KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/SUBMITTED) -- When Butch Jones came to Tennessee from Cincinnati, the majority of his Bearcat coaching staff came with him.
The ‘new additions’ to Jones’ staff in Zach Azzanni, Willie Martinez and Tommy Thigpen all had past connections to the head coach.
The newest addition to the Vol staff, Robert Gillespie, has never coached alongside Jones before, but is glad that he is getting the chance now.
"I have been fortunate enough to be around a lot of good head coaches, but he is probably the most detailed,” said Gillespie. “He really understands the game of football, inside and out. Not just from a physical standpoint but a mental standpoint. He does a good job in challenging these kids everyday which in turn challenges us as coaches. We feed off his energy, we transfer that out to our players and we want the same energy back from those guys."
Gillespie was able to observe Jones before he arrived at Tennessee, coaching against Cincinnati while he was the running backs coach at West Virginia for the last two seasons.
He credits Jones and his staff with being one of the toughest opponents that he faced during his time in Morgantown, likely due to their intense preparation.
"It is a very, very detailed program,” said Gillespie about a Jones run Tennessee. “It starts from top to bottom that is one thing we want our kids to understand if you do the little things right you have the greatest chance to be successful. It is all the little things that add up in the biggest moments.”
“The kids are buying into it and when you watch film they point things out,” continued Gillespie. “So you know they are really listening we try to do a great job in talking the same language making them use the same lingo that we use as a coaching staff. Those are the things that we think will give us an edge to be a great football team."
Jones’ enthusiasm is contagious and a new buzz can be felt around the football complex this spring, from the players, to the staff, to the coaches.
"If you are a football coach and you already have that energy, you are just excited to around someone else who has it,” said Gillespie. “All the coaches here feed off of him but we all bring our own set of energy, our own tone and way of coaching to the table. I think it is just a group of coaches who are just passionate about what they do."
LEADER OF MEN
In 2011, A.J. Johnson led the SEC in tackles by a freshman. In 2012, A.J. Johnson led all conference tacklers with 138 stops.
In 2013, A.J. Johnson will be looked to as a leader of men, instead of as a leader of stats.
“He's buying in,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “He's starting to understand, ‘I don't have to do everything, I'm not the only guy on the field.’ And that's our emphasis: there's 11 guys on the field and everyone has a job -- do your job. That's been our emphasis: do your job first, get off your one-on-one, then go try and make a football play.”
While Johnson’s stats may not seem as impressive the new system, Thigpen says it’s about quality, not quantity.
“If we do what we're supposed to do on defense, you won't have as many plays on defense,” Thigpen said. “We're preaching that it's not about volume, it's about production. Would you rather have 80 tackles, nine sacks, three picks and some tackles for loss, or do you just want 100 tackles? For us, it’s about the production on the football field.”
While Johnson—a tackling machine—is already leading by example, Thigpen said his vocal leadership will be more prevalent as he grows more comfortable with the new defensive system.
“The more AJ learns with the defense, the more vocal and confident he's becoming,” Thigpen said. “I'm really enjoying watching him grow as a player. He's really starting to buy into what we're doing.”
This vocal leadership will be important for Johnson, as Thigpen knows exactly what he needs from his middle linebacker.
“We want that guy to be a lion,” Thigpen said. “He’s the alpha-male. He's the quarterback. In the defense we run, he has to line us up, call the plays, make the checks. He's got to do everything. That guy has to have a lot of confidence and knowledge of the game.”
Thigpen may not have a lion, but he does have “The Beast,” in A.J. Johnson.
YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE
As the old saying and classic 90’s hit by the New Radicals goes, “You get what you give.” The same can be said in sports. To get better and improve, a player must be willing to go that extra mile, and that’s exactly what two young Tennessee wide receivers are doing this spring.
“There’s a direct correlation to guys who really, really care and how fast they get better,” said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni regarding Jason Croom and Cody Blanc.
With former Vols Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson both headed to the NFL, the competition at Wide Receiver U is wide open. Both Croom and Blanc know that and are taking the extra steps to see time on the field.
“Jason really cares,” Azzanni said. “He’s getting better faster than some guys because his care factor and his commitment level for football are higher. He was in the cold tub, watching film and running last week. He did all the things he needed to do to continue to not waste a week and it’s showed.”
