KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT Release) – On Saturday at Neyland Stadium opportunity knocks for Team 117. The 2013 DISH Orange & White Game – set for a 2 p.m. start – offers a final chance for the Vols to get on the gridiron this spring and prove something.
With that in mind, Thursday morning’s practice session – No. 14 this spring – served as the final tune-up.
“This was the cramming before the final,” said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. “What we actually tried to do today is get everything on video, building our video library, so when the incoming freshmen get here you now have a resource that the older players can take them through.”
While the 15 allotted practices are obviously important, the first-year coaching staff under head coach Butch Jones knows it’s going to take much more to accomplish its goals for Team 117.
“We always want more work,” said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “They will go through their footwork in the summer. They will go through their lifting and running and all those things. But there is nothing like putting the pads on and actually hitting. I would like to go three more weeks and have two-a-days every week, but the reality is physically we can’t do that. The foundation has been set in terms of what our expectations are.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie echoed the same sentiments on Thursday.
“I told the guys, I said everyone in the country gets 15 practices. Everybody. Every school we play against,” said Gillespie. “It’s what you do with those 15 practices. The second part of it is what you do with the other 330-some odd days. That’s what is going to make us a good football team.
“It’s not the 15 practices where I’m here yelling, Coach Jones is screaming, and (Mike) Bajakian is screaming. It’s the extra work that they carry throughout the offseason and through the summer. Those are the things that will make us a good team, not 15 practices.”
Neal Growing Into Leadership Role
As a senior, running back Rajion Neal is expected to set an example for the younger players on the team. Coach Robert Gillespie said Neal is working hard to become a better leader, but with a lot of youth on the running back depth chart, he's pushing the upperclassman for more.
"He has taken more reps," Gillespie said. "He’s done a really good job of staying healthy and taking care of his body. From that standpoint, I have seen him show some leadership ability. But I would like him to show more because we do have a young group. We have a bunch of guys who haven’t played before. He has definitely taken some strides to become a more visual leader.”
Gillespie said the team needs Neal to lead the team visually and vocally.
"We need for him to take major strides in being a leader, a vocal leader," Gillespie said. "But first and foremost before a vocal leader, his actions have to speak. I think he understands that from just the talks we’ve had off the field. He’s definitely gotten better but he has a long way to go.”
According to Gillespie, the most important thing for Neal is to be consistent and to hold himself accountable on a daily basis.
"He has to be consistent every day to where he can look in the mirror and recognize who he is as a football player," Gillespie said. "When we look at film every day, we have to recognize who that is. That’s the way I’ve talked to him about it and I think he understands it, so it’s not a deal where we constantly challenge him and call him out. I think it has a lot to do with himself. He has a lot to prove to himself.”
Spring Practice Brings Opportunity
During the spring, especially under a new coaching staff, all the players have a chance to prove themselves, and set a new precedence for their performance. One player taking advantage of that this spring, according to offensive line coach Don Mahoney is walk-on and Knoxville-native Jacob Gilliam.
“Jacob Gilliam has been getting a lot of work at right tackle,” Mahoney said. “He has really made some strides this spring that I have been encouraged with.”
Gilliam isn’t the only walk-on making noise. Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni praised another native Tennessean in redshirt freshman Sam Cranford for his consistency so far this spring.
“I think Sam Cranford has done a nice job,” Azzanni said. “He’s actually one of our most consistent receivers right now. He has dropped some passes here and there, but he also has gotten thrown in the fire when he didn’t think he was. I was pleased with the way he responded. He will be a solid contributor to us and our program”
Walk-on running back Deanthonie Summerhill has received significant playing time during camp and been a factor behind returning starter Rajion Neal and redshirt freshman Alden Hill.
While some walk-ons are impressing at wide receiver and offensive line, Coach Tommy Thigpen is looking for one more linebacker to step up and take a starting position.
“We’ve got to get one more guy ready,” Thigpen said. “It will either be Brew (Brent Brewer), Kenny Bynum or Greg King. One of those guys has to step up and help us out at base. I'm proud of those guys and their efforts.”
Unlike the regular season, there are no awards given out at the end of spring practice. It’s all about getting reps and getting better in a limited amount of time.
However, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen believes his group of Vols has one man in mind when it comes to receiving accolades this spring.
