The Tennessee football team took the field at Neyland Stadium Tuesday morning for its second and final scrimmage of the preseason, just over two weeks ahead of its season opener.
To simulate the gameday experience, the Vols dressed in the locker rooms at Neyland and went through the typical pregame warm-ups. The pouring rain -- remnants of Tropical Storm Fred -- that continued for the entirety of the scrimmage also contributed to its SEC Saturday feel.
“It was great for our program (and) our players. We got a chance to get out there in the rain and some adverse weather there.” Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said after the scrimmage. “Offensively (we) handled it pretty well for the most part of the day.”
Last week Tennessee’s defense dominated the first scrimmage, but this time around, the offense, and quarterbacks in particular shone through the heavy rain, providing a ray of sunshine on the still murky Volunteer quarterback race.
“The weather really had very little effect, for the most part,” Heupel said. “I thought the quarterbacks handled the weather (and) were able to throw the ball efficiently and effectively. I thought our wide receivers did a pretty good job. (We) didn't have any center-quarterback issues. It was really pretty good.”
Despite the strong play of Tennessee’s quarterbacks, Heupel has not seen much separation between the bunch, or at least he doesn’t plan to make it public knowledge at the moment. Sophomore Harrison Bailey, Virginia transfer Hendon Hooker and Michigan transfer Joe Milton all suited up for the scrimmage, each competing for the starting gig.
“That group has continued to compete and handle things the right way, and I like the growth of that group from day-to-day,” Heupel said. “You just look from the first scrimmage to the second scrimmage who they are and over the course of the practices leading up to today, that group is continuing to trend in the right direction."
Heupel does plan to update the quarterback battle when he is ready, but for now, it’s an open race.
Brian Maurer, the fourth signal caller on Tennessee’s roster who at one point had a leg in the race, did not play in the scrimmage. Maurer has been absent from practice since August 11, and the redshirt sophomore also missed the first scrimmage on August 12. Heupel met with Maurer late last week on how the quarterback reps would be divided up, but he did not give an update on Maurer’s status Tuesday.
Another bright spot from the scrimmage was the Vols’ offensive line, a group plagued by inconsistency and underperformance last season. Despite last season’s struggles and a vast turnover of linemen over the offseason, the group, led by new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, hopes for a turnaround. Tuesday’s scrimmage was another step in the right direction, as the line improved at its pre-snap responsibilities.
"I thought they were more efficient from the whistle to getting lined up and getting ready for the next snap,” Heupel said. “I thought they created good vertical movement at times over the course of the scrimmage and did a good job of protecting the quarterback."
Heupel in particular had high praise for junior Darnell Wright and his work ethic. Wright figures to anchor down the right tackle position for the Volunteers in 2021. The 6-foot-6, 335 pound lineman has made 14 career starts at right tackle.
"Athleticism, he's got a tremendous upside,” Heupel said of Wright. “He's only going to continue to get better, and I think his purpose and the way he has practiced throughout training camp has been more focused and intentional in the way he takes every single rep.”
The Vols will kick off the Heupel era on Thursday, Sept. 2 against Bowling Green in primetime at 8 p.m. ET. The game will open Tennessee’s 125th season of football, as well as the 100th season in Neyland Stadium.