Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) In the spring, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian talked about the install process of the Vols' offense.
The basics were put into place.
In the summer, more was added to the playbooks for the Vols.
Where is Tennessee at with two games left in the season?
"It is a never ending process," said Bajakian. "The offense changes every year, changes every week for that matter. The nuts and bolts stay the same. It is a matter of how well our players progress, and learn, and develop. They have done a good job of applying themselves and we will continue to get better."
Bajakian and Co. are still less than a year into implementing their offensive plans for Tennessee.
"Again, in year one, the process of developing that identity, the process of developing that mentality, it is not an instant execution of what we are trying to develop," said Bajakian. "It takes guys time in the system, it takes guys time in the program to understand that. We are getting better and learning every day."
Bajakian would like an extra 15 practices Tennessee would get with a bowl berth to continue the implementation. Something possible if the Vols win their final two games.
"It is very valuable," said Bajakian. "It is like having additional spring football. Bowl preparation you get practices for your youth to develop. We have a lot of youth so it would be invaluable."
WE'RE TALKING ABOUT TACKLING
If John Jancek could pinpoint one aspect of their game that the Tennessee defense needs to improve on with two games left in the regular season, it would be tackling.
"It's been hit and miss," said Jancek. "It's been inconsistent throughout the year. Even in games where statistically we have performed well, there were times when we missed tackles that we should have made."
The Volunteers have not only played the hardest schedule since 1993, but they have also faced some of the most talented and mobile quarterbacks in the game.
"When you look at rushing statistics against us, the quarterbacks have been the most successful," Jancek said. "Whether it's been scrambling and taking off, skipping the pocket or designed runs where he's one-on-one with one of our defenders, we don't get him on the ground, so that's something that has to be addressed now and continued talked about in the offseason."
So far into the season, most college football teams do not hold live practices with full pads and tackling, but statistically speaking, the Vols defensive coordinator believes it is necessary for Team 117.
"We actually tackled live to the ground, which normally you don't do on a bye week near the end or the middle of your season, but it's such an issue for us that we felt like that's something that has to be addressed until we become a better tackling defense," Jancek said.
So far during their open date, Jancek has already seen the coaches' message being implemented in practice with improvements in simple tackling fundamentals.
"We're going to keep pushing them and we're going to keep coaching them hard each and every single day," Jancek said. "We're committed to the University of Tennessee, this football program and getting these guys better."
A STROKE OF LUCK
Johnathon Johnson's journey to Tennessee traveled through Blinn College in Texas.
Not out of the ordinary for Division I football players to make a stop through a junior college on their journey to the big time.
But for Johnson, it was a stroke of luck, and hard work.
"Coach Z [Zach Azzanni] came down to look at my roommate actually and he noticed me on film," said Johnson. "He watched the spring game and I talked to him the next day and he told me they wanted to offer me a scholarship, so I committed on the phone."
Azzanni, the wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator for the Vols knew that he saw something special in Johnson, who has 11 catches this season for 154 yards in eight games on the field.
"[Azzanni] called and said `hey I am on the recruiting trail and I have come across a receiver that I think could really help us,'" said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "We have a very good working relationship and I have a lot of trust in his evaluation, as does Coach Jones."
On Butch Jones' team it isn't enough to have the skills on the field, but you have to have the character off the field as well.
Johnson had what it took.
"Part of that too is evaluating his character and mentality," said Bajakian. "Johnathon is one of those guys that all he does is everything you ask of him and he does it right. He focuses on those types of details. He is a guy that has constantly improved from week to week and has become more and more valuable in our offense."
CONSISTENCY & ACCOUNTABILITY
Coming off three-consecutive games against top-10 opponents, the Vols are welcoming the open week, but determined to get better across the board.
While the competition has been arguably the toughest in the nation, defensive line coach Steve Stripling stressed that it would not be used as an excuse, and that his group needs to establish more consistency and accountability.
"It's been frustrating because there were earlier games that I thought as a defensive line we were being consistent and accountable," said Stripling. "Now we've had a couple games where we haven't been.
"Understanding the competition is obviously better does not change the fact that I am accountable to do my job."
For the Vols, that consistency and accountability starts on the practice field.
"The word consistency... We need to get to that point [at practice,]" said Stripling. "We're working our young players extremely hard so they understand regardless of the circumstances - your surroundings, people yelling - that's how we practice. You have to tune all that out and do your job every single play."
Here are sound bites from Coach Stripling, Coach Bajakian, Coach Jancek and Coach Martinez:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On the absence of Marlon Walls)
"We play a lot of guys so when one is not there then somebody else has to step up. We expect him to be back and contributing this week. Hopefully that gives us a little shot in the arm."
»(On tackles for a loss)
"I wish I could just point to one thing and say it's that, but it's not. One play it might be that we're out of our gap, one play it might that we're not able to make a play. Going back to the Missouri game, there were three or four times we were within a step of the quarterback and we don't make the play.
"It's not one thing; it's a multitude of things. This mature senior group is all-in and their attitudes are great, but that does not change the fact that we are not consistent right now."
»(On Daniel McCullers)
"The word is consistency. If you sit there and watch every snap, some plays he's outstanding and the next play he's not. That's a frame of mind to him - each play I have a responsibility and I'm accountable to my defensive teammates. We're just not consistent right now."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On open week focus)
"It has allowed us to focus on us. We always say that the key to executing offensively is focusing on our fundamentals, our assignments and more often than not when it comes to offensive football, you stop yourself as much as the defense stops you. We have to make sure that we iron out the wrinkles and focus on our fundamentals, our mechanics and execution."
»(On the running game)
"We were able to execute some things offensively in the run game that maybe we hadn't the previous week. It is a process. We are just focusing on the process and improving on every facet of the game whether it is the run game, protection, the pass game, you name it."
»(On the open week helping Josh Dobbs)
"It just provides more reps. More reps and preparation for our next opponent. That is always valuable. He has been able to get a head start on the different coverages and pressures that he will be seeing. It gives us a little more time in practice."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On live tackling sending a message to the team)
"Yes. I think it does. I'll say this from yesterday till today, the guys did a much better job. They were better with their fundamentals in terms of tackling and getting guys on the ground and we just have to keep getting better."
»(On younger players getting reps)
"Primarily for their growth and to continue to evaluate them and see where their progress is. Nothing, no depth chart changes in regards to that- just normal youth development."
»(On run game)
"Yes, we were. The quarterback running game is where we've really suffered. There were some things in the Missouri game where we had a short box a couple of times because they were throwing the ball, but other than that, it's been quarterback taking off and beating us with his feet."
»(On linebackers against Auburn)
"There were no issues in terms of the linebackers finding out who had the ball. They executed. They did their job for the most part. There was a couple times, here and there, we maybe slid a little too far inside. Nothing where you said, `Man that's awful.' For the most part, we were on point.
"When they run the quarterback, it's an equalizer. We didn't tackle well. He had obviously great athletic ability and speed. We got exposed. We have to live with it, but we also have a duty and obligation to correct it. That's our job as coaches and that's what we intend on doing."
ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/DBs COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On the second open week)
"I'm just going to talk about this week because I think our guys have done a great job. This is our second open week. Our first one we had a - we really had a great week and I could say it again, we're on that track again this week. Our guys have been really focused, they're trying to improve some of the things we haven't done so well.
"Our main focus has been the tackling part of it. It's given us an opportunity to slow things down a little bit and we can take our time to get more reps and at the same time develop the youth whether that's Malik Foreman on the back end, Lemond Johnson, Tino Thomas and including Riyahd Jones who has been out with injury."