March 13, 2009

Vols work under the lights

Some people lined up outside Neyland Stadium gates Friday night as many as three hours before Tennessee's football team was to make its debut under Lane Kiffin -- in its third spring practice.

University of Tennessee officials opened concessions and at least one souvenir stand. An estimated crowd of 2,000 weathered 40-degree temperatures, ominous skies and eventually a drizzling rain.

"It was like before a game. It was the quiet before the storm," said All-America safety Eric Berry, who picked off an errant Jonathan Crompton pass late in the drill." No one was really saying anything. Coach (Kiffin) was telling us to lock in and make sure we knew what we were suppose to do. It was pretty much a game atmosphere.

"That meant a lot seeing how much they are behind us and how ready they are to kick the season off."

With top-rated prospect Bryce Brown among the Vols' guests and physical, spirited competition from the outset, it's doubtful fans were left disappointed from Tennessee's first practice in full pads. Players opened with the "Tennessee drill" and proceeded to battle in some heated 5-on-4 exchanges that roused players, coaches, fans and administrators.

"It was really neat, it was," Kiffin said of his mini-debut under the lights. "Our players felt it and our coaches felt it. Our coaches had never been in here before (for a practice) for the most part. It was neat to see the people out here supporting us. It helped us a lot. Helped us have an energetic practice. We ran a ton of plays. Keep in mind, we'd already practiced for an hour. I know that (crowd) helped our guys."

The event absorbed a somber tone near its conclusion when sophomore wideout Ahmad Paige crashed hard into the brick wall that lines the field in the south end zone. Paige lie motionless for 15-20 minutes before being helped onto a stretcher and taking off the field by ambulance to UT Medical Center.

"First let me start by saying our thoughts are obviously with Ahmad. Any neck injury you have to be very safe with. He did run into the wall down there. He does movement in his legs and in his arms," Kiffin said. "So that's great, obviously. But obviously we're being very safe with it and getting him over to the emergency room now."

Kiffin immediately went to check on Paige and remained with the wideout most of the time he was down.

"Obviously a little bit scared when you have that many people around you and put in a brace, that's a scary thing and they tell you not to move," Kiffin said of Paige's demeanor. "He was a little bit scared, but things seemed as good as they could at that point."

As for on-field production, senior tailback Montario Hardesty dazzled early with some lengthy runs while Luke Stocker made an impressive, diving snare on an early pass play. Later in the contest Lennon Creer roared through a gaping hole on the left side of the line and moments later added an impressive catch-and-run on a screen play.

But the offense didn't get untracked until the defense, which had tired of the light contact work through two days in helmets and no pads, had established the tone.

"I thought the defense really came out to play. I thought the defense really, really picked it up and came with a lot of energy," Kiffin said. "The defensive staff really had them ready to go, and I thought they took it to the offense a little bit early. Especially in the passing game with the pass rush. I thought the offense did run the ball extremely well, I would think Hardesty had a ton of yards today if we were keeping stats. A lot of long runs. I thought guys did well for him up front. Did hit a few screens versus the pass rush that was really humming today.

"But overall, for the first week, three practices, I'm pleased with where we're at. It's good to have this break where we're at right now, so guys can get away and then come back and we can keep installing stuff and continue to grow as a team."

Kiffin responds to letter

Through his attorney, University of Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin responded to the news that he had been requested to appear for a deposition by the Oakland Raiders and will be deposed Monday in Oakland, where he coached the Raiders for one-and-a-half seasons. The Raiders published a letter Friday afternoon written by counsel Jeff Birren that it sent to UT officials in late-January detailing their allegations of misconduct against Kiffin.

Kiffin has filed suit to recover the wages lost when he was fired in September by Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis. Kiffin earned $2 million annually with the Raiders, who have not paid their former coach since his dismissal. Kiffin compiled a 5-15 mark in one-and-one-quarter seasons with the Raiders.

