Photo by Amy Smotherman Burgess // Buy this photo
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Saturday morning football practice
After a sluggish morning session, Tennessee’s ground game bounced back Saturday night, capping a two-scrimmage day with a victory at the line of scrimmage.
The Vols scrimmaged at Haslam Field on Saturday morning, but plans to make their Neyland Stadium debut in the evening were spoiled by an afternoon thunderstorm. Tennessee completed its work indoors.
Coach Butch Jones said he could tell it was going to be a good two-a-day by gauging players’ demeanor at the 7 a.m. meeting.
“I thought the players showed a lot of resiliency today,” Jones said after the final practice ended 14 hours later.
Jones praised running back Rajion Neal, and said the offense scored on a 98-yard run because of “too many missed tackles” on defense. (The evening scrimmage was closed to the media.)
“Rajion ran with a purpose today,” Jones said.
The Vols finished the night with a touchdown drive that included 14 consecutive running plays. Neal credited Alden Hill with the bulk of those touches. The streak both heartened and concerned the head coach.
“You have to run the ball to win in the SEC,” he said. “The flip side is you have to stop the run on defense.”
Jones was just as forceful during two-a-days as he is during any other practice. At one point,
he turned to a wheezing receiver, “Wideouts run all day in our offense, or they transfer to a Division II school.”
He also spared no feelings in criticizing penalties. After a delay-of-game penalty on the offense in the last series of the morning session, he pronounced the mistake “Catastrophic!”
Receiver Marquez North also felt his wrath. One play after making a nice catch, North failed to get set in his stance properly before the snap, drawing an illegal procedure penalty. “How can that happen?” Butch barked at North.
North was at the center of the most critical play in the morning session.
The scenario was fourth-and-long, time running out, the game on the line. In this case, it actually was the final series in the scrimmage, so the pressure was magnified.
Justin Worley found North near the sidelines about 20 yards downfield and it looked like a brilliant pass and catch would give the offense new life. But Brian Randolph made a big hit, breaking up the pass and saving the game.
The defensive sideline erupted in cheers. But an official rushed over to chat with defensive coordinator John Jancek. Was Randolph’s hit legal?
The play happened in the blink of an eye, and no one thought the hit was dirty. But Randolph’s helmet did appear to make contact with North’s.
Jones had officials review the play on video. Their verdict? An illegal targeting hit.
The penalty would have given the offense a first down and 15 yards at a crucial moment in the game. Randolph would have been immediately ejected and would have been forced to sit out the first half of the next game. One play that seemed on its face to be a game-changer for the defense was in fact the polar opposite.
“That changes the complexion of the game,” Jones said.
On special teams, the Vols went through a few scenarios in the morning session, but were limited in what they could do indoors Saturday night.
Senior place-kicker Michael Palardy missed back-to-back field goals, but they were from 57 yards out and he bit both kicks solidly. Second-string kicker George Bullock didn’t fare as well. His shorter attempt was blocked easily.
Jones used the block as a teaching moment. If the ball lands on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, “it’s poison,” he said. “Don’t touch it.”
If it stays behind the line, the kicking team can scoop it up, so be alert.
Whatever the case, “Don’t celebrate until the game is over.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.