KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (utsports.com) -- The theme song to ESPN's NFL Monday Night Football broadcast is titled, `Are You Ready For Some Football?' And that's the exact mindset Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley wants his team to take every Monday evening.
"The inexperience, like everything we do that's a first, shows," Dooley said at Haslam Field following the Vols' first Tuesday practice after a game. "We have to do a better job on Monday night as individuals preparing our mind for what lies ahead Tuesday. The pace, the tempo, the game plan and everything is coming at them fast. If you're not prepared mentally, it's going to take you awhile to get going. It's not surprising, but we have to learn from it and get better."
The Vols will have to be prepared in all facets as they welcome high-powered Cincinnati to Knoxville on Saturday for an afternoon showdown. The Bearcats posted an NCAA FBS-high and program-record 72 points in their season-opener against Austin Peay, aided by 561 yards of total offense.
"They have special guys at all three levels (quarterback, running back and wide receiver)," Dooley said. "I think their running back is the leading rusher returning in the (BIG EAST) conference. That's what makes spread offenses good, when you have a good, heavy runner who can make big plays because you can't load up the box and you have to stop the run with about the same numbers as what they have blocking and that becomes tough."
Tennessee's biggest challenge may come in the form of UC senior quarterback Zach Collaros. The Bearcat signal-caller completed 12-of-19 passes for 134 yards and four touchdowns in their season opener, but is also a threat with his legs. Collaros took off five times for 25 yards against Austin Peay.
"We have a way we prepare for it," Dooley said. "It is hard because you have to put a real good athlete running the ball at quarterback and you have to treat it like he's a running back. That's what you have to do on how you fit and on how you hit him. And then he also has to be able to throw the ball down the field. It is difficult to simulate it. It's almost impossible. The biggest thing is trying not to have pre-snap mental errors and try to fit the runs where they need to be fitted in the perimeter."
WELCOMING WITH AN OPEN HART
Tennessee named Dave Hart as the school's vice chancellor and director of athletics Monday evening. During the introductory press conference, University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek described Hart with words like `passion,' `drive,' and `visionary,' but his greatest quality to the football program may be `understanding'and 'experience.'
"I'm really excited about starting a new direction from a leadership standpoint in our athletics department," Dooley said. "The thing I obviously love about Dave is he's been around big-time college football at Florida State and Alabama. He knows what a football program needs. He knows the support we need. That's going to be very appreciative when he brings it to us. (Alabama football head coach) Nick (Saban) had nothing but good things to say about him and that's good enough for me."
As a senior, linebacker Daryl Vereen has seen a lot of change during his five years in Knoxville, dating to 2007. Vereen finally got a chance to play significant minutes in the opener against Montana and he made the most of it, leading the Vols with six tackles
"He's fast. He's a senior, which all the things that seniors bring as far as preparation, their commitment level to the program," Dooley said. "They know it's their last (year) and the effort they play with. He has that. And he's a fast guy so he can go run and chase the ball down in space. He showed that last week." Vereen came into 2011 with 22 total tackles, 18 of which came last season. So to some it was a surprise that the Charlotte, N.C., native saw so much playing time and made such an impact.
"(I was) not really forgotten, just in the shadows," Vereen joked with the media after Tuesday's practice. "I was happy with how I played (Saturday). I had some simple mistakes, mistakes (the public) wouldn't see, but I think I could play better."
Vereen saw the bulk of his time in nickel packages and feels he is a good fit for that task.
"I feel I have good speed for that position and good coverage skills for that position," Vereen said.
With a pair of true freshmen (Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson) starting as the team's outside linebackers, Vereen hasn't gotten down, and his response hasn't surprised anyone.
"He's a senior. He didn't get affected," said Dooley. "It's not the first time he has been replaced or tried to be replaced. The more mature you are as a professional, the better you handle it. I'm glad he handled it the way he did but it's not surprising."
BRAY'S FAVORITE TARGETS
The sophomore trio of quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter has developed together in their year-plus in Knoxville. That was never more evident than Saturday's win over Montana as Bray connected on 11 passes to the duo for a total of 246 yards. Bray's first two passes of the season both went for TD scores to Rogers (47 yards) and Hunter (81 yards).
"Most of the time I am looking for them," Bray said. "We have great chemistry. We are not joking around on the field, but we are always joking around off the field and having a little fun. On the field, we are trying to keep it the same and get down to business."
Bray and Hunter became part of the special group on Saturday as they pair connected for their second-career 80-plus yard play. They are just the third duo in the 115 years of Volunteer football to have two pass plays of 80 or more yards. Bray credits both Hunter and Rogers for making his job easier.
"There are some throws they might be guarded, but if I just throw it up and give them the opportunity, they are going to make the catch," Bray said.
NICKEL FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
With a number of spread offenses on the schedule this season, one of the most important positions on the Tennessee defense is nickel back. Sophomore Eric Gordon was plugged into that spot against Montana and performed well, finishing second on the team with four tackles, including one for a two-yard loss.
For Gordon, the position allows him some freedom to make plays, showcases his physical ability and allows him to just have fun on the football field.
"It's very fun (to play the nickel)," Gordon said. "You get to do a lot of things. The guys really don't know when you are coming, that's the beauty of it. I feel very comfortable at the nickel. I know that week-in, week-out my preparation is key."
As Gordon continues to adjust to the position, his head coach feels that the mental side is where he has the most room for improvement.
"If he could get to mentally where he is physically, it will really be a help for our football team," Dooley said. "The problem is he steps up and makes a good play but then he has a mental breakdown and gives up a bad play. We're looking form Eric consistency. The biggest breakdowns that he has are mental. He gets himself in trouble early in the down and then he can't use his skills to help us. That's his challenge and hopefully, he'll keep getting better at that."