Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) The state of college football and the SEC is changing. Week in and week out the points continue to pile up. But Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney stands his ground on one thing - this is still a line of scrimmage league.
Heading into this week's matchup against No. 6 Georgia, the Vols' veteran offensive line will be locked in a battle over the line of scrimmage.
"They are an active front; they get after it," said Mahoney. "Their two inside players are extremely solid and their two ends have speed and quickness. They keep getting better each game. We have to be clicking on all cylinders, communication is of the utmost importance and our technique and effort have to be at an all-time high."
With 143 combined starts under their belts and having played some of the nation's top competition in Oregon and Florida already this season, the Vols' front five won't be caught off guard by the Bulldogs.
"We have an opportunity - having played Oregon, having played Florida - we have seen some of it," said Mahoney. "It's not like it is a new week of that. It's really going back and working to correct some of the mistakes we made in those two games."
Georgia's defensive front may be young, but through talent and coaching they've impressed Mahoney in 2013.
"It's that time; guys are replacing guys and stepping into roles where they have to mature faster than they are really ready to," said Mahoney. "They are a really well-coached team. They are getting better and improving. They are playing team defense together.
"You've got to be right on the offensive line to stop it. Each week the level of talent that we're facing gets better and better. We have to playing and clicking on all cylinders."
NORTH TO SOUTH
Senior running back Rajion Neal had a career game last weekend against South Alabama rushing for 169 yards, the most by any Vol since 2009.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was proud of Neal's effort, and proud of the way that he has improved this season.
"It was great to see," said Bajakian. "Rajion played a tough football game. He was dinged up, he didn't relent. He came out in the second half and still ran very physically, finished his runs. He was good in pass protection. I am very happy with the process and progress that he has made throughout the season."
During the game Neal took what looked like might be just three or four yard gains, bounced off and raced down the field, including a career long 53-yard rush in the second quarter that set up a UT touchdown.
His effort also impressed head coach Butch Jones.
"We felt Rajion played his most complete game since we have been here," said Jones. "That is a tribute to our offensive line, and a tribute to him. We have challenged him of learning how to run north and south, behind his pads and getting four yards first."
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie concurs with his coworkers and believes not just Neal, but the entire running back corps has taken strides this season.
"I think as a team everybody is getting better week by week," said Gillespie. "I just think he is one of those pieces that continue to get better with every rep. But there are a lot of things to work on. I do think we were better last week then we were week one."
"Earlier in the season, Rajion was trying to bounce everything and he was always looking for a big play," said Jones. "I think the mark of a great back is getting four yards first. We have challenged him to do that and he has responded. He is a work in progress with his pass protection and has taken tremendous strides. Rajion's mentality and his attitude has been great since the minute we walked in the door."
With two true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and two sophomores listed on the Vols' current two-deep at wide receiver, the ceiling looks high for Wide Receiver U.
As he does every week, positional coach Zach Azzanni evaluates the performance of his players' previous game. While doing so, Azzanni came across a photo that grabbed his attention.
"There was a picture of Marquez (North) and Josh (Smith) chest-bumping in the end zone Saturday," said Azzanni. "I put a big thing together for both of them, circled it and wrote `The Future.' Just the look in their eyes was `wow,' because there were two true freshmen chest-bumping."
Azzanni is seeing consistent improvement and knows the potential is there, but continues to stress patience.
"It's peaks and valleys; these are 18 to 22 year old kids," said Azzanni. "The maturity might pop on overtime and all of a sudden from this year to next year you might see a different kid. But that is over six and seven months, spring, summer and winter workouts.
"It doesn't just snap on one day. It takes some time. You are starting to see habits creep up, good habits, and the bad habits are going away. It's fun to watch them grow."
Developing receivers is not new for Azzanni. As head coach Butch Jones has emphasized repeatedly, there's none better in the country at developing talent on the outside.
Azzanni has developed the likes of Pittsburgh Steelers star Antonio Brown, former Central Michigan standout Bryan Anderson and current Wisconsin Badgers senior Jared Abbrederis.
"I think the good coaches know when to pull off and put on," said Azzanni. "You have to be positive and you have to show them they can do it. If I didn't have relationships with my kids and if I didn't do different things to build the chemistry, then I wouldn't be able to coach them like I do. They would shut off. But they know I care about them. I am invested completely."
With Azzanni leading the way, it appears the future is bright at Wide Receiver U.
BOOST OF CONFIDENCE
For the third time this season, a Tennessee tight end caught a touchdown pass.
For the first time in his career against South Alabama, it was true freshman A.J. Branisel that hauled in the six-point grab.
Tight ends coach Mark Elder was proud and happy for the rookie.
"It was a neat deal for him to get a touchdown since he is a true freshman," said Elder. "It was a meaningful one and a big one in the game. It gave him a little bit more juice going into this week. He is fired up."
Branisel notched the Vols first touchdown of the day turning around in the back of the endzone and corralling a two-yard strike from Justin Worley to give the Vols a lead they would not relinquish.
