Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee football returns to Neyland Stadium Saturday for its first Orange-and-White game with no capacity limits since 2019.
The Vols have changed head coaches and a global pandemic have happened since then as has Tennessee’s best football season in over two decades. Tennessee’s recent success combined with the lack of spring game in recent years should lead to strong interest and turnout Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee won’t be at full strength for the scrimmage but there’s still plenty of storylines to watch at the 2023 Orange-and-White game.
Here’s three I’ll be watching Saturday afternoon.
More From RTI: Notes And Observations From Tennessee’s Final Spring Practice Before Orange-And-White Game
Quarterbacks Present Intrigue
Whenever there’s a new starting quarterback coming in the fall, there’s a little extra intrigue around the spring game and watching the potential starting quarterbacks.
While Tennessee hasn’t named a starting quarterback it would be shocking if Joe Milton III isn’t behind center for the season opener against Virginia. That doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of storylines to watch with Milton Saturday.
We’ve seen the super senior start four games for Tennessee now and have an idea of his skillset. Milton can make the spectacular look easy but can he make the simple consistently look easy? That’s where the Florida native has struggled in his college career and is what I want to see from him in the Orange-and-White game.
That will be made even harder by the potential injuries at receiver. Bru McCoy has been sidelined all spring, Ramel Keyton wasn’t in full pads at Thursday’s practice while Squirrel White was in a red non contact jersey. If Milton can shine without a handful of his top weapons it would be a strong sign.
Milton is more likely to be Tennessee’s starter in 2023 but all eyes will be on five-star freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava. The California native comes to Knoxville with more fanfare than any recruit in recent memory and Saturday will be our first chance to get a long look at him.
The media has watched Iamaleava throw routes on air all spring and seen the talented signal caller improve there. But what does he look like in 11-on-11 action? How about managing the tempo of this offense? Those are things we haven’t seen from Iamaleava yet and will be interesting to follow Saturday.
With Milton and Iamaleava being the only two scholarship quarterbacks on Tennessee’s roster we’re likely to get a long look at both.
Plenty Of Newcomers To Take An Extended Look At
One of the most intriguing part of any spring game is the chance to watch newcomers who arrived on campus for the spring semester. With an abundance of signees enrolling early in addition to the transfers there will be an abundance of players to watch.
Freshman defensive linemen Nathan Robinson and Daevin Hobbs will be sidelined with injuries but the rest of the early enrollees should be active.
A few freshman I’ll be excited to see include DeSean Bishop, Arion Carter, Caleb Herring and Jordan Matthews. Bishop has impressed this spring and will have plenty of opportunities with a banged up running back room.
Carter and Herring were two of the highest ranked signees in Tennessee’s class and play positions with opportunities to see the field early this fall. As does Jordan Matthews who is the most talented cornerback Tennessee brought in after a poor 2022 season for that group.
Tranfers Keenan Pili, Gabe Jeudy-Lally and Dont’e Thornton will all be fun to watch. Pili will definitively have a role at linebacker while Jeudy-Lally has the same opportunity at corner that Matthews does. Lastly, Bru McCoy won’t be available while Ramel Keyton and Squirrel White were both limited at Thursday’s practice. That creates plenty of opportunities for the Oregon transfer Thornton.
Offensive Tackles Versus Edge Rushers
Two of Tennessee’s biggest question marks entering the 2024 season will face off against each other in the Orange-and-White game. The Vols were largely shaky at left tackle last season while Darnell Wright was fantastic at right tackle.
With Wright gone, can Tennessee shore up protection for Milton? Jeremiah Crawford, Gerald Mincey and Miami transfer John Campbell are all potential starters. How they fare Saturday will be fascinating.
They’ll face off against a unit that struggled to consistently create pressure last fall and lost top pass rusher Byron Young to the NFL Draft.
Outside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler said veteran Roman Harrison has been Tennessee’s best pass rusher in spring practice and we know he’ll have a role. But how do talented underclassmen Joshua Josephs, James Pearce Jr. and Caleb Herring fare? That’s what I’ll be focusing on.
Watching those two sides face off will be interesting but particularly if its best against best or at least ones versus twos.
Both positions will be vital to how Tennessee football fares this fall. The spring game is our first extended look at both.