An Orange & White Game to give UT fans hope


Apr. 25—Regarding the University of Tennessee’s Orange & White spring football game Saturday, let’s put it this way:

If this UT offense can face this UT defense for 12 games this fall, it just might average 75 points a game.

Or as Volunteers receiver Velus Jones Jr. noted after catching a touchdown pass in the 42-37 Orange win: “Man, it was exciting. Me and my teammates are so blessed to have this coaching staff. It’s a dream come true. So excited to have this offense for the upcoming fall.”

Offensively, this is exactly what new athletic director Danny White surely hoped for when he hired his former head football coach at the University of Central Florida, Josh Heupel, away from the Golden Knights to join him in Knoxville.

Heupel’s three offenses as the head man at UCF averaged 43 points a game. Though that will be much tougher to do in the Southeastern Conference, one particular detail from running back Jabari Small, who’s been one of the stars of the Vols’ spring workouts, concerning UT’s new offense should send a few chills into SEC defensive coordinators.

Said Small, almost grinning as he spoke on a postgame Zoom call: “We have a lot of creative plays we didn’t show today because (the game) was on television.”

However, what they did show those from the Big Orange Nation who arrived more than two hours prior to the 4 p.m. start — dodging at least a few raindrops before the Neyland Stadium gates opened at 2:30 — was surely enough to have them coming back for more when the real season kicks off against Bowling Green on Sept. 4.

Added Heupel, expanding on Small’s words: “We’ve got a lot of football left to put in. We’re nowhere near our complete playbook.”

They may be nowhere near their complete team. Though former Michigan quarterback Joe Milton officially remains in the NCAA transfer portal, he is expected to bring his 6-foot-5, 243-pound frame to Rocky Top before the start of summer workouts on June 1.

If current quarterbacks Harrison Bailey (12-of-16 for 260 yards and two touchdowns), Brian Maurer (9-of-15 for 171 yards and a touchdown) and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker (10-of-14 for 111 yards and a touchdown, plus a rushinig touchdown and, regrettably, a pick-six) are able to play as they did Saturday, Milton might not be needed.

Still, for all the good displayed by the offense, one can’t help but wonder if at least part of the success was due to a defense that hardly looked ready for the SEC after giving up more than 800 yards of total offense in a game in which a running clock was on display the entire second half, which lasted just a shade more than 34 minutes in real time.

Even Heupel said of an overworked defensive front this day: “We need more depth on the defensive line. We’re thin at that position.”

If the offense can perform as it did on Saturday, it may not matter. And it wasn’t just the QBs. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jack Jancek caught a 73-yard touchdown throw from Bailey and another long pass from Maurer as he looked like the second coming of Larry Seivers, finishing with 137 receiving yards. Small gained 48 yards and scored. And all that versatility should certainly bring some pleasant surprises once the real season begins.

Merely soak in this observation about Heupel’s decidedly up-tempo attack from ESPN analyst Mike Golic Jr., the former Notre Dame star who worked the game for the SEC Network: “We started playing that way when Brian Kelly took over as coach. You’d start to realize during a game: We’re not even breathing hard, and the other team’s gassed. Tempo can be a great equalizer.”

When you’ve posted three losing seasons in the past four years, when your offense has managed to average a little more than half the points Heupel’s UCF offenses have averaged the past three years, you need an equalizer. You also need something to excite all those fans who ignored the rain and chill to watch a spring game.

For at least one day that basically counts for nothing more than hope, Heupel and his team delivered.

Or as Golic noted: “Today is when you give the fans something to be excited about.”

Will it transfer to autumn Saturdays? Maybe not as it did on this particular April Saturday. The defenses of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, to name but three, figure to be a good bit more stout than the Tennessee D that got torched by its O.

But, as Heupel also observed: “We’ve got some playmakers.”

And they’ve apparently got plenty of plays still under wraps to help them make those plays.

A lot could change on all fronts in the 133 days that will pass between the spring game and the season opener against Bowling Green. The ongoing NCAA investigation may come into clearer focus. The transfer portal may yield more players and perhaps take a few from Knoxville. Injuries, however unfortunate, may come to pass.

But when you’ve been through all this program has been through over the past decade or so, an observation from ESPN’s Tom Luginbill just before the start of the Orange & White game concerning the current state of the Vols can’t be overstated.

Said Luginbill: “You have nowhere to go but up.”

Contact Mark Wiedmer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.


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