The touchdown was a demonstration of the progress that Branisel has made this year, in his first few months on Rocky Top.
"He is coming along, absolutely," said Elder. "As a freshman he is grasping the offense better. Every single day he is getting better. As far as the ins and outs of everything, it is easy when it is on the boards but when it is moving parts, that is when it gets a little bit tougher."
"Every single day he is learning with the reps he is getting, he is improving," continued Elder. "He is focused and locked in which is good. He is improving as a receiver obviously with his nice catch over the weekend and he is getting better as a blocker as well."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On Marquez North)
"Evaluating him after that game - there were some improvements Saturday. I told those guys that winning is hard, evaluating yourself on a win, that is a good thing. He did some good things. He made some tough catches. His catches improved Saturday. He has had a great week, refocused. I saw some things yesterday in Tuesday's practice on film, just some signs that got me excited, some technique things.
Again, not a natural receiver yet, he was a running back, people forget that. Everyone wants him to come in and be an Amari Cooper but he played receiver for a long time and Marquez has not. So the little things have started to come slowing but surely. I am happy that I am starting to see some improvement."
»(On Josh Smith)
"He is a backyard football player, he has some savvy to him, that is why he can go out there and make some plays maybe with not the greatest technique yet. He is another one that is slowly improving week to week. Here is a kid that as a true freshman, had a rough outing at Oregon, let's be honest, he had some drops that he wishes he could have back. But he has really come to work; he doesn't say a word."
»(On Jason Croom)
"I think he had his best game Saturday. I was relentless on him last week. I was so hard on him, for good reason, I am trying to make him hard so it is easier on Saturdays. He didn't have a great week of practice but I will tell you what, I love the kid because he comes back every day with a great attitude. Comes back and takes notes, watches film, and he had his best game Saturday. I was really proud of him. Now we have to step it up a level and have another great game."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
» (On Brendan Downs' toughness)
"Throughout the game it is a contact sport. You are going to have moments when you have a contact that doesn't feel real good. It is part of the game and you have to play through it. He did a good job when he had his bump. He played through the pain. It was good to see him taking that step forward and not taking himself out or anything like that. He didn't want to come out in any way shape or form. He played through it and by two plays later I think he was a 100 percent."
»(On Georgia's special teams)
"Their punt unit is averaging 48 yards a punt. Their coverage unit is outstanding and they are flying down the field, tackling guys and nobody getting any returns on those guys. They are a kick off unit after one rep. Their unit is tackling guys outside the 20. Teams are averaging 19 yards outside of one rep per return on that. As far as that is concerned they have some really strong special teams, dynamic guys and a couple of different returners back there. We have got to be ready in our coverage units and we have improved in our tackling over the past couple of weeks which is a positive. We have to continue that this week because they are some real dynamic guys back there. We have to make sure we get them down in space."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Rajion Neal being from Georgia)
"Well I am sure that there is something inside him and all those guys from that state. Obviously for those guys to leave that state and come here means a lot for us a program. I am sure there is a little burning. There will probably be a few more friends and family that want to come to this game. I am sure deep down in those guys there is a little more this week."
»(On what is needed for Saturday)
"Obviously when you get the chance to play an opponent like Georgia you have to be ready. They have a lot of good defensive players. They are athletic and long ranging. We have to do a good job of limiting our mistakes, taking advantage of momentum swings that come our way, taking advantage of staying on the field and converting on third downs. If we just play solid offensive football then everything else will come our way. Our kids need to go out there, make some plays and gain momentum early."
»(On Tom Smith taking advantage of extra reps)
"He has so far. Tom is a guy on a team that players really like. He works hard and does the little things and always shows up with a good attitude. The guys have rallied around him in getting more reps, so far he has done a really good job in getting those reps."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On the line only giving up four sacks this season)
"We still have a ways to go. A lot goes into sacks in terms of numbers where people get excited and say well it is this many or sometimes it is on the other end where it is too many. We want to leave a game where the quarterback is not hit. We cannot allow him to get hit. He has to set his feet and make his throw. A lot is put on him if he makes a wrong throw or poor throw where really we are the ones who could have caused it and we can't allow that to happen. So we have to get better at that. We have to get better at taking care of things technically and again communication. That is something we will continue to work at."
»(On the chemistry of the offensive line)
"It is interesting because I know obviously of the success that they have had in regards to that, last year. I have never been around a bunch that takes so much pride in that. The thing that is interesting though is, and it is nice to see, is how much pride they are taking in running the football. That is the part and that is the mindset that we are really working on and grow upon. It is something that they are priding themselves on with being able to run the ball.
But also pass protection is extremely important to them and the numbers, they are well aware of, from a pride standpoint. It is the hits on the quarterback that we can't allow. It is collectively. It is all of us; it is the backs, the tight ends, we all work together at that. It is something that we all pride ourselves on. We are continuing to work at it."