"A long way to go."
That was the message after Tennessee concluded its spring practice on Saturday with the annual Orange and White Game.
The White team jumped out to a 10-0 halftime lead and held on to defeat the Orange squad 24-7.
"I told the team it was a great example that it doesn't matter what kind of game it is — spring game, SEC game, you name it — that the team that wins the line of scrimmage and can run the football will win the game, and today was evidence of that," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "It doesn't matter how many fancy guys you've got in the skill positions, you better be a physical football team.
"The White came in a heavy underdog. The Orange was confident and talking smack, had all the skills. And the White went blue collar on them and punched them right in the mouth. It was fun to watch."
While Saturday was more for the fans and not an indicator of players' progress throughout the entire spring, Dooley was pleased with the work of the team as a whole.
"I'm obviously glad nobody got hurt," Dooley said. "I was real proud of how we ended up the spring. I felt like everybody on our team improved. Units improved. But we still have got a long way to go, a long way to go. But we're headed in the right direction."
Running back Rajion Neal got the scoring started, hauling in a 43-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Matt Simms at the 4:13 mark of the first quarter. Neal finished with 56 rushing yards on 12 carries and led both squads in all-purpose yards with 100.
Tight end Mychal Rivera got loose in the secondary for his only reception of the day on a 54-yard touchdown pass from Tyler Bray to cut the White lead to 10-7 early in the third quarter.
Players like Neal and RIvera will be looked upon to play larger roles in the upcoming football season.
"There are some areas where we feel like we have players who will continue to develop, and then there are other areas where we're going to need some help," Dooley said. "That's when June comes around, and we're going to have another 20 guys (incoming recruits) in June and training all summer to see how they can help us. We're going to need their help."
Running back Tauren Poole, a captain for the Orange team, along with linebacker Daryl Vereen, said he believes the improvement this spring is a result of the team wanting to win.
"I think we made a big leap this whole entire spring by playing fast, playing together," Poole said. "There's a sense of urgency for this team, because we want to win and we want to win fast. I see it, I know the coaches see it, but we have to take it into the summer and continue to work. Definitely not where we want to be."
The talented Neal garnered praise from coaches for much of the spring. After rushing for more than 150 yards and three touchdowns in the team's first scrimmage of the spring, Neal put some pressure on starting running back Poole, who ran for a game-high 60 yards on nine carries Saturday.
"I'm for Rajion in everything he does," Poole said. "I was happy he got some good plays today. But I think that's definitely motivating. We're always competing. Me and him always go at it. Now that I see the type of spring Toney (Williams) had today, I've got another guy to compete with, but it's definitely good for me, good for the game, good for this offense (to) just have multiple threats, and I'm just excited about the opportunity to compete with those guys."
Simms, the team's backup quarterback, finished 6-of-13 for 93 yards and one touchdown.
"It was just fun to get out here and compete a little bit, play in more of a game situation, not have all the coaches in the huddle and bearing down over you," Simms said. "It was fun to get out there and play with some of the younger guys like (center Mack) Crowder. First time in the stadium, a little nervous the first few plays, but a lot of young guys stepped up and played well. Just fun to get out there and just happy everyone is healthy."
His counterpart, starter Tyler Bray, struggled through the air for much of the day, completing on 5-of-30 for 122 yards and a touchdown.
"I was more frustrated with myself, not making the throws," Bray said. "I was off on my accuracy and wasn't making throws today. In warm-ups I felt great. I just didn't have it when we started."
However, the scrimmage doesn't change the fact that Bray is the team's starting signal-caller heading into the season. Yet Simms is content with the situation.
"I believe I have ability," he said. "I played against some pretty good teams in this conference. I have experience, and that's a good thing to have for a second quarterback to have is experience. God forbid if anything happens. I just take it one day at a time, and I'm just happy to be here."
"I kept saying Matt can play," Dooley said. "I told him he's going to have to go in next year at some point and win us a football game."
All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson, one of the more outspoken Vols, was one of the seniors who participated in the draft to select the rosters for the game. Jackson was in a good mood following his White team's victory on Saturday and took the opportunity to boast a little bit.
"I feel like I picked a pretty good team," Jackson said. "I felt confident all week, and we went out there and played well today. My goal in the draft was to choose a good offensive and defensive line. I know the game is won in the trenches and that's where I focused my attention. Our defensive line has jumped leaps and bounds over the spring. At the beginning of the year, we were just a bunch of guys, but now we're a unit. I'm really proud of them."