hours before kickoff. But 5:30 didn’t win him the pole position. Several others were already lined up in the predawn chill.

Tracy Lilly of Clarksville was one of them. He reported for duty at 4 a.m.

Why?

“Because I bleed orange and white ’til the day I die.’’

Yeah, but you can bleed orange and white in bed and show up at noon, can’t you?

“I’m pumped to meet Coach Jones,’’ Lilly said. “I don’t think we could have hired anybody better.”

Everybody, it seems, was pumped to meet Butch Jones, the purveyor of the new vision. Thousands of fans queued up to thrust a poster, a football, a cap or a shirt at the new coach and his Team 117.

“Coach Jones was the President today,’’ said senior lineman Ja’Wuan James. “It felt like it. He was kissing babies.’’

Jones asked the fan base, babies and all, to fill Neyland. Attendance was announced at 61,076, which seemed generous. But who’s quibbling. It was an impressive turnout.

That’s a tribute to the passion UT fans have, even in a prolonged slump. It was also a tribute to the energy Jones has created since his arrival.

Fan Tim Payne drove nine hours from Pensacola, Fla., to attend his first spring game.

“I think he’s a leader and I’m really excited, because I think everything rises and falls on leadership,’’ said Payne.

“For him to come in here and be able to do what he’s done so far, I know we haven’t played a game yet but he’s scored some major points.’’

Indeed, Jones has scored points with UT’s fans. And with former players who felt alienated to varying degrees by Derek Dooley.

“We do have a lot of work to do, but I like where we’re headed,’’ said Eric Berry, among the Who’s Who of ex-Vols on the sideline.

Al Wilson and Erik Ainge spoke to the team Saturday morning. Arian Foster was spinning music at a deejay stand in the north end zone.

Jones is also scoring points with recruits.

There are already nine commitments for the Class of 2014 and expect more soon. Prospects were all over the place Saturday.

“The message,’’ Jones said, “is loud and clear: That there’s no other place in the country like Tennessee.’’

No other spring game had a guy from the reality show “Duck Dynasty” calling a play during the second half. It went for a first down, by the way.

Speaking of first downs, the suggestion is they will be prized greatly in the fall.

Optimism comes easy in the spring. The fall is more of a test. Will the devotees who show up before dawn in April hang in there when the going gets tough in October?

“That’s a great question,’’ said Payne. “We’ve still got a ways to go but I think we’re going to shock some people. I really do. I think we’re gonna have a big upset or two in there.’’

Kearney, the lifelong fan, wants to believe. He really does:

“I’ll let you know (after) the Florida game.’’

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.

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Comments » 10

alfrizzle097 writes:

If the speculation about an improved defense doesn't pan out, this year could make last look like good times. With most every skill position player from UT's second most prolific offense gone....

johnlg00 writes:

No telling how all this enthusiasm will hold up when they start playing for real, but it seems real enough right now. True, fans are so starved for success that they will grasp at almost any straw right now. However, even from my distance in NC, this spring has had a different tone. We heard some of the same talk last spring, and a few before that as well, but there was always a bit of a forced quality to it. So far, this feels real to me, and not just among die-hard fans.

ModelMaker writes:

I thought the defense looked much improved over last year. That interception looked big time to me. I thought the quarterback's got harassed and didn't get time to throw on a lot of plays. I like what I see. I think Coach Jones has got us headed in the right direction.

licknpromise777#651578 writes:

in response to alfrizzle097:

If the speculation about an improved defense doesn't pan out, this year could make last look like good times. With most every skill position player from UT's second most prolific offense gone....

I agree; Bray had his faults and didn't win in the clutch but every pass he threw had a chance to succeed and neither of these 2 QB's are even close to his talent..I suspect Jones will adjust and play to his strengths and last year at Cinncy he made a mid season QB change with good results

jack4444 writes:

in response to licknpromise777#651578:

I agree; Bray had his faults and didn't win in the clutch but every pass he threw had a chance to succeed and neither of these 2 QB's are even close to his talent..I suspect Jones will adjust and play to his strengths and last year at Cinncy he made a mid season QB change with good results

Bray was a loser here. Look how he played in clutch time against florida, MSU, Mizzoud, SCar and GA. He was pretty to watch but couldn't close the deal. Gruden pointed this out to him- "peaks and valleys." Bray and those receivers made it fun to watch but the only close one they won was Troy for goodness sakes.

Bray may have left because he didn't want to run a read option offense but I seriously doubt Butch wanted him around. As Butch says the QB leads the team, like it or not, and Bray is definitely no leader.

alfrizzle097 writes:

in response to jack4444:

Bray was a loser here. Look how he played in clutch time against florida, MSU, Mizzoud, SCar and GA. He was pretty to watch but couldn't close the deal. Gruden pointed this out to him- "peaks and valleys." Bray and those receivers made it fun to watch but the only close one they won was Troy for goodness sakes.

Bray may have left because he didn't want to run a read option offense but I seriously doubt Butch wanted him around. As Butch says the QB leads the team, like it or not, and Bray is definitely no leader.

Maybe they didn't win close games because they had the worst defense in the history of the SEC. Their defense was even worse than their offense was good...

Yeah. let's put it all on Bray.

oldbasshead writes:

I drove a couple of hours to get to the O & W game. Enjoyed being in Knoxville, being with other Vol fans and watching football, but boy I was terribly disappointed in the offense. Since Dooley's Vols beat Cincinnati so badly, this doesn't match all the hype coming from the BJ camp. Based on what I saw Saturday, I don't see how this team can improve enough to be competitive against the top of the SEC. On another note, I was annoyed with the rap music being played overtop the band playing RockyTop.

gatorhator4eva writes:

offense isnt that good, but one player can change that. im gonna put my money on mr. dobbs. he is impressive. reminds me of johnny football. peterman and worley better get working or there job will include a headset.
http://247sports.com/Player/Joshua-Do...

Lizardgrad89 writes:

Well, your defense almost HAS to dominate in the Spring, unless you had a successful offense and lots of returning starters and coaches. With new players and a new offensive scheme, if your defense hadn't dominated the spring, it would have meant BAD TIMES this fall. As it is, you still don't know, and not knowing allows hope to survive.

But hope or no hope, you aren't beating Florida this year. Set your sights on a winning record and a bowl game while building your roster for future years. Baby steps.

Lizardgrad89 writes:

"Kearney" says to ask him after the Florida game. I disagree. UT will be tested in Week 2 by Bobby Petrino's Hilltoppers and in Week 3 by Oregon.

We should know a lot about this team before they get to Gainesville.

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