KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (school release) -- Tennessee will have a different, but familiar look under center when the Vols take the field Saturday at Neyland Stadium. Senior Matt Simms will replace the injured Tyler Bray, who suffered a fractured right thumb, at quarterback.
“I’m glad we have Matt and we don’t have to shift with someone with no experience or no command of the offense,” head coach Derek Dooley said of Simms, who started eight games last season. “That is a bonus. I hope it pays off for us in the game. Matt is doing today what he has done every week, preparing well. He has good command of what we’re doing and we expect him to go manage the offense.”
Simms has carried himself the same way each and every week, regardless of his position on the depth chart.
“The biggest thing that has helped me so far this year is that I’ve tried my best to prepare like I was the starter,” Simms said. “I think that helped me perform the way I did against Georgia when I came in like that. Now it is just continuing to do that, and obviously a little bit more now.”
The Franklin Lakes, N.J., native was 4-of-6 against the Bulldogs, including a crucial fourth down completion to junior tight end Mychal Rivera that set up the Vols’ lone touchdown.
Rivera, UT’s second-leading pass receiver with 19 catches, has confidence in his new quarterback.
“Matt is always the same, he is a vocal leader and he has always been a leader,” Rivera said. “Ever since I came on to this campus he has been a leader. He is a really good kid and he was doing really good today.”
Not only are Simms’ teammates confident in him, he’s confident in himself.
“I think everyone kind of realizes that this isn’t my first rodeo,” Simms said. “I played in a lot of big games last year and obviously I’m not afraid to get hit. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to the experience. It’s a tough position for all of us but we just have to focus and win our first SEC game.”
Standing in the way of Tennessee’s first SEC win is No. 1-ranked LSU. The Vols nearly won in Baton Rouge last season -- with Simms at the helm.
“It definitely helps to know that we did perform well down there,” Simms said. “Then again, there were a lot of things we could have done a lot better. This year, we just have to refocus our energy and just make sure that we concentrate on the little details to beat a team like this.”
Dooley’s message to the team Tuesday was clear: Put the past in the past.
“The biggest thing I reminded them today was there’s no shame in losing,” he said. “There’s no shame in losing. There’s no shame in getting knocked down. There’s no shame in making a mistake. When you’re in competition, it’s going to happen all the time. There’s no shame in getting behind.
“The shame is when you don’t compete or when you get affected, you get emotional, you react and then you don’t perform after that. We just have to keep reminding them what it means to be a great competitor. And we’ll get it. We’ll get it eventually.”
Through all of the adversity the Vols have faced this season, they’ve maintained a positive attitude.
“Our deal is not our spirit,” Dooley said. “We have good spirit and we want to do good. We believe in the program. We believe in the values. It’s just learning how to be mature competitors where we don’t get affected, we don’t get emotional, we don’t get down, we don’t expect things to be easy and we don’t expect things to fall in our lap. You just have to grind. You have to work at it. Eventually, you develop the confidence through all of that hard work and things start happening.”
JOHNSON STARTS MAKING NOISE
The Vols have depended on a pair of freshmen linebackers in 2011: A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt. Both have 21 tackles to rank third on the team in stops. Dooley has seen positives with Johnson’s acclamation to the college game.
“The tough transition is just from going from high school to college,” said Dooley. “I don’t think it has to do with the position because even if he played in the middle, it would be totally different than what he was doing in high school. We have him kind of playing both, SAM and MIKE.”
Johnson can tell the difference in the game at the next level.
“It’s a lot different,” said the Gainesville, Ga., native. “It’s faster, and you have to use your technique. In high school, you didn’t have to use as much of your technique, but here you will get beat without it.”
He is still getting used to playing on the outside.
“I’m still getting adjusted to it right now,” Johnson said. “I’m getting adjusted to my responsibilities in our defense and doing the right things.”
