KNOXVILLE -- With four of five starter returning from last year's offensive line, competition for playing time is fierce. Building depth along the line is critical according to Coach Jones, so he's looking for six players capable of starting, instead of five.
"Competition is healthy," Jones said. "And I think they are pushing each other and also we are developing depth. We are developing number six and that is important. That is why competition across the board is extremely healthy for the football team.”
The main competition is for a starting guard spot, with senior Alex Bullard and junior Marcus Jackson fighting for snaps.
"Competing is not really that big of a deal for me," Jackson said. "I think it's kind of fun. Every day I know I have to come with a good mindset. I consider it a challenge. Knowing every snap i have to be on to 110 percent to get better every day."
While challenging for a starting spot, Bullard has developed into group's "swing man," with the ability to play any position on the line if needed.
"Anywhere they need me I am comfortable," Bullard said. "That is my job to be the swing man in case a certain situation goes down. We have to have more depth and I am that guy that can move around right now. We are still looking at a lot of different things."
Bullard's desire to play anywhere that helps the team hasn't gone unnoticed.
“Alex has done a great job," Jones said. "He is one of those individuals that just comes to work every day. He doesn't care where he plays. He loves football, he continues to get better and better and progress."
That progression, an attitude of "last year wasn't good enough," is something Coach Mahoney has stressed to his lineman this spring. Jackson said the group is coming together but there is plenty of room for improvement. Specifically, he pointed to tempo, physicality and focusing on fundamentals as areas where they can collectively get better.
"We're starting to gel but at the same time, we need to get things better and you always need to improve," Jackson said. "We have a long way to go before everything comes together. It's a process and you have to know that every day you have to get better. You have to come with that mindset of never being satisfied or it's not going to work."
"You can always improve, nothing is ever perfect," he added. "They say practice makes perfect but practice just gets you closer to perfect."
GIVE HIM SOME SPACE
Jacques Smith isn’t someone who likes to sit still, especially on the football field.
As the Vols transition into Coach Jancek’s defensive scheme, Smith has found himself moving around all over the gridiron, lining up in different areas and being asked to make plays in space. And that is perfectly fine with him.
“They have me moving a lot,” Smith said. “That is what I like to do, I don’t like sitting in the gap and playing ball. That is just not my game. I like to move and come in different spots and places and keep the offense on alert for the LEO. They know I am coming and I know they are going to be looking out for me and trying to change the protection towards me. If they make a mistake with that it is a reward in my hands.
“That is what I really like about this defense and what they are going to continue to emphasize with me and guys like LaTroy Lewis and Corey Vereen. We are those type of guys that need to move around and are versatile guys that can play in spaces well.”
While Smith is excited about the role he is playing in the defense this spring, his versatility will only increase as the installation of the schemes and techniques continues into the fall.
“Right now I play the LEO, but in this defense everyone will need to know every position so this is a very versatile defense in the sense that every defensive lineman should be able to play every position,” Smith said. “That is the way that Coach Stripling teaches it. As of spring, we are trying to simplify the learning curve for ourselves and putting everyone at a specific position right now. But come camp, everyone should be able to play every position. You could see me at tackle or nose, you could see Big Dan at end, you will see a whole bunch of different variations.”
RETURN OF THE BEAST?
One of the questions all Vol fans want to know heading into next season is will the Beast be back?
Well the Beast will be back on the field, but A.J. Johnson will be focusing solely on defense and stopping his opponents from scoring, instead of scoring on his opponents.
“Step by step we want him focusing on defense which is his job,” said Jones. “I know that he likes scoring touchdowns, he has already told me that. But the big thing is learning how to play winning football at the linebacker position and all of the things that go into it.”
Johnson has been learning the ins-and-outs of winning football and can be seen one-on-one with defensive coordinator John Jancek during practice perfecting his tackling drills.
The often quiet Johnson has also been working on being more vocal both on and off the field and developing his leadership skills.
“In about the last week I have seen him respond not only on the field but off the field with the intangibles and the leadership that we expect from our linebackers,” said Jones.
“Being a leader is a new role for me,” said Johnson. “In high school, everybody was a leader and everyone wanted the best out of each other. You didn’t have to talk that much; we were just out there having fun. In the next step, you really need people to step up and start talking. I’m taking on that role to talk more and get in people’s ears if the messing up or tell them a good job if they do something right.”
Will he miss his role in the Beast Package?
“Everybody likes to score touchdowns.”
A LOT TO PROVE
It has been no secret that the Vols lost nearly all of their receiver production heading into 2013. Tennessee's returning receivers accounted for 35 total receptions, or 19 percent of the team's catches by receivers in 2012.
Two of the players entrusted with playing a large role are second-year team members Jason Croom and Pig Howard. The pair knows that have a lot of live up to at what has become known a Wide Receiver U.
"Everyday's a day to prove yourself," said Croom who received a medical redshirt last season after suffering a shoulder injury. "I'm just trying to let everybody know that 'Wide Receiver U' is still here."
