KNOXVILLE — Tennessee coach Butch Jones continued to press the tempo as the Vols took to Haslam Field for the third fall practice Wednesday afternoon, this time resorting to a one-on-one, prove-it type of contact drill.
The players donned shoulder pads for the first time, working their way up to the first contact practice on Saturday.
There were four or five one-on-one so-called “Circle of Life” drills that took place within the confines of a players’ circle.
Media could not see what happened with the exception of linebacker Daniel Bituli driving tight end Austin Pope out of the circle in a battle of Tennessee high school all-stars from the 2016 class.
Pope rallied when given a second chance, adjusting his technique and battling linebacker Ja’Quain Blakely to a draw from what could be seen.
Jones allowed one drill to be public, perhaps wanting to let players and fans (via the media) in on the secret that is tailback Carlin Fils-Aime.
Fils-Aime, listed at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, appeared to be overmatched when he lined up across from the 6-3, 235-pound Bituli.
Instead the deceptively powerful running back from Naples, Fla., fought to a stalemate until after the whistle was blown, perhaps displaying what Florida’s vaunted high school football is all about.
Or maybe it was the magic of the No. 27 jersey once worn by UT All-American middle linebacker Al Wilson.
Wilson, the catalyst on the 1998 national title team before an All-Pro career with the Denver Broncos, was once purported by teammate Neil Johnson to be so tough, “that if Al slapped your mama, you’d ask your mama what she did to deserve it.”
Wilson, who roomed with former UT and NFL star tailback Jamal Lewis, playfully said before the 1998 season that if he decided to stay at tailback instead of playing linebacker “you guys wouldn’t even know who Jamal Lewis was right now.”
Lewis, then a sophomore, replied, “He’s probably right.”
The players roared their approval for Jones’ drill on Wednesday and it set the tone for a very fast-paced opening three periods before the media was escorted out.
What we know
• Junior walk-on receiver Jay Rochelle, from Duluth, Ga., will be added back on to the roster when it swells up to 120, according to a UT spokesperson. Rochelle was one of three players left off the 105-man roster, released on Tuesday. He appeared in three games last season as a sophomore and did not record a catch. The other two players left off the roster, seniors Cody Blanc and Joe Stocstill, are no longer with the team.
• Incoming freshmen offensive linemen Ryan Johnson, Marcus Tatum and Nathan Niehaus will all begin working outside as offensive tackles, according to offensive coordinator Mike DeBord.
“We’ll learn more about them, what they can do, where their strengths are, and then we’ll play them to their strengths,” DeBord said. “If a guy plays better inside than outside, we would do that, but right now they’re all on the outside to start off with, because that’s the toughest to start off with. We’ll start moving them inside after that.”
• Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said three players have separated themselves in the race for the third linebacker position behind preseason All-SEC pick Jalen Reeves-Maybin and sophomore middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr.
“The three guys that have separated from the rest of that group are (Junior Colton) Jumper, the middle linebacker, he’s got a high football IQ, he plays hard, and he always plays with a chip on his shoulder,” Shoop said. “The two guys at the “Will” (weak side LB) position are Coretez McDowell and Quart’e Sapp are continuing to compete for the spot behind Jalen, and all of those guys are going to play, and all of those guys will get great opportunities in camp before the opening game.”
• The competition in the secondary isn’t as clear-cut as first-glance might suggest, Shoop said, as players battle for the second cornerback position opposite Cameron Sutton and a spot next to Todd Kelly Jr. at safety.
“You talk about the second cornerback position, there are several variables in there, it’s not just Justin Martin and Emmanual Moseley, although they are the guys who have the most playing time,” Shoop said. “It’s factoring in whether you might play Micah Abernathy at the nickel and move Malik Foreman and Marquill Osborne out there for something along those lines.
“It’s like in any other situation, you’re finding your best five guys for the nickel package and putting them out there; they have positional versatility.”
Quote of the day
“If Jalen Hurd wants to do something, he’s going to come in my office and ask. Same thing with Alvin (Kamara) or Josh Dobbs. They can walk in my office and feel like they can talk to me, whereas in Year One, they don’t know what I’m going to say.” — Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, on the difference a year makes.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.