Dooley sees a lot of potential in Johnson which could lead to moving him to middle linebacker following the graduation of senior Austin Johnson, this year’s starter.
“I think it all depends on how he grows as a player and what our needs are,” Dooley said. “He obviously has the size that is a little more MIKE-prototype if you will. The position he’s playing is still an ‘in-the-box’ linebacker. Certainly, his size presents such that he needs to be playing from tackle to tackle.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On Tyler Bray’s arm being in a sling)
“The only reason he has that sling on is because they want him to elevate it. Tyler, admittedly, is too lazy to walk around and elevate it so we put him in a sling to force the elevation.”
(On defensive lineman Allan Carson)
“He’s doing good. He’s improving each week. He’s filling a need for us. He gives us some bulk in the middle a little bit when we need it and we’re going to need it this week. That’s for sure. This is a road-grade offense. It’s like a big old bulldozer rolling through town.”
(On the solution to the running game)
“They look the same. We’ve been looking at them. We’re going to keep looking at guys. There’s not going to be an answer. We’re not going to hand the ball off Saturday and some guy rushes for 220 and we go, ‘Oh, now we got it.’ It’s not going to happen so let’s don’t start building excitement that there’s some new answer on the horizon. It’s a daily grind. We get better, we get better and we get better. Everybody wants the quick fix, the magic pill that’s going to make everything great. It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in life. It doesn’t exist when you want to lose weight. You have to work and that’s it. I don’t know any other way to put it.”
Freshman linebacker A.J. Johnson
(On his relationship with fellow freshman LB Curt Maggitt)
“Beforehand we really didn’t know each other, but when we got here we got really close. We hang out a lot with each other and we’re glad we have a senior (LB Austin Johnson) to look up to. He helps keep us in line.”
(On facing the number one team as a freshman)
“They are going to come out ready to play. They are a very good team. I’ve got to prepare and get better in practice. I’m excited to play the number one team (in the nation).”
(On what is so impressive about LSU)
“They really don’t have any major flaws. They work as a team, and play well as a team. And they have a great defense.”
Sophomore defensive back Brent Brewer
(On Saturday’s performance against Georgia’s receivers)
“We did okay. We’ve still got a lot of things to work on and get better. We’ve got to get our ‘swag’ back. We’ve been playing slow and giving up some big plays in the secondary. We’ve got to get back on the field and work on some things.”
(On his role as a strong safety stopping LSU’s downhill run game)
“It’s all about being physical and coming down to fill the gap when I need to while also playing the pass. We’ve got a big task ahead of us.”
(On overcoming all of the team’s injuries)
“You think about it but we’ve got to keep moving ahead. (Matt) Simms is a great quarterback and he can do it. We’ve got confidence in everybody; we’ve just got to keep moving.”
(On the motivation from last year’s loss to LSU)
“We’ve just got to go out and play with them. We’ve got to be physical and give our all for sixty minutes.”
Senior quarterback Matt Simms
(On if an opportunity like this was one of the reasons he returned to Tennessee for his senior year)
“Definitely. That and the fact that I didn’t want to jeopardize my friendships and the relationships that I have with people here. Why would you leave a place like Tennessee? Especially with all of the great teams that we play. Not everyone can wear the orange and white and run through the ‘T.’ It’s a great all-around experience and that’s why I didn’t leave.”
(On taking over the starting quarterback role)
“It was a good first day getting accustomed to being the starter again. Just in time for the number one team in the country, so I’m excited about that and looking forward to it.”
(On today’s practice)
“It was pretty good. I just tried to go about my business like I normally do. I got coached a little differently obviously, but it comes with the territory. I was just excited about everything and excited about the opportunity to play LSU.”
(On whether he has improved from last season)
“Hands down. I know everyone hasn’t seen me much on the field, but I think, even in the spring game, I have developed a little bit better and have become accustomed to what we do offensively. My confidence hasn’t gone down. I’m just ready to drop back there and play football as best as I can.”