Outside of running backs, Howard is the team's top returner in term of catches. He hauled in 13 catches for 54 yards in 2012 playing a multitude of positions on offense. Howard feels he has taken major strides to be a prime target for the Vols' quarterbacks in 2013.
"Overall I feel like I've improved mentally and physically," said Howard. "It was hard in the beginning but overall, you know, just repeating it day after day I'm improving good, learning the plays and we're getting better each and every day."
Both Croom and Howard know a lot will be expected of them.
"I mean, I won't say it's so much pressure it's just a lot you have to get done," said Howard. "You know spring is a very big comparison to next year so we have to get out there early and get prepared for fall."
From the receivers to the quarterbacks, there will be lots of new pieces in place on the offense this year.
"We're trying to have our team have confidence in our receivers," said Croom. "Each day we're trying to improve on the things that we didn't do well in the last practice and today we made a lot more plays."
Howard is prepared for what's to come as he is ready to "be a leader and come out here and remind ourselves that we're Tennessee wide receivers and when we wake up it's time to grind."
LINEBACKER A.J. JOHNSON
(On gaining defensive confidence from the scrimmage)
“I believe it gains confidence for all of us. We all came together and were excited and having fun. I made a big play and it got the defense up. Someone else made a big play and it got me and the whole defense up. So that was good for our scrimmage.”
(On liking the new defensive scheme)
“You can get suited to playing any scheme better, but it’s the process of learning it. When they first got here I wasn’t sure, but as I’m learning it more and knowing the defense better I feel like I’m getting comfortable. Any defense that you learn and get better at you’ll like it more.”
(On playing faster in this defense)
“I wouldn’t say play faster. We should be able to play fast with every defense, but you know you’re assignment and then can hit it, rip off and go try to make a play. You hold your responsibility and then from there you can make plays. If everybody is in there holding their responsibility there’s no gain for the offense.”
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN MARCUS JACKSON
(On what he's improved on through the first 10 practices)
“Just playing physical. Going out every snap and bringing out the same level of energy and the same amount of intensity every play. You just have to keep bringing it and make sure your technique is always on.”
(On what Coach Mahoney says they need to improve on following the scrimmage)
“We want to improve our pad level, get our fundamentals better. It was a struggle but we were just one person off. As an offense, you have to make sure everybody's on every time for the play to work.”
(On if he sees improvement in the defense)
“Most definitely. It kind of goes we have a good day, they have a good day. We keep going back and forth. They're going to see something on tape and fix it. Our fundamentals are going to have to get better, because they're going to see it and attack it.”
(On if he's moving around position-wise)
“This was the first day that happened (playing right guard). It was kind of a surprise, but at the same time, I just saw it as a challenge and went out there and tried to do what I could.”
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN JACQUES SMITH
(On Tuesday’s practice)
“Today was a tough day for everyone. Defensively a lot of guys were banged up from Saturday. We played really hard and came with a lot of game speed and today we just couldn’t get into our groove. We were short in starting out fast, that is something we need to continue to work on and we just didn’t get today. I am sure that is what the coaches are going to be emphasizing in meetings tomorrow.”
(On the noise at practice)
“That was something Coach Jones emphasized about us having to play hard. We don’t need to worry about things, previous plays and stuff like that. We don’t need to whine or mope about it, we need to snap clear and focus on the next play and win the next down. That is something that he has been emphasizing for the past couple weeks and something he threw at us today. We didn’t know that it was going to be going on. The baby crying was annoying. He will probably throw sirens and everything at us. We will be ready though.”
WIDE RECEIVER PIG HOWARD
(On where he is playing as a receiver)
"I'm staying at one spot. There's times, coach he have told me that, you know, in his past he have had a slot go to wide out and go vertical so at the end of the day my role is arm slot receiver."
(On how he factors in there as a return guy and if he is working at both kickoff and punt return)
"They have me working at both. We have a lot of guys doing it so right now we're rotating, so I believe at the end of spring he'll make a decision about who's starting."
(On how much they need the noise during practice with first away games at Oregon and Florida)
"Oh we can get it because we know Oregon's got the big fan base, a big stadium, same as The Swamp. You know it's going to be loud and they're going to be filled with people and like I said we're going to be in their territory. So we're going to be mentally prepared, physically we got to go in and attack."
(On if he thinks he can be a deep threat)
"Yes sir. My speed helps me a lot on the field and like i said, the techniques Coach Azzanni have taught us we kind of use that as well so that help us and benefit us when we're going against defenders."
WIDE RECEIVER JASON CROOM
(On what makes playing wide receiver so difficult in Coach Jones' offensive scheme)
"We run. We sprint every play. We're not just running to be running, we're out there trying to get a body on a body each play. We're trying to be the toughest on the field also."
(On the balance of the raised expectations to jump right in and play versus the opportunities for playing time)
“I feel like they kind of go hand in hand. We're trying to fill in those shoes that everybody says we have to fill in, but at the same time everybody's trying to make plays be the starter also."
(On if it was more physically demanding today being down three guys)
"It just took people stepping up, like the walk-ons they had to fill in spots for people that were out due to injuries. I mean, I feel like they did alright a couple mistakes that we all made."