Tennessee football completed its spring season with the 2021 Orange & White Game Saturday afternoon. In Josh Heupel’s first real game action at UT, his new offense looked promising, as Team Orange defeated Team White 42-37.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
Bailey leads impressive quarterback play
In a crowded quarterback room, Harrison Bailey helped his case with a strong showing in the spring game. The sophomore completed 12-15 attempts for 260 yards and two touchdowns, playing on both the Orange and White Teams.
Bailey showed an ability to complete long passes, something Tennessee quarterbacks have struggled with of late. He connected with Jack Jancek for a 73-yard touchdown in the first, and on his next drive, he found Velus Jones Jr. for a 20-yard score. In the second half, he also completed passes of both 37 and 24 yards.
Despite Bailey’s efforts, Heupel still said after the game that the position race would be “wide open.” Brian Maurer and Hendon Hooker each had some positive moments in the game too. Hooker, the transfer from Virginia Tech, completed 10-14 for 11 yards including a 29-yard TD pass to Cedric Tillman, and on the ground, he ran for 13 and a touchdown. Maurer, who among this group had the most playing time last season, totaled 171 yards and a touchdown.
“I saw competitors. I saw each and every quarterback having fun,” wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. said. “We all love each other, and we’re just trying to get better each and every day. I’m so excited about this offense and the upcoming fall.”
Even though nothing has been decided, the production is certainly encouraging for a Tennessee team that has been so lacking at the most important position on the field.
“This is a total group effort, and they’ve come a long ways the last 14 days leading up to day,” Heupel said on the quarterbacks today. “We’ve seen exponential growth from all of them. And their command of what we’re doing, the ability to recognize signals, get lined up, get their eyes and feet in the right place and be accurate with the football, I think the last three of four practices have been all of theirs best practices.”
Offensive line looked strong
Possibly the biggest disappointment of last season was the poor play of an offensive line that was supposed to be so dominant, they were nicknamed the “Tennessee Valley Authority.” Well, that dam bust as the line got torched all year, including a -1 rushing yard game against Georgia.
Of course, today, it was just a spring game against a defense that wasn’t always going full speed, but the offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage, especially late in the game. The line didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback hurry, and gave up just two tackles for loss.
“I think it was a smooth transition, they did very great this spring,” running back Jabari Small said on the offensive line. “They’re very hard workers, and they’re very smart. As far as the communication, I think this was the first game that we actually communicated well with the protections, slides. I feel like the offensive line, they’re very hard workers, and I applaud them for everyday for blocking for us.”
While there was a lot to be encouraged by today, the line knows there is still work to do. Heupel has not implemented his full playbook, so there will be much for them to learn. Heupel is not set on a certain rotation at the line either, but he was encouraged by some of the progress today.
“I thought, offensively, we were able to get some things going in the middle portion of the game, scrimmage and with the run game,” Heupel said. “It’s been back and forth for me. I feel like we are developing some depth at the offensive line. . . We’ve got to develop the guys that we’ve got.”
Secondary is growing
Tasked with guarding the fast-paced and upbeat offense that Heupel brought to Rocky Top, the Tennessee secondary has had to adjust to a totally new style of play. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks and secondary coach Willie Martinez have instituted a new defensive scheme, and the secondary believes it has helped them become better players.
“Football is football at the end of the day,” defensive back Jaylen McCollough said. “The players have to make plays, and the coach can only give us so many calls. It is really on the players Regarding the scheme, I feel like, this scheme allows us to play fast and just trust our ability and our technique.”
The Vols’ top-three tacklers today, Will Brooks, Christian Charles and Kenneth George Jr., were all in the secondary. And junior Warren Burrell picked off Hooker and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown.
“I think they made some plays today. I think they tackled pretty well in space today,” Heupel said on the secondary. “I thought there were a bunch of positives from individuals and collectively as a group. Defensively, they’ve grown in how to operate, the ability to communicate with the tempo we play at, when we do see tempo, our guys will be able to handle that.”
While Tennessee love the progress the secondary have made, they knows there is plenty of improvement to do.
“The secondary, we’ve grown tremendously,” McCollough said. “We still have strides to take, but where we’re at right now is pretty good.”