Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) Neyland Stadium will be sold out on Sunday night as the Vols host Utah State, a team they have great respect for. On Thursday, Tennessee's assistant coaches talked about the stiff challenge the Aggies present.
With the countdown now down to three days, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian feels his young offense is as prepared as it can be.
"We've had a good week," Bajakian said. "Our guys have been practicing hard, and we've been emphasizing our style of play, which means playing with great effort and playing with physicality. They've responded."
Despite a team full of newcomers, which will include three starting freshmen, there are many positives leading up to Utah State in comparison to the start of last year.
"There are a lot of positives," Bajakian said. "We have more weapons at the skill positions, and a little better understanding of our expectations as a coaching staff and as a program."
"We believe that it's those expectations that will lead to victories. Between understanding how we're going to play the game and understanding what we want to accomplish, I feel like our guys are further along than a year ago."
In the quarterback position, Bajakian sees multiple improvements from Worley including in his ability to make quicker, more accurate decisions as well as better ball location.
Although the offense has some positives to lean on, Bajakian is fully expecting a challenge from a tough Utah State defense, which includes three starters with 27 starts each, more than the entire Vols starting offense. Utah State was also ranked No. 2 in the nation for their pass defense as they only allowed 19 touchdowns on 49 red zone trips.
"Number one is that they're very experienced," he said. "They bring an understanding of the game. They know how to win. They play hard. They play fast. They play physical. They're a well-coached group. They pose a lot of problems with just their skills and you add their scheme and they'll keep you on your heels."
To succeed, Bajakian says the team must tune together and manage the game. With just one practice left before game time, the wait will soon be over to see just how well the young group can do.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vols are ready for the Aggies offense, led by quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Defensive coordinator John Jancek acknowledges Utah State's potent attack.
"I think they have tremendous schemes," Jancek said. "I think their schemes are well thought out. I think they know what they want when they are calling their plays. The tempo is challenging.
"They have good personnel on the outside with their receiving corps, they have Joe Hill back at running back and obviously Chuckie."
Jancek feels his defense is up to the challenge and despite so many unknowns, he feels confident on his Orange Swarm.
"I am excited," he said. "I just want to go out and play to be honest with you. I want to coach against another team and watch these guys go out there and enjoy what they have been working so hard for. We will just keep moving forward."
NECK-AND-NECK FOR THE KICK
With three days remaining until Sunday's Home Opener against Utah State, Special Teams Coordinator Mark Elder has the toughest competition of fall camp unfolding inside his film room. The battle for the starting kicker position is still ongoing, and George Bullock and Aaron Medley are not making the decision an easy one.
"We've examined this thing as many different ways as you could," Elder said. "I've looked at every single kick from all of camp, to just the pressure situation kicks, to taking out the long ones and the ones that would be more realistic. You'd like for it to be just, here's an easy decision and that's the guy. But it's neck-and-neck."
With Bullock and Medley matching each other kick-for-kick at practice, Elder explained that the possibility of splitting duties between kickoff and place kicking is very real. In his opinion, having options is clearly not the worst-case scenario.
"There is a chance of that," Elder said. "I'd prefer to not have someone do what we did last year, with all three. That's just a lot doing the punting, the kicking and the kickoff. Obviously, we're not in that situation this year. If we had the same guy doing [kickoff and place kicking] or a different guy, that's okay."
With the Utah State game inching closer, Elder added that Coach Jones will ultimately make the best decision for Team 118 and will use Elder's countless hours of charts and data to support his decision between the two young, high-potential candidates.
"We chart everything," Elder said. "Coach Jones is going to make a decision here coming up but it's close. We put those guys in pressure situations, trying to see who's going to respond in a positive way. Sometimes that's putting them in adverse situations to see who's going to hang their head if they don't make one. Is he going to keep his head high and be confident that he's going to go make the next one or is he going to hang his head? I feel confident that whichever guy we decide on is going to go out and perform on Sunday night for us."
GO-TIME NEARS FOR O-LINE
Few coaches in the country face as difficult of a task as Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who has the task of replacing all five starters, including two NFL draft picks, on his offensive line. The youthfulness of the new starting five has been a hot topic, but Mahoney believes they are prepared for the task at hand.
