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.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.