KNOXVILLE - With exponential talent and a fast learning curve comes the opportunity to play early in your collegiate football career. With early opportunity comes frequent mistakes. But that's OK to the Tennessee coaching staff, as long as they aren't repetitive ones.
"We're just trying to educate them on what good is, telling them what our expectation is and then just coaching them up on their mistakes," defensive line coach Lance Thompson said. "We have a lot of young guys. They're going to make mistakes. They're going to have some bad plays. It's not an emotional thing. It's not a crisis. Let's go back and play the next down because really the last down doesn't count. Learn from your mistake and don't make that mistake again.
Coach Wilcox has a great saying, `Don't make the same mistake. Make a new mistake.' That's a really good thing when you're dealing with young guys so they can know it. We're pleased. We're excited to compete with Montana and we're looking forward to Saturday night."
The Vols, who practiced Thursday morning at Haslam Field, are projected to start 14 combined freshmen and sophomores when they open their 115th season of football Saturday against Montana.
"Last year, obviously we played a lot of young guys on offense and this year I think we're going to see some young guys play on defense," linebackers coach Peter Sirmon said. "I think it's a testament to Coach Dooley that he's going to put the best players on the field regardless of whether they are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior."
Included in those younger players that have proven themselves this fall are freshmen A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, who are scheduled to start at the WILL and SAM linebacker positions Saturday. It is believed that Tennessee has not started a true freshman at any linebacker position in the season opener since freshman eligibility was reinstated in 1972.
"They have a real steady demeanor about them," head coach Derek Dooley said. "They've been the same today as they've been all camp. They really have. I hope they can maintain that once the battles begin. I've been impressed with them. They have a real professional way about them."
In between Johnson and Maggitt at the MIKE linebacker is senior Austin Johnson. The same is expected of the two rookies on the outside as the veteran in the middle.
"Austin's role is to play MIKE linebacker," Sirmon said. "Austin's role, in my opinion, is not to line up everybody on the field. I want him to be vocal but we're not putting that burden on him. If those guys don't get lined up, it's not Austin's responsibility to go over there, move them and tell them what to do every play. They're going to be starters in the SEC. They have to practice like it. They have to have the accountability that it requires. I don't care what age they are. If they're playing, they need to know what they're doing."
With a young team, the message has remained the same: `Don't make the same mistake.'
"It's what you want from most young players," Dooley said. "It gives you an early indicator of how quickly they can progress and how high their ceiling is going to be. What concerns you a lot is when guys are making the same mistakes over and over. You get a little concerned about their ability to survive, their survival skills."
OLIVER OUT FOR SEASON
Naz Oliver underwent surgery on his right wrist Wednesday to correct an injury sustained during training camp. The surgery was performed at UT Medical Center by Dr. Robert Ivy and Dr. Russell Betcher of the Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic. Oliver is expected to miss the entire 2011 season.
A YEAR OLDER, STILL YOUNG
Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand will have a more experienced group of players to work with -- relative to last year. A year after entering the season with a combined three career starts among the front five (all by Jarrod Shaw), the 2011 edition of the UT O-Line has started a total of 39 games. That is a 1,200 percent increase. But Tennessee still enters 2011 with the second-fewest starts by returning linemen in the NCAA. Only New Mexico with 14 career starts by its offensive line has fewer.
The line features junior left tackle Dallas Thomas, sophomore left guard Alex Bullard, sophomore right guard Zach Fulton, sophomore right tackle Ja'Wuan James and sophomore center James Stone.
"They understand what we are asking them to do," Hiestand said. "They understand the concepts of the plays and the protections better than (before). We are able to put some more time into some fundamentals. They have a better feel for what we are doing."
The line has been firm since the start of camp, which has made it easier for Hiestand to focus on the five starters.
"It's always a benefit to the players too," Hiestand said. "When they play with each other, playing next to each other is really important. It took us a little time. We weren't able to do it right away, but we are settled in on that point now."
Now that Dooley's structure has been in place for a season, the bar has been raised and Hiestand is holding his unit to it.
"We all have expectations," said Hiestand. "Everybody has a job to do. If they are doing their job then we are good. If they are not, then we have to get it right. If you are going to be out on the game field then the expectation is that you are going to do your job. If you are not doing your job then we have to get it right."
The Vols are expecting an up-tempo offensive gameplan from the Montana Grizzlies. Secondary coach Terry Joseph is well aware of the Griz' firepower and has been working to ingrain that in his defensive backs. Last season's game vs. Oregon provided a great comparison for Joseph when it comes to what can happen with an up-tempo team reaches its stride.
"All you have to do is look at the second half of Oregon to see what the tempo can do to you," Joseph said. "The guys have really been locked in. The hard thing for us is that you can't simulate it in practice. (Montana's) offense wants to get a play off every 13 seconds. By the time you get the signal, they are ready to go. So you can't celebrate much after plays. You have to get lined up, you have to be ready to play and take care of your responsibility."
Joseph thinks that experience will aid the Vols in Saturday's season-opener.
"I think it does (help)," said Joseph. "If you can watch the first half against Oregon, we played against the tempo pretty well. You can see, when we got a little fatigued both physically and mentally, the big plays, the missed tackles, the long runs. The guys who were here last year are telling the young guys, `Coach is not over-emphasizing it. It's for real'. They will find out for themselves about 6:15 pm Saturday."