“It’s officially football time in Tennessee,” the head coach yelled to roars from the stands.
A few minutes later, it was raining — at times, very hard.
The weather ruined what was a cool and pleasant evening, but it didn’t stop practice. Nor did it chase away most of the fans, who simply fled to covered seats under the upper-deck overhang.
“If anybody doesn’t realize the magnitude of Tennessee football, they should see this tonight,” Jones said afterwards. “I think it speaks volumes when you have an open practice and almost 40,000 people come.”
The crowd was announced at 39,000. Most media estimates put the number closer to 25,000. Regardless, it was an incredible showing for what wasn’t even a full scrimmage.
“The turnout didn’t surprise me,” said quarterback Nathan Peterman. “We’ve got great fans.”
When it was over, players shook hands with each other and then made a lap around the stadium to slap hands with fans. Jones took the mic, thanking the fans on behalf of “Team 117” and urging them to return: “We’re going to need you in two weeks.”
That would be Aug. 31, when the Vols open the season at Neyland Stadium against Austin Peay.
“In two weeks, there are no do-overs, there are no second chances,” Jones said.
The practice on Saturday night was billed as a preseason game. On the bus, Jones told players to start getting into a game-day mindset. There were real SEC officials. Real situations. Real touchdowns.
But there also were occasions when Jones might interrupt for a teaching moment — even an unlikely one.
For example, freshman offensive lineman Dylan Wiesman appeared to sustain a serious knee or ankle injury during one late-in-the-game scenario. Wiesman had to be helped from the field.
After Wiesman was cheered by fans and helped to the sidelines, Jones added an unfortunate epilogue. By rule, Wiesman’s injury would have required a 10-second runoff. Tennessee would have lost the game.
Despite the rain, much of the focus was on the quarterbacks, who were forced to contend with the slick turf and soggy ball.
In general, Jones said he was encouraged. But while fans might be wowed by some of the big plays — like a long pass from Josh Dobbs to Drae Bowles — Jones said he wants his quarterbacks to do the routine stuff with consistency.
That might be further fodder for those who believe junior Justin Worley is the frontrunner in the competition. Worley, who rarely seems to throw interceptions or make errors, had a solid day, as did redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Dobbs and fellow true freshman Riley Ferguson both had some standout moments, although Ferguson’s effort was marred by an interception.
Jones made each of the freshman quarterbacks “live” — allowed to be hit by the defense — for a portion of the scrimmage, which allowed them to use their legs to escape the pocket.
“The blood pressure goes up when you’re live in the pocket,” Jones said. “Both of them did a good job of having a pocket presence.
“We’re not game-ready, but we’ve got two weeks to prepare,” Jones said. “That’s why you practice. They learned a lot tonight. Everything was sped up, everything was accelerated.”