One of just 10 true freshmen to see the field in 2012, Blanc will be looking to transition from a special teams player to the offensive perimeter.
“I came in here once to grab something from my office – the lights were off in the indoor facility – and Cody Blanc was out here by himself running routes. He’d run to the other side of the field and run a route, and then run back to the other side,” said Azzanni. “By himself… Not one person in this whole building.
“Those guys, they want to. They’re trying anything they can to be in better shape and to get the system down.”
STRIP PRAISES FROSH VEREEN
Vols' defensive line coach Steve Stripling has coached more than 30 years in college football. He has been a part of 22 bowl games. He has coached numerous players that have gone onto successful NFL careers.
So when Stripling hands out compliments, they are very deep in validation. Early enrollee Corey Vereen has caught Stripling's eye and the coach is gushing about his attitude and work ethic.
“I love Corey Vereen," said Stripling. "You won’t find a harder working. He is the most motivated freshman I have ever seen in my career. He is unbelievable. He never smiles which is a little scary but he really is a pleasant kid.”
Being a mid-year addition can sometimes he a difficult transition for some players. But the Winter Garden, Florida native has made a seemless move.
“A lot of times when men come in mid-year they are just trying to find their way through the system," said Stripling. "This young man has jumped in both feet. He has gone beyond all of our expectations. Unbelievable attitude.”
At 6-2, 230, the 18-year-old Vereen is just starting to grow into the body that will be needed to compete in the SEC on a regular basis.
“I think when you talk about Corey and LaTroy (Lewis), some of the younger ends, they all have to develop physically and strength-wise obviously when you face guys like (Antonio) Richardson. They have to come a long ways that way. I like his attitude. He will be moving up the ladder for us.”
BUILDING A SPECIAL UNIT
So much focus early in the Butch Jones era has been on the installation of the offense and the defense. But the third phase of the game — special teams, is also undergoing an overhaul. Special teams coach Mark Elder is overseeing the recomposition of the specialists.
"Special teams is a third of the ball game," said Elder, who also coaches the team's tight ends. "We're going to win or lose four ball games this year based upon the performance of our special teams and these guys know that. We emphasize that. It's extremely important. That comes from the top down. That's Coach (Butch) Jones's philosophy, that's my philosophy, that's our philosophy. That special teams is as important as offense defense, and these guys understand that."
The Vols are still in the developmental stages of game planning in all three areas including special teams and Elder is still in the early phases.
"We were installing a scheme for the first time today with one of our units," said Elder. "So, the initial portion that you saw was getting us lined up and understanding the assignment portion of it. Then we were combining the assignment with some technique in the later portion of it. We got a little bit understanding the big concept, the big picture, because up until that point it had been all drill work.
"At this point we're still doing a lot of the technique work. We're not getting in to full speed 11-on-11. We're going to get to that here shortly. That's why we're installing the schemes now, so that way we can go a full eleven on eleven and that's really when you start identifying it. When you turn the lights on and you roll one ball out there and you kick the thing off and see how the guys do."
ASSOC. HEAD COACH/D-LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
(On Daniel McCullers’ desire to improve)
“His desire level is excellent he just doesn’t express it. He is the quietest man in America. But you have to read his body language. He wants to be really good. He is trying. I think as a group they are all trying but they still don’t know that the energy and the passion and the intensity that is needed for the level of football we want to play. They have not played that way so they are slowly learning to do that. We talk about reps being six seconds long and these during a normal practice after we grade the film they are averaging 30 to 32 reps. So now we are talking 32 reps times six seconds. Can you do it? Can you play as hard as you can?
(On pass rushing)
“You have to have a pass rush mentality and we don’t have it yet. We talked about third down being the money down that is the down where the D-line will make all the money is the NFL. You have to have a mentality on third down. Jacques Smith is the closest we have right now, he is starting to show up as far as his techniques, his mentality, his foot quickness, those kind of things. Everything is a learning process and that is definitely one of them.”
(On LaTroy Lewis)
“He has been good. He needs to develop physically, he needs to get a little bit stronger. The attitude is excellent. All the linebacker skills, the quickness is really helping especially when we are doing drops and fires, those types of things. He has an outstanding attitude. He is a young guy, he just needs to develop.”
