The handful of students meandering around campus on Friday night might have been surprised to see 100-some young men walking down an empty Peyton Manning Pass toward Neyland Stadium.
This was the Vol Walk, although there were no fans, and no real game.
The mock game at Neyland Stadium on Friday was the final dress rehearsal for Saturday’s season opener against Austin Peay.
The first game week of coach Butch Jones’ Tennessee career begins Monday with a news conference and afternoon practice. The Vols will practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. After another walk-through on Friday, the opener against Governors (2-9 in 2012) kicks off at 6 p.m. The game is only available on pay-per-view.
Jones said Friday’s session included the entire pregame routine. Players even slapped the “I will give my all for Tennessee” sign on the way out of the locker room.
“I think it was an eye-opening experience, especially for our freshmen,” Jones said in a UT release.
The transition from camp mode to game-week mode started on Wednesday, when the fall semester began and players returned to classes. But the changes will become more noticeable with the first kickoff now less than a week away.
There will be a natural shift toward game-planning, more use of scout teams and a less fluid depth chart.
But Jones said players can expect other hallmarks of camp to remain — a commitment to the details, a heavy emphasis on special teams and a sense of urgency that permeates every practice.
So how was the first installment of Camp Jones at Tennessee?
Perhaps surprisingly, some players said it wasn’t more physical than past years, at least not in the traditional sense of frequent live scrimmages with full tackling.
But most said it was more mentally taxing than any previous camp. The fast pace never seemed to stop.
“This camp was a pretty hard grind,” said senior linebacker Brent Brewer.
Offensive lineman James Stone used the words “energetic” and “focused” to describe the past month.
“It’s not just about getting through the practices, it’s about having high energy and getting something accomplished in each practice,” he said. “It was a lot more focused on effort and intensity as opposed to just getting through. It was about executing it with attitude.”
Some of that attitude was infused by Jones and his ever-present wireless microphone. His running commentary on the practice was never far from any player’s ears.
Jones also spent a lot of time in direct, hands-on coaching. During the parts of practice open to the media, he coached the special teams aggressively. He may not have the title, but it seems clear that Jones is the de facto special teams coordinator.
Jones said he considers special teams to be of “monumental” importance.
“We’ve always repped it a lot,” he said. “Everywhere we’ve been (at Cincinnati and Central Michigan), we haven’t been the most talented football teams. The momentum of a game can change on special teams.”
For a program that hasn’t won a bowl game in nearly six years, it’s easy to be skeptical about the optimism from this year’s camp. A glance at stories from last summer would show similar quotes and similar optimism.
But defensive tackle Daniel Hood said he went back to watch video from practices a year ago. He noticed more energy, more running to the football and a better attitude in 2013.
“It seems like something so little, but I promise you, if you can just see the change from last year’s camp to this year’s, you can tell that was a 5-7 team. Then you look at this year and you can say, ‘OK, let’s see what they can do.’ ”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseBeat.