KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT Release) -- The rock steady Tennessee offensive line has felt some shake ups this week.
These shake ups are thanks to offensive line coach Don Mahoney and the UT coaching staff who feel that versatility is a key factor in being a good offensive lineman.
“Football is a game of situations,” said Mahoney. “Every series of plays is a game of situations; sudden changes, where are we at on the field, what’s the down and distance. It’s a constant training of the mind that Coach Jones preaches that mentally and physically we have got to be stronger. It’s all part of the process.”
One lineman who has already registered starts at multiple spots on the O-Line as well as tight end, Alex Bullard is used to the change.
“To be able to be versatile and to play that many positions, mentally and physically, is huge for us,” said Mahoney. “From the center spot to guard to tackle, to do all those things and really do them well is huge. It really helps the rest of the group. This week we did some different things. We moved some guys into some different positions. [Bullard] sets a standard in the fact that he wants to be competitive and the other guys want to be competitive in having to play other positions as well”.
Thought Bullard might have been unfazed by the changes, it was a little different for Ja’Wuan James, who has played and started all 37 games of his college career at right tackle.
James got the shift to left tackle during practice this week while Marcus Jackson moved to right guard and Zach Fulton moved to the outside at right tackle.
“We never want our players to know what’s next,” said Mahoney. “We want the unknown. We can go out and have an hour practice or a two and a half hour practice. They don’t know. We want the unknown. Part of me wanted to call the night before and say, ‘Are you ready to go to right tackle?’ But I said no. I want to see how they respond.”
“As we were leaving the meeting I said, ‘Zach, you’re going to right. JuWuan, you’re going to left. Marcus, you’re going to right guard. Oh by the way, Alex and James, you two are going to switch up at center’. I wanted that process to start working as they hit the field. I wanted to see that sense of urgency by their body language and those type of things that come of creating the unknown.”
Football is a game of unknowns; anything can happen at any time. That is what Mahoney wants his line to realize.
“I want to see a guy that attacks that challenge, and we have that in this group,” said Mahoney. “Has it been exactly what we would like right now? No. But we are making some strides and the guys are really working at it”.
GROWING UP FAST
Though the Tennessee defensive line is one of the most veteran positions on the team with six seniors, there is a new face that is making a big impact on the line this spring.
According to UT’s assistant head coach and defensive line coach Steve Stripling, quiet Corey Vereen is making a loud impact in the trenches.
“Vereen is exceptional,” said Stripling. “His attitude right now as a freshman, he is a mid-year freshman. He should be good to prom this week and he is here at 9 o’clock doing things. After practice he was the first one that walked up and said, ‘Let me make sure I am clear on this.’ His attitude and appetite for football right now is unbelievable.”
Vereen came to Tennessee in January as a linebacker, but with his size and speed has been moved up to the front four primarily in the role of the LEO.
With the move to the front line, Vereen has been learning from and competing with senior Jacques Smith for the position this spring.
“First of all they have little more fast twitch capabilities, Jacques and Corey,” said Stripling. “Corey has been a great surprise, he has been showing up and he is a young man that really gets to it. He just has an unstoppable attitude. Beyond the athletic ability we need everybody to get into it.”
“It is unusual for anybody, but for a mid-year those young men come in and there is an adjustment phase,” continued Stripling. “But he has adjusted, the kids like him, he is not afraid to get out in front of the line. I think he is going to be a fine young man.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie has been quoted as saying that when he got to Tennessee he would not watch past film of the running back corps and would judge them based on what they showed to him this spring.
Two young running backs in particular have stood out to Gillespie, Alden Hill and Deanthonie Summerhill.
"To be honest [Alden Hill] is probably one to have shown the most growth this spring,” said Gillespie. “He is probably getting more reps then he has ever gotten and he is taking advantage of them. I tell him all the time that at time he is like a bull in a china shop which is a little bit out of control but at least it is full speed out of control.”
Hill can be seen around the complex putting in work both after practice and later in the day after he gets done with classes.
“He has probably spent the most time in here on his own working on his footwork and things like that,” said Gillespie. “It is definitely showing up. He is a kid that is going to get better slowly. We just have to be patient with him."
Summerhill, a walk-on to the Vols squad, has also impressed Gillespie this spring with his attention to detail and willingness to get better.
"He is a smart kid,” said Gillespie. “If you are not the most talented or athletic, fastest or strongest then you have to do the little things. He is one of those kind of guys. He is asking really good questions in the meeting rooms, watching film like he is a starter and it just shows up. He does the little things right. I tell him all the time if you can get the head coach to know your name and call you out then you are doing a good job."
ALL FOR ONE, AND ONE FOR ALL
When you look at the Tennessee Football roster, next to Mark Elder’s name it reads Tight Ends Coach and Special Teams Coordinator.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Elder is the sole voice when it comes to the special teams.
“Special teams is no different than offense and defense,” said Elder. “You don’t have one guy coaching all 11 on offense, you have an offensive line coach, you have a tight ends coach, running backs coach, quarterbacks coach, same thing. That is our philosophy with special teams.”
“Within special teams there is a big picture to it all but there are individuals who are coaching an individual drill that is specific for that unit,” continued Elder. “What that allows you to do is get a little bit higher coach to player ratio so they are getting more coaching. If you have one guy coaching all 11 you are going to get one point to just a couple of guys and they aren’t going to get coached up and their technique is not going to improve. But if you have one coach assigned to two or three guys they are going to get coached up on every single play and their technique is going to improve.”
The Vols coaching staff works as one solid, fluid unit and they expect Team 117 to be the same.
“That is how we will continue to do it,” said Elder. “It is the best way for our guys to improve technique on a consistent basis because they are going to get corrected on every single snap, just like offense and defense. You see the coaches hollering at guys, ‘Hey, this is what you need to improve,’ coaching them up and getting their technique better. We are going to do the exact same thing on special teams.”
ASST. HEAD COACH/DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
(On the senior class)
“I do. I talk to them every day that with six seniors we should be one of the strongest positions on the field. A day like today, when you are coming in, it is a little bit in the grind, we should be the group that is motivating the other group. That is showing energy and that is leading the way with those six seniors.”
(On the pass rush mentality)
“That is a slow process. It is like I have always said, you have to develop a pass rush mentality and I am not sure we are there yet. Part of the pass rush is knowing when it is pass, that comes through football intelligence. But to get to that point you have to learn everything else so that you can get to that second level and think about things, like where is the back, how big is the offensive line splits, where is he looking. We aren’t at the point yet. We are gradually getting better.”
(On Danny O’Brien)
“It has been good. He had a long way to go technique wise, the development of his hands. Danny has really gotten much better and that is what was holding him back. He just wasn’t using his hands well. He has made tremendous progress. He is a tough kid. He is a scrapper. So I think he will just continue to get better.”
(On playing different positions)
“The way we are teaching these guys is you have to be able to play everything. Sometimes injuries occur and sometimes that happens in practice, ‘you are going to go over there to do that position.’ That is the way we are learning. Everybody is learning every position, uses flexibility in down and distance and personnel.”
ASST. HEAD COACH- DEFENSE/DBACKS WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On if Daniel Gray and LaDarrell McNeil's playing experience is paying off)
"I think so. Anytime you can play in front of 100,000 plus people and feel that game like experience, to go through it is going to help you. Hopefully they learn from some of the good and some of the bad but going forward it's going to help them."
(On if he is where he expected to be with the guys so far this spring)
"From a coaching standpoint, you always want to be ahead but we understand you're putting in a new system and you're teaching fundamentals, certain things that were different. Again, I think what's happening is they're more comfortable with what we're saying and what we're teaching and we're seeing a little bit more consistency in the results. You know those are things that we're looking in a positive way."
(On if Riyahd Jones is taking the steps he hoped he would take throughout the spring)
"Yep, and well it's inconsistent and we understand that with him coming from this is his third school in three years. Again, so he's got his third new coach. Like a lot of these guys here got their fourth coach. It's learning how to do things, you know what I mean, and listening. He's a little bit more, obviously more mature than some of the mid-year kids that come in because those kids are coming straight out of high school. He's already been at Georgia Southern and had been at junior college. You can tell that just by his mature level as far as understanding the scheme and understanding some of the fundamentals that we're coaching."
(On if he is pleased with what he's seeing out of the pass coverage techniques)
"I like some of the improvements that were. You know from the day one to now, being the eleventh practice, there has been, you can tell, you can see. Whether it's the position that they're in when they're rerouting receivers or the position that they're in when they're in their backpedal and trying to defend all the routes. They're feeling more comfortable in their alignments. We still got a ways to go and again it's still a work in progress and they don't need to know everything right now. All we're saying is just improve each day. They're small steps but as long as you're making small steps in a positive direction we're going to get better."
TIGHT ENDS COACH/SPECIAL TEAMS COORD. MARK ELDER
(On the importance of scrimmages)
“Every day is big. Every single day is big. Certainly the scrimmages you get to see a little bit more of the assignment. I am not going to be out there hollering behind them, no instruction. A matter of fact, since I am in the box, on scrimmages days I don’t day much to them. Because on game day I am going to be in the box. I do as little communicating as I would on game day. So I might make a point to them when they come off the field but essentially I try to treat it a lot like game day. So on game day I am going to be up in the box so any communication that I would have would be through phones and will be a little bit limited. With that being said, there are not getting coached up and they aren’t getting someone reminding them with anything they might need as they are taking the field. You really get to see the assignment and if they are executing the assignment for that play call. But every single day is important. Our development on day in and day out, whether it is a scrimmage or a practice is extremely important.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On balancing between pushing and encouraging)
"Each kid is different. You just have to understand them. You have to go into a practice understanding how to approach them. From a psychological stand point how much do you want to push them. I have to be good cop and bad cop at times. You have to figure out which one you will be that day."
(On what Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane need to do this summer)
"Just continue to watch film and get in the weight room. They need to become students of this offense and become better leaders. It could go on and on. They understand that and it is my job to keep finding new things for them to get better at."
(On Marlin Lane being at practice today)
"No he was not there. Alden Hill, Rajion Neal and Deanthonie Summerhill were all there busting their butts. Marlin is just not practicing right now."
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN DON MAHONEY
(On the linemen bouncing back after the scrimmage)
“We went into the scrimmage with physicality being first and foremost. (The result) wasn’t where we want to be. There is a number we put on our guys for knockdowns to get recognized for that award, and we weren’t close to it. So I’m not pleased at all. On the positive side, Tuesday, we came out and had a better day. Again, with the thought in mind of guys playing different positions. I told the guys right before they hit the field, I didn’t give them a chance to think about it the night before. I’m talking as the meeting ended, addressing problems we had in the scrimmage. We aren’t pleased with the physicality of where we are at and going out to the field I thought the guys responded. Tuesday’s practice was one of our more physical practices, where some bodies actually went to the ground. So that was encouraging”.
(On physicality being the number one priority)
“It is. It’s about having that killer instinct. It’s a finish mentality, and finishing blocks off. As I mentioned before, it’s the knockdowns that come with extra effort through great strain, and through a mentality of just wanting to take the will away from somebody. We need more of that. I’ve been working to demand more of that. We need to see more of it and have video evidence of it. So we can start rewarding guys for that. That’s the fun part is rewarding guys and recognizing that and making it something where it becomes contagious. Again, it’s an effort. It’s an all-out effort. Every single play, their mentality and those type things. But definitely physicality”.