(On the typical amount of defensive lineman on a roster)
“We need to up our numbers. Right now we have 13 D-lineman and we have three coming in so that would be 16. You like to be closer to the 18 mark, in the room. On the field you would love to have a ten man rotation. Ten guys who you feel could go in and play on the field. I have had to play with a six man rotation in the past sometimes. If you could get six to ten guys ready, when you have full confidence that they could go out there and play and execute. That would be a good number.”
ASST. HEAD COACH-DEFENSE/D-BACKS WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On where Brian Randolph is in terms of coming back and having effective practices)
"Brian's doing a really good job. Brian's one of our leaders. Not just from a standpoint that he's played in the past but he leads by example both on and off the field. He's doing a really good job with that. We just got to get better in our communication. Not just one guy, but the whole entire group. It's better from the first practice, you know the first couple practices... but it's nowhere near where we need to be."
(On where Daniel Gray is in terms of getting what he needs to get done on and off of the field)
"Danny, again, he's had some setbacks injury wise and he's fighting through it. He's nowhere near where he needs to be but Danny's working through it. He's still a young player, he's just a freshman when you think about it. We've got to keep that in mind. I know I do as a coach and be patient. He's doing that. He's doing a better job off the field too which is really good."
(On what he's seen from Justin Coleman this spring)
"I've seen more consistency from him compared to some of the other guys. I've seen that. He's made some plays on a consistent basis each practice and nowhere has he arrived yet where he needs to be but he understands. You can tell the mature level in understanding. He's picking up the scheme really quick so that's a good sign."
(On Riyahd Jones in terms of adjusting to this level of play)
"It's an adjustment just like, you know you've got to look at it too, he was obviously at another school then went junior college. It's a different level. It's a different pace. It's a different way of doing things. He is more mature you would say or he understands it a little bit better than a true freshman but he's still behind some of the other guys that have been in the program for three years or four years, you know, but he's working at it."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On the up-tempo pace)
“It’s a program philosophy. Everything we do is going to be uptempo, high energy, everything. From the weight room to the offseason program to our early morning stuff in the offseason and to practice. It’s a whole program philosophy to go at the tempo we go. It’s not just how we practice. It’s how we do everything. The philosophy is we’re going to get more reps, we’re going to go as hard as we can and build up that stamina. That’s our style of play so you have to teach at that pace so they can play at that pace. We have to be up tempo as well.
(On Paul Harris wearing No. 91)
“Not a work ethic issue. It’s Coach Jones trying to motivate him with some tough love. When he doesn’t play fast or doesn’t play physical, he puts him in that big jersey to make him look slow. He wants No. 1 he better play faster.”
(On Harris’ reaction to wearing No. 91)
“He doesn’t say boo. He just shakes his head and says ‘I got you.’ The last two nights he has shut my door and turned my lights off because I’ve already gone home. He’s in the script going over the plays, watching one-on-ones. The last two nights in a row. He should be going to prom in a month; instead he has Coach Z absolutely up his rear end every snap so he’ll be fine.”
(On balancing being patient with a young group of guys)
“I struggle with patience. I’m not a very patient person but it’s part of who I am. There’s a fine line. You can’t beat them down so much where they say ‘I quit, I don’t know what else to do Coach.’ Every time you see something positive, you have to point it out and make a big deal about it. Coach Jones always uses a great analogy. Why do people golf? Average golfers because they hit that one shot and they say ‘I think I’m pretty good at this.’ They hit 90 bad ones, but they hit that one good one and it brings them back the next day. Same thing out here. I ask ‘What was your golf shot? What was that one play where you’re like I’m not that bad?’ That keeps them coming back. That’s the drug that keeps them coming back.”
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On how they are as a coaching staff)
"We're a high energy staff and part of that's also the fact that we are a fast paced team as far as the offense. We're trying to snap that ball as quick as we possibly can for the next play, so you have to be a high energy guy to get any coaching points in before the next snap. If you want to get a point across to your player, you're not going to be able to do it slowly. You're going to have to go out there and fly around and have a little fun and coach them on the fly because that signal's being started for the next play as soon as we possibly can."
(On why the coaching staff embraces the teaching part of coaching)
"Absolutely. That's who we are, we're teachers. Just our subject is football. I think that every single coach that's here really envisions himself as a teacher first and foremost because that's what we're doing. We're teaching them the game of football, the game of life."
