The Tennessee quarterback battle took center stage on Saturday inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee wrapped up the first spring practice under new Head Coach Josh Heupel with the annual Orange and White game on Saturday as the Orange team took a 42-37 victory.
“Today was a great day for Tennessee football, obviously our first spring football game as a new staff with our players,” Heupel said post-game. “I’m so appreciative of the fans that came out and were a part of our attendance today. With the uncertainty of the weather, they still showed out in great fashion and brought a lot of energy to the stadium.“
The Orange and White game was a showcase for Heupel’s fast, up-tempo offensive attack as the offense tallied 821 yards with 39 first downs on 99 total plays.“I thought our kids played efficiently with ball mechanics and getting their eyes back and being able to get lined up,” Heupel said. “We come a long way in 15 practices and we’ve got a long way to go. There’s a lot of things to like. Our kids are accepting in hearing the details of what we want to do and how we want to do it.”
The Tennessee quarterback battle was front and center on the day as three players – Brian Mauer, Harrison Bailey, and Hendon Hooker took nearly all of the snaps at the quarterback position.
“It’s tough to compare them individually today with the rotation of how the game unfolded,” Heupel said. “To piece that all together I think would be unfair for my recollection of what they actually accomplished during the course of game and in each drive. I think it’s been a total group effort.”
“They’ve come a long way in the last 14 days leading up to today. If you break up spring ball into thirds, every five practices, you’ve seen exponential growth from all of them. Their command of what we’re doing, their ability to get lined up, get their eyes and feet in the right place, be accurate with the football. I think the last three or four practices have been all of their best practices. I thought they played really efficient today.”
Bailey finished 12-of-16 passing for 260 yards with two touchdowns while at the helm for four scoring drives, while Mauer was 9-of-15 for 171 yards and a touchdown.
Hooker was 10-of-14 for 111 yards and score while adding a touchdown on the ground, but also thrown the game’s lone interception that was returned for a touchdown.
Heupel noted that the quarterback competition is far from over heading into the summer and fall camp.
“It’s wide‐open,” Heupel said of the quarterback race. “I’ve been through enough quarterback battles as a player and as a coach to know that there’s so much time as you leave spring ball. We’ve had 15 practices and we’re going to have a lot more than that when we get to fall camp. They get a chance to sit back down, re‐digest everything that’s gone on this spring. They get a chance to go through some installs this summer. They get a chance to coach it, own it a little bit on their own. They get a chance to learn from their mistakes and they have an opportunity to come back as much better and different football players by the time that we get to fall camp.”
Heupel also noted that was true for all positions – and not just the quarterback race.
“We’ve got to allow our players to grow through this offseason,” Heupel said. “I think that’s important at the quarterback position, but it’s true everywhere. You’ve got to judge players for who they are today and not where they were yesterday. You’ve got to give kids an opportunity to make that movement in June and July.”
The offensive fireworks started early on Saturday.
On the second drive of the game, Jaylen Wright opened the scoring with a seven-yard touchdown with Hendon Hooker at the helm of the offense. The next possession saw Harrison Bailey hit Jack Jancek for a 73-yard touchdown down the right sideline, and Chase McGrath hit a 28 field goal on a drive that saw Mauer hit Jalin Hyatt for a 45-yard gain.
Bailey found the endzone again as he found Velus Jones for a 20-yard score. Hooker got his first touchdown of the day as he ran in from four yards.
The defensive unit found their footing to end the first period – a quarter that featured 368 offensive yards – with a three-and-out and then added another three-and-out to open the quarter.
Mauer overcame two incomplete passes on the next drive as he found Jancek for a 64-yard pass to set-up up a short touchdown pass to Hunter Salmon.
Warren Burrell created a big play for the defense midway through the second quarter as he jumped in front of a Hooker pass for a 34-yard pick-six.
Bailey and the offense got rolling again as the sophomore quarterback completed a 14-yard pass to Jones and a 37-yard pass to Jimmy Calloway to set up a Jabari Small seven-yard touchdown run.
Running backs account for the first three touchdowns of the second half as Evans (one-yard run), Small (two-yard run), and Antonio Malone (one-yard run) all found the checkerboard.
The scoring was capped as Cedric Tillman recorded the catch of the day with a diving grab of a Hooker pass for a 29-yard touchdown to end the game.
Fred Orr led the running attack as he had 10 carries for 83 yards, while Small finished with 12 carries for 48 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Jancek had 137 receiving yards to lead all receivers, while Jones had three catches for 86 yards. Tillman had 67 yards on five catches.
Will Brooks had six tackles to lead the defensive attack, while Kenneth George and Christian Charles each added five tackles.
Saturday was a solid end for the first 15 practices for the Orange and White under Heupel.
“There are times when the back half of your spring ball isn’t your best half, where your players aren’t as focused, they’re trying to remain healthy and their competitive spirit changes,” Heupel said. “I’m really proud of this group because it’s been the exact opposite for us. We got better every single day. Our competitive spirit became more and more consistent in how we approached every day and every rep. We got better in the last third of spring ball.”
“Today, there was great effort out there,” Heupel said. “There were a lot of things that we’ll learn from as well, but our kids are excited about what we’re doing on and off the field. I think they believe in each other and believe in this coaching staff. We’ll continue to grow as we go through this summer.”
Photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletic Communications