“Right now if you had to ask the guys who had the most improvement as a player overall, it'd be hands down Dontavis Sapp,” said Thigpen.
It’s not only been the on-field skills of Sapp that Thigpen and his teammates have noticed, but Thigpen was quick to point out the rising senior’s intellectual ability.
“Dontavis has come into his own. He gets it,” Thigpen said. “He's got a great mind and a great memory. He's done a great job for us as far as getting guys lined up and getting motivated. I'm really proud of his progress.”
Ultimately, Thigpen is not just looking for one standout, but for the Vol linebackers to each know their role in the new 4-3 scheme.
“The guys have a foundation. They've been in a 4-3 before,” said Thigpen. “We’ve got a really clear understanding of exactly what we need to do. Each guy has a role out there.”
Johnson Learning On The Fly
For Lemond Johnson, things have progressed pretty fast. He committed to Tennessee in mid-December, and as one of five mid-term enrollees, he’s gotten a head start on the rest of the 2013 signing class.
“He's done great,” secondary coach Willie Martinez said. “He's done great. Major advantage for a kid that comes out, for us and our program, it's a major advantage for you to be here. Where he should be in high school right now going through prom and enjoying, you know, his last semester of high school, he's here. So it's kind of like his redshirt, he's kind of going through it all, how to do things.”
Instead of doing the things normal high-schoolers are doing, like going to his prom, Johnson is learning what it takes to be a student-athlete at a Division I program.
(He’s) “Going to class and seeing how to manage time, how to get everything,” Martinez said. “How are you going to be able to juggle things from the standpoint of football, weight training and academics. He’s getting a good balance of it and he's got a great idea of it.”
While Johnson has made strides on and off the field, he and the rest of the DBs still have a ways to go.
"It's still a work in progress but there has been some progress as far as a little bit more consistency from some of the players,” Martinez said. “I'm not going to say as a collective group. It's still not there, but there have been small improvements.”
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
(On the improvement in the pass rush)
“Well, it’s been slow progress. We were just talking about how I think our run defense has made much more progress than our pass defense. Pass rush is a lengthy process in that it first come from a mentality, second it comes from football intelligence. You need to know when it is a pass, and we’re not to that point yet. We’re perfecting techniques, but when a defensive lineman knows that it’s a pass, he can really turn it loose and have that mentality. We’re just not to that point yet, so that’s something that we’re going to have to continue to develop.”
(On Curt Maggitt as a pass rusher)
“Curt and I were talking the other day and he asked, “What’s in the future?” And I said well, we play for success. We’re going to put you in the position that’s going to make you the most successful. So I do [think he’ll do well], watching the films from last year, knowing the young man’s attitude, knowing the young man’s leadership qualities, we’re going to find a home for him for sure.”
(On holding their own in the SEC)
“We’re going to. We have a lot of work to do. The old football adage of leverage – the lowest man wins – we still have an issue with that. We’re getting better, we’re getting better every day, but it starts with that. Second is what we call attacking the line of scrimmage. Coming off the football, we’re not a reading defense; we’re an attacking defense. So there are times, especially when kids get tired, kids revert back to their stances, their legs get wider and they start to read things. We don’t read; we attack. All that plays into being able to defend the run.”
(On linebackers playing three downs)
“I think our linebackers are athletic enough to play three downs, but we’re going to be a multiple substitution team because again, our philosophy is all about putting kids in a position to be successful. If it’s third and extra-long, we’re going to put pass rushing and pass defending personnel on the field. So you’re going to try to match the personnel to the down distance and their offensive personnel as best you can.”
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On the possibility of losing Jalen Reeves-Maybin to another position)
"No, I'm not because again, he came here as a safety. I think he can still play that position. He's done everything that we've asked him to do other than the things that he has to do on the field because he's been injured. He's been really good in academics, he's been really good off the field whether it's community service or not. He handles his business about it. I'm excited and I know everyone keeps talking about depth at linebacker and everywhere else but we need depth at the safety position and for our future. I think he'll do a great job. Whatever the case might be, he's going to be a guy that we're looking forward to seeing on the field come this fall."
