Shrewd move to allow Vol fans at practice

Marvin Westwestwords

Open house at Neyland Stadium was a shrewd move.


After being cuffed and kicked around like stray dogs, Tennessee football fans were finally thrown a bone – a free show. Alas and alas, thousands missed it.

A few hundred, properly attired in masks of various colors, carefully observing social distancing with belongings in clear plastic bags to discourage smuggling, were guests at the Saturday morning practice. It was not a scrimmage. That was two days earlier. Sorry about that.

This was a lot better than nothing. It reaffirmed that the Volunteers are still in business. It gave marketing people a chance to promote ticket sales. It permitted prep prospects to drop by and see what Josh Heupel’s up-tempo offense looks like in half-real life.

Great idea to open a gate, light up a concession stand and unlock a couple of restrooms. There must be some really smart people in Danny White’s crowd of senior, intermediate and junior support specialists.

Oh, you say it wasn’t an original idea? Several colleges welcomed fan visits much earlier? Almost everybody except Alabama is doing it? Missouri was open three times? Well, don’t expect too much. The current administration is new on the job.

That UT has joined the public relations chase and is trying to wake up the echoes is good for all concerned. These are scary times.

During the virus blockade, even the most faithful paying customers may have discovered they can survive football Saturdays without going to the great arena beside the river.

You may already know this – very big TV isn’t too bad a substitute if you turn off the noise and turn on the Vol Network. I’ll tell you how it was at our house: There was no congestion, no parking problems and no lines at the bathroom. In-game snacks didn’t cost much and dear, sweet Sarah sometimes ran a free delivery service.

I do believe last season’s mess, coaching confusion and poor play topped off by charges of cheating, caused considerable fan apathy. I fear we will all notice that in season-ticket sales.

Opening Gate 21 for a sneak peek may not have been pure brilliance but I still say it was a smart start.

Before the curtain was lifted, Coach Heupel said the opening was going to show “who and what we are at this point.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. Our guys, since the moment I got here, have worked extremely hard. We’ve pushed them to improve in all areas of who they are and how they operate. The football field is a big part of that.

“They’ve put in seven great days of work up until this point. It gives us an opportunity to go showcase in front of our fans, in front of this state … and also forecast a little bit of who we’re going to be by the time we get to the fall.”

Heupel downplayed the influence on recruiting. He said the open practice was mainly intended to encourage the connection between the Vols and fans.

We know for sure that some prospects attended. Brody Foley, class of 2022 tight end from Anderson High School in Cincinnati, said he was “blown away” by what he saw.

“Everything was awesome. I mean, the campus, it was beautiful. We loved it all. The stadium – Neyland Stadium is insane. It’s crazy to think that you can fit more than 100,000 people into one place. I knew it was big. It’s huge.”

We don’t know if quarterback Tayven Jackson, budding star of Center Grove High in Greenwood, Ind., made it. He said he hoped to attend.

“I just want to feel the vibe of the campus and practice and how they get after it.”

Tayven thinks he might be No. 1 on Tennessee’s QB recruiting list for 2022.

No way to tell on Saturday who might emerge as No. 1 this fall for the Volunteers. Brian Maurer was the most exciting but that cuts both ways. He threw well on the run but lost a couple of interceptions.

If Brian could eliminate or reduce mistakes …

Virginia Tech graduate transfer Hendon Hooker might be least likely to lose games. His experience shows as poise.

Harrison Bailey spent most of his Saturday with the third unit.

This is no attempt at a summation, but the quarterbacks didn’t sell many tickets.

Among the running backs, Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans were absent or idle. Dee Beckwith is shaped more like a tight end (6-5 and 225) but he looks a lot like a tailback when he has the football.

Generally speaking, in 11 on 11 drills, the offensive line defeated the defensive front. In the red zone segment, the offense scored on eight of nine possessions. Interesting that former walk-on Dayne Davis is still an offensive tackle with the first team. The shortage of linebackers is alarming.

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner was the leading proponent of tough love. His best (loudest) coaching quote was “I can’t wait for you to watch your film and see how bad you are.”

A fan, almost as loud, praised Garner’s message and style.

“We’ve been needing that for a long time.”

Other fans applauded.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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