"I think what they've done in practice," Mahoney said on Thursday. " These guys are excited, but they're nervous, too. I tell them, `let's control the things we can control,' and that is our attitude and work ethic. It's more about what Coach [Jones] talks about: let your actions be loud. We have to do that with our style of play, and I like the way they've approached it."
There will be new five faces on the starting offensive line, but not all are new faces to the UT football program. Jacob Gilliam,Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson were all mentored by Mahoney last season and he's excited to see them in their starting roles.
"I can't wait to see them," Mahoney said. "The work ethic and the time they've put in over the Spring and training camp has been incredible, and we finally get to see them on Sunday. There are guys who are making their first starts. They've had to wait their turns, and now it's here. They've worked hard to prepare themselves, and I'm very excited to see them play."
Mahoney added that there will be some growing pains, especially in the first game of a season, but at the end of the day, it is all about the process.
"I want to be able to say they fought well and played together," he said. "I have really enjoyed their work ethic and how they have brought it throughout camp. We have to play with passion for four quarters and beyond. The biggest strides teams make is from Week One to Week Two, and we keep working to build off that, but there's definitely a bite in them ... and that part I like."
SENIOR BACKS SHARE MOTIVATION
It will be the Vol seniors final first game in Neyland Stadium when they run through the T in front of 102,455 Sunday night.
Leading the running back group, seniors Marlin Lane and Devrin Young will share a special moment with the young group, which includes highly-touted freshman Jalen Hurd.
Heading into the first game, running backs coach Robert Gillespie realizes that emotions are running high and the effort that the seniors have put in during the offseason are looking to be rewarded.
"Marlin has had a good off season," Gillespie said. "Most importantly, he's had a good week of practice preparing for Utah State both on and off the field coming in watching extra film, asking really good questions in meetings and going out and performing well on the practice field."
Young has bounced back and forth between tailback and receiver, showing his versatility.
"He's hungry," Gillespie said. "He's been moved to a lot of positions, so he's able to do things out of the backfield that some of those guys aren't equipped to do. Devrin is a very good athlete."
Besides wanting to do their best as individuals, Lane and Young share a similar feeling with the other seniors, wanting to succeed as a team. And it all starts with Utah State.
"All those guys that are seniors know that their days are numbered," Gillespie said. "They kind of take every practice to heart because they know they're one closer to being away from here."
"Marlin falls into that category that he realizes he doesn't have many games left and he wants to leave this season with a winning standard."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Thursday's practice
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On the unknowns going into the game compared to last year)
"There are probably more. We are still dealing with a lot of new personnel and a new opponent obviously. In particular, we are dealing with young personnel in the newcomers and freshmen. There are still a lot of unknowns. In preparing for those unknowns its hard to give them exactly what they're going to see."
»(On preparing for the Utah State defense)
""We just have to manage the football game. Make sure we play mistake free football. Make sure we protect the football.""
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On Chuckie Keeton)
"He is obviously a great athlete, he can extend plays, he can take off and pull the ball down. We have to have great awareness when we are rushing the quarterback, great awareness when we are pressuring him. Those are the things that we focused on in this game plan. We are going to have to adapt and adjust to what he is doing out there so that is going to be the challenge.
»(On the improvement of the defense)
"No question we are more athletic. Upfront, at the linebacker position and in our secondary. Hopefully Chuckie doesn't get to the secondary. If he does we have to get him down. We are more athletic. Really this first ball game you don't really know what you expect with such a young defense. I am excited to see them play. They kids have worked hard to their credit, they are putting the time in. It is going to be a work in progress, we know that, we have a great group and we are laying a great foundation for the future I believe. That is the mindset that we are going to have and we are going to just keep coaching. And stay consistent, as coaches, we can't be up and down. They are young, they are going to respond to you, if you are upset and screaming and hollering, going crazy, they are going to respond to that. If you are calm, collected, you are communicating what you need to get done in the right manner I think you can see some results."