(On how often they have two tight ends in the offense at the same time)
"We will morph our offense based off our personnel. We've had that be a large part of our package at times when we've had multiple tight ends that are going to be the best guys on the field to help us win ball games and that is certainly going to be a possibility for this fall. We have the ability to use two tight ends quite a bit and we've done that in the past."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On going through spring practice with a limited number of running backs)
“I was very close to suiting up myself, which that won’t get us better right now. But it happens. That’s part of camp. You have to be prepared for anything. When you have injuries and guys miss, it gives other guys opportunities. The younger guys filled in. Alden Hill was able to take advantage of some of those reps. By having those extra reps, we were able to see what he could do as a staff."
(On younger running backs stepping up)
"With the extra reps and Tom Smith being injured right now we are a little sore. Alden Hill has been a guy that has been able to get a few more reps. A guy that I definitely needed to see and Coach Jones needed to see what he can do. He has done a pretty good job. He is still young, making mistakes and learning but one thing about him is he is full speed in whatever he does. There will definitely be a role for him. He just has to continue to learn and understand the offense."
(On Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane)
"Both of those guys have athletic ability. Both of them are really good receivers out of the back field. We just have to get better at bending and finishing our runs. It is not a secret. Those are the nots that I heard when I came here and the nots that I have had individual conversations with them. They know it and that is what they are trying to improve being better finishers at the end of their runs."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On whether he has ever been on a staff that has taught so extensively)
“No. Being an offensive guy, [Coach Jones] is in with us a lot, so we are held to the flame, so to speak, right away. We know really what is expected. It is how the players react to it and how we react to it that makes us better. We know that we see something that needs to be addressed and it is immediate. Spring ball is a little bit different in the fact that you do have a day tomorrow with them. You may not have enough time allotted to necessarily see all of the film, so you had better address it right away. That way it is in their minds.”
(On developing depth on the offensive line)
“Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson are two guys that have been consistent. Kyler is starting to come on now, in which he is training both tackle and guard, whereas Mack is just concentrating on center. In fairness to Kyler, Mack is really ahead of him, but Kyler is making strides and I am really encouraged by him. He is really understanding the offense, he is playing fast. It is still a matter of the in-shape part of it, which I trust in Coach Lawson to get that right. Those two guys are the ones that really have stepped up. [Alan] Posey and [Marques] Pair still have a way to go. Jacob Gilliam is doing some things that are encouraging. He is also bouncing a little bit from left-to-right at the tackle spot, but he has given us some positive work.”
(On using Kyler Kerbyson in a utility lineman role)
“I was not aware of this, but I guess he actually had the ball in his hand some last year through practice. I think there is a fine line to that as well. You have to be careful that it is not too much that you ask and put on a guy’s plate, especially a younger guy. A guy like Alex Bullard can play everything – center, guard, tackle – and gets it and gets it fast. I get concerned about bouncing guys too much because the stance, the footwork and all those things sometimes gets lost and I don’t want that to happen. A guy like Alex has been able to respond faster to that.”
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(How the players are adjusting to intensity level of practice)
“It’s important to them. What you're seeing now is guys getting better at communication. The first day, everybody was kind of in survival mode. Nobody was talking, everybody just do your job, nobody was saying anything. Now guys are starting to understand, if you do get fatigued, the more you communicate, the more confident guys are out there.”
(On Brent Brewer's adjustment)
“He's getting it. Everyday is a learning experience for Brent. We're going to keep pushing him. We like to see him communicate and keep playing with a lot of confidence.”
(On if he is looking for people to separate themselves in position battles)
“Yeah. I want to see some guys make some moves. There are some guys that you want to see step up. Kenny Bynum is getting it a lot more. I want to see a guy like John Propst more. In all his fundamentals, he's a technician. He's very smart, he's guy that has to find some ways to help us. Guys like Christian Harris and Fugate who I think are doing great jobs. It's an older group and an old room. A lot of experience in that room. But we have to get everyone contributing.”
(On importance of Saturday's scrimmage)
“It's always big. Anytime you can go live and see who is going to make plays in space and when they're fatigued, who can overcome adversity, who's going to step up. There's a lot of little intangibles we're looking for. Anytime we can line up and scrimmage, it's always a plus for our defense.”
(On Kenny Bynum)
“Kenny's doing a good job. Again, he's still new to the game. But it's important to Kenny because he comes in a couple times of week, by himself with a notepad, and comes in and asks important questions.”