"Starting with Al Davis' nationally televised press conference publicizing the firing of Head Coach Lane Kiffin last fall, the Raiders have continued to attack Coach Kiffin in the media," Kiffin attorney Alan Loewinsohn said in a statement released late Friday night. "That assault continued today, long after he left the Raiders, when the Raiders issued a statement and "leaked" a letter they wrote months ago to Coach Kiffin's new employer, the University of Tennessee, in which the Raiders again attacked Coach Kiffin's character. Starting next Tuesday at a hotel in Oakland, the Raiders will no longer be able to rely on
unsupported allegations made in the media, as key Raiders personnel, starting with Al Davis, will finally have to answer questions under oath at their depositions, a process that Coach Kiffin is confident will demonstrate that he was fired by the Raiders without cause and show that the continuing assault of allegations being made against him are false."

Though Kiffin mostly has refrained from public comment on his brief tenure in Oakland, he did vaguely address his time in Oakland during his Dec. 1 press conference that announced the 33-year-old as Tennessee's 21st head football coach.

"You go deal with the personality of guys in the NFL and with a completely dysfunctional franchise when you get there," Kiffin said of his NFL ride. "You can't go to school and learn crisis management like that. What I am getting at is the experience has been unbelievable."

DON'T GET PHYSICAL

Standout safety Eric Berry was Berry on Friday night with an interception that brought on the onslaught of "Eric...Berry" cheers. Not bad for a guy coming off shoulder surgery who is supposed to be limited this spring.

Berry is "limited" but was dressed in full gear Friday night standing with the first until at the first moment of contact.

"I was moving out of the way," Berry said with a laugh. "I was not taking on any fullbacks or anything like that. I was in the mix. Jason McVeigh (head trainer) said as soon as he sees me hit someone then he is pulling me out. I just make sure I don't run into anyone and just go after the ball."

For the hard hitting safety, whose highlights litter Youtube, playing it safe is not easy for him.

"It's very hard," Berry admitted of dialing it back. "Football is a contact sport and I love contact. Being out there playing two hand touch is a bummer."

STAYING FOCUSED

Quarterback Jonathan Crompton's start to the night inside Neyland Stadium was a rough one. Crompton had to run a lap with center Josh McNeil after fumbling the snap.

"The ball is so valuable," Kiffin said. "The turnover margin is how you win and lose games, more than anything else that you do. Fumbled snap, and then we want to be disciplined on penalties. Guys take laps for fumbled snaps, or offsides or false starts. Penalties that can be avoided. Other penalties happen once in a while, but those are mental penalties and there's no excuse for a fumbled snap. Just trying to emphasize things that are important to us."

Crompton was in a hurry after the scrimmage not to get to spring break but to get to the film room.

"I thought I saw the field pretty good, but we all have to get better. I am actually going
back to watch the tape tonight because I am not going home till tomorrow for spring break. I actually don't want to go on spring break. I would like to stay and practice. I am enjoying this so much right now. The intensity we have. The competitiveness we have at practice going against each other is so much fun. That is what this is all about. It's making it a really enjoyable time to be here. I think a lot of guys would like to stay and practice next week."

RUNNING WITH A PURPOSE

One of the most impressive offensive players Friday night was tailback Montario Hardesty. Hardesty is 100-percent healthy and it showed as he hit the hole with quickness and finished runs.
"I just want to maximize my yardage every carry," Hardesty said. "The offensive line was given me some pretty good cracks for me to get through and get to the second level. I just want to make guys miss and get as many yards as I can."

The running game features the zone runs and that is what they have worked on exclusively for three practices. The zone running game is old hat to Hardesty and it brings a smile to his face.

"It gets the defense running," Hardesty said. "When you get the defense running, it means they can't really occupy gaps so that opens up cutbacks. That is all I ran in high school. It's like going back to high school for me."

Staff cohesion

Kiffin praised his staff's performance for its first official week on the field, pointing the dynamics of the group as a key for the Vols' rebuilding project.

"I think they're great together. It's a really highly competitive staff. It's great to see. Whether it's recruiting or football stuff, they're always competing against each other to kind of show that they're the best, and both sides of the ball do the same thing," Kiffin said. "They're talking about it during the day. It's kind of like having a bunch of players around because they're excited to be there. Half our guys sleep in the office at night, so it's really cool to be around that competitive a staff. Usually you have a couple of guys like that on your staff, but we've got nine of them."

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