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On the secondary preparing for Keeton)
"Our number one job in the secondary, it is like that every where I assume, is don't give up the big play. Anytime you have an athletic quarterback like Chuckie [Keeton], it presents a lot of problems. You have to be very disciplined with your eyes and don't have wondering eyes so to speak. When you are in coverage, stay in coverage, don't come out of coverage when he starts scrambling around. He does a great job of moving out of the pocket and also of throwing the ball on the run. So we have to be very disciplined. Again, when you are dealing with an inexperienced group, that is the one thing you worry about because the game speed is so different."
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On his thoughts on the defensive tackle position)
"I think we have three quality guys that can go in there and play with Jordan Williams, O'Brien and Owen Williams. Those three will get the majority of the playing time."
»(On what Utah State does well)
"They're a team that plays with tempo. That's one issue. On top of that, you have a mobile quarterback that is a separate issue. Being able to handle tempo is the first thing, being able to get lined up and play and then after the ball is snapped being able to keep your points on Chuckie."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On the progress of the wide receivers)
"I like the progress, I can see that they have been working all summer, I can see the habits developing, it is fun to watch them grow. We were doing really well, kind of peaked during camp, kind of hit a rocky spot, dead legs and things like that. We are starting to build it back up now. So I am excited."
»(On how many receivers he feels comfortable playing)
"More, I don't know if I have a number yet, I take every day. I will go back up and look at this film today. Can I trust this guy? How many can I play? I am not sure. Every day is a work in progress on how many I can play and how long I can play them. How many plays can they play? I don' know that yet, it is still a work in progress."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR MARK ELDER
»(On Cameron Sutton winning the punt return job)
"Cam is doing a great job. Both of those guys do a great job back there of fielding the ball consistently and do a really good job as far as when we put them in a lot of situations and say, `Hey, make guys miss'. They can do that. They're athletic, they can make you miss in small area and that's what you want from a punt returner."
»(On what Evan Berry brings to the kick return game)
"He's fast. He is fast. Both him and Devrin [Young] have that speed that if they get in the open field, they can take it the distance. In the way our kickoff return scheme is, it's not as much making you miss and wiggling, it's more trusting in the return, hitting it full speed and then taking off once you find your crease."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
» (On advice to Jalen Hurd)
"We can try to simulate it in practice with noise and babies crying and different things like that but until you put the ball down in front of 102, 455 fans and your opponent across from you, whom you don't know personally, then that's when the live bullets fire. That's when you get a feel for what the speed of the game is."
» (On selling out)
"That's a part of who we are. Neyland Stadium, we have to use that to our advantage. It has to become a weapon for our offense and also for our defense."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On new faces starting on the offensive line)
"I can't wait. I have been really excited for them. Two days ago wasn't the best practice that we needed to have and they answered with coming out and collectively doing the things we need to do. Their work ethic and the time they have put in over the spring, the training camp and all that, it is now time to see them play on Sunday and I am excited for them. There are guys who are making their first starts. There are guys who are playing for the first time, and I just made a point to them that there are some guys who are not playing and I said, `Listen, don't tell me about the heartaches with that, ask the Kyler Kerbysons, the Mack Crowders, the Jacob Gilliams, who have had to wait their turn, and now it is here. Well now it is time. and if you need someone to talk to, see them because they have been through a lot.' So I am excited for them and they have worked hard to prepare themselves."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On A.J. Johnson's leadership)
"They are going to feed off of him. What he does, all he ever does is go 100 percent after the ball. He is going to get guys lined up, he is going to do his thing. That is A.J. It is important that he is out there, because the Dillon Bates of the world, the Berrys of the world, the TKs, all these young guys who are 18 years old, they are looking for him, looking for his leadership. Especially his knowledge of the game and his intensity in way he approaches."
»(On Chuckie Keeton)
"Very difficult to contain guys like that, very difficult to turn your back on them, they change the way you play. People want to play vision coverages, you want to stare at him but the thing about him is he can throw the ball as good as any body. He throws the ball in tight spaces and if you give him space to throw it too he will get in there. That is one thing that why I was at other schools before you have guys that, they can complete the passes, not only is he a good passer, he is a good runner. He is a really good player, he is experienced, he has experienced wide receivers, he has a good running back. They have a really good football team and he is the guy who makes them tick.