(On expectations and goals this summer)
"Well, it's to continue to build off of what they've had here in the spring as far as improving their fundamentals. They have a lot of work to do. So hopefully with the captain workouts this summer and the leadership, they can correct themselves on some of the things that we've given them. We've given them some goals. We've given them some expectations, they know it. Obviously the big one would be being in great shape because of the style of offense and defense we play, but it's already kind of been in place. We kind of talked about it here in the spring. It's work, there's no magic to it, got to work. Outwork yourselves really."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On progress this spring)
"A lot more. We've put a lot more defense in and we've been doing it based on how much guys are growing. So lately we've been putting in a lot of things because some guys are catching on to the concepts a lot faster. Communication is a lot better. Guys are starting to get an understanding of exactly what we want as far as calls and then the most important part is the effort."
(On watching film this summer)
"Yeah, the game is played mostly, eighty percent of it's in your head. One of the things that we always harp on every day is eighty to ninety percent of college linebackers are most of the time lined up wrong. So we take a lot of pride in getting lined up. Getting lined up right, you've got to train somebody to play. If you're going to be multiple defenses, guys got to know exactly what their jobs are, where the support is coming from, what type of coverage they have. That's going to be the biggest thing for us in the summer time. Not getting away from it but actually we'll run to it in the summer and take 25-30 minutes a day and that's all it takes until we start ball again. Actually exercising your mind and playing the game in your head a bunch a bunch of times."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On the offensive line protecting the quarterbacks)
“(Justin) Worley and (Nathan) Peterman have really been getting better. As we finish practice or scrimmage, I just see the progress those guys are making. I think the guys are excited of the challenge of that, but at the same time knowing we do have to protect for those guys back there where it’s a little new to them. As each day goes by, I think it’s slowing down for them a little bit. The quarterbacks are really making progress.”
(On guys learning different positions this spring)
“The last week, we emphasized guys playing some new positions for the first time. It was good in the fact that a guy like Ja’Wuan James didn’t have a good Thursday practice, but he takes a lot of pride in all the work that he does so he came out Saturday and had his best day at left tackle. So all I wanted was to identify some guys having to play some different spots and creating a sense of urgency so that during the season if a situation were to occur it’s not something new to them. They are attacking it and their mindset is that way.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On what he hopes the guys takeaway)
“I hope they take these fundamentals. Things we’ve done during these individual periods. The way we watch film. Hopefully they do those things when we’re not there. We try to talk to them in a language where they say the same thing we say as coaches. So hopefully when I’m not there they’re saying the same thing that Coach Gillespie said when they are watching film. When they’re out there catching balls and working with the quarterback, they’re saying the same things and fundamentals that Coach Bajakian has been saying. If we can get the kids to do that, we have a chance.”
(On Alden Hill’s improvement)
“He’s finally made some big strides. He was a long way from being a football player. He was a guy that was thrown on the scout team, and didn’t understand what was going on. This spring he definitely has had a chance to understand football. I told him everything you thought you knew, throw it away. You don’t know it, so let’s go from the ground up. He’s done a good job of accepting that. It’s our job to tear you down and build you back up. The building process has been formed. He has to continue to go into the off season and do the things he’s been doing and he’ll have a chance to play.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On getting quality reps with limited numbers)
“It’s hard. It’s difficult. You got to see if there is a walk-on that can help you because they are getting reps that they normally wouldn’t get and which ones can make the team because they all won’t be back. Then which guys step up and help those guys, which we really don’t have a lot of right now. We really don’t have much leadership with this group. We are trying to find that, too.”
(On a lack of leadership at the position)
“It is disappointing. They are being challenged. I need a leader. I need a leader in that group. That will come over time. There is inexperience there. They are young guys. They are guys quite frankly that have no idea how to work and no idea how to win and that’s my job to teach them all those habits to do those things. Because they think they have done here in the past has worked, but it hasn’t worked. So I have to teach them. The leader doesn’t know yet, but when he figures it out, whomever that is, then he will start leading those expectations.”
(On the impact the soon-to-be-drafted WRs on recruiting)
“I hope a lot. There is not a better place in college football than Tennessee. I think (current players) forget where they are sitting in that receivers room sometimes. My job is to constantly tell them that players make the place. So all those former NFL players that have come through that room have made Tennessee what it is. Tennessee has made them. So they have to remember what they are sitting in. Recruiting is real easy. If we don’t recruit a guy that’s as good as the last guy, then we got worse. It’s that simple.”