KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- The Vols may not have a game on Saturday, but head coach Derek Dooley wants to make sure that each player has a defined purpose when they hit the practice field each day this week.
“We really want to have a defined objective for every player and for every unit,” Dooley said. “It is so important that these guys learn how to have a purpose every day. I told them, everything happens before it happens. You have a goal, you know what the challenges are to reach that goal and then you prepare to do certain things to overcome those challenges. If we can all stay focused on defining a purpose for this week then we will come out of it a lot better football team.”
To that end, each player on the Tennessee roster spent time with their position coach defining two goals for self-improvement during the team’s open week, a technique Dooley has utilized before.
“It’s just something I have always done, even as an assistant,” Dooley said. “You can’t really accomplish anything if you don’t have a purpose, if you just go practice without an objective. During game week, your purpose is the game plan and you are working the plan. Whether it is red area or third down, you are really focused on what we are working on.
“When you go out there in an open date, it is really easy to say, ‘How long is this practice going to be?’ You just get through it and don’t really accomplish anything. And you get worse when you do that. We’re just trying to be really focused on self-improvement. The practices aren’t as bad when you are focused on something like that.”
As a team, the Vols will spend their time getting back to the basics and work to improve in a number of areas, none more important than tackling on defense.
“The open week is always a time to go reevaluate your fundamentals and what you aren’t doing as well as you need to,” Dooley said. “Of course, the tackling, the open-field tackling and the space tackling is a real major concern where we need to make some significant improvement.”
Just because it won’t play a game this week doesn’t mean Tennessee is going to take it easy on the practice field. The Vols will get some rest on the weekend. For now, it is full steam ahead.
“How physical they are is going to be up to what their mindset is and how physical they want to be,” Dooley said. “We’ll have a chance to recover later in the week, so we are really looking for recovery later but right now we are hitting and we are moving on.”
LATHERS TAKING PRIDE AND RESPONSIBILITY
The obvious focus of attention after Tennessee's loss at #5 Georgia on Saturday is moving forward. Fifth-year senior Herman Lathers knows that focusing on a loss isn't helpful, but he has been taking responsibility for the mistakes and taking it upon himself to correct them.
Lathers says this team is nowhere near done - improvements have been visible everywhere. Coming into the Vols' bye week, the team is planning on capitalizing on the time to make changes for their next road trip.
"Our team has a bright future," Lathers said. "I think our whole team, this organization and the fans realize that. We set goals yesterday - two goals a person, one fundamental and one technique goal - so we went out today to work towards those goals and just get better as a person. I think we got better today as a team. We have two more work days to get better and then we get a little rest period."
With experience on his side, the Louisiana native knows that practice habits make better game habits leading to more wins.
"We're just keeping each other accountable at practice and practicing good habits at practice, trying to carry over practice into games," Lathers said. "It doesn't matter who you're playing - fundamentals are everything in the game. We have a great defense and we're a great team so we're just trying to clean those up this week."
Lathers says he takes responsibility for the defense and if they're doing what they need to be doing. Along with his teammate, A.J. Johnson, logistically, the defense is in their hands.
"As one of the linebackers on the inside who makes calls, it's mine and A.J. Johnson's job to get our defense going and get us aligned right," Lathers said. "It's something we take pride in and something we're studying all week to get better at."
"We've been watching a lot of film, trying to make the adjustments and make them work," Lathers said of his and Johnson's work this week. "[Tackling] was a big emphasis today. It was a goal for the whole team, trying to get guys to the ball. If one guy misses, then you have to have another guy there to make the tackle. Pursuit was really a big emphasis, so that's what we did today and we did a great job at it, just trying to get better."
As an experienced player, Lathers knows that it's not one single player's fault or job to win the football game, but he said there were plenty of positives in their 7-point loss to Georgia.
"We did some great things in the second and fourth quarter," Lathers said. "But, when you dig yourself into a big enough hole like we did, sometimes you get the results we got. We had a chance to win the game and we didn't, so that comes back on the whole team with the mistakes that we made early on."
Moving forward past the Vols' open week and into the next, Lathers knows what other teams will be looking at when they face the Big Orange.
"In the SEC, teams are going to try to run on you," Lathers said. "Especially when they watch the Georgia film, they're going to think they can run. But we just have to clean up our fundamental alignment errors that we made and I think that will give us the chance to stop the run."
Not to lose hope, this defense is ready for a comeback.
"We're working to improve every day," Lathers said. And they continue to, with one week off, then it's back to the field in Starkville, Mississippi.
BRAY LEARNING LESSONS
Coming off one of his toughest days as a Vol, junior quarter Tyler Bray is focused on making a positive out of the negatives from his game at Georgia. The signal caller was intercepted three times and lost a fumble in the final minutes of action.
"Just being smart and not trying to press," Bray said of improvements he will be looking to make late in games. "Towards the end, I was pressing and trying to make that big play again. It didn't work out.
"Just throwing the ball that's there. Not trying to force it downfield. Hitting the check down or even throwing it away. I mean a throw away is never really a bad pass."
Bray and the Vols have a week off before taking on Mississippi State on Oct. 13 in another road contest at a ranked team -- the Bulldogs are No. 20 in this week's AP Poll and 19th in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
"You always need those experiences and failing at them helps," said Bray of the loss at Georgia. "You learn from them and know next time I don't need to force the ball downfield, throw picks and fumble the ball."
With 14 days between games, Bray is going to take full advantage of the extra time to prep for MSU.
"Rest and study some film. It gives us an extra week of film to study on them," he said. "Their secondary is probably the best part of their defense so a lot of film study will help."
In the last three games, Rajion Neal has led the Vols in both rushing yards and all-purpose yardage, combining for 342 rushing yards (114/gm.) and 437 all-purpose yards (145.7/gm.) during that stretch.
One might say he is getting comfortable. Neal agrees.
“I am just settling in,” said Neal. “The coaches are really working towards what I do a little bit better and doing things that I like a little bit more. I just have guys around me that have helped me. The O-Line gave me opportunities, when I got to the open field I got my guys out there blocking and helping me. I am coming into my own a little bit and the guys have helped with that.”
Never one to accept praise for a job well done, Neal instead gives praise of his own to those who have helped him get there.
“I was happy, the offensive line, the fullbacks and the guys on the perimeter gave me great opportunities out there in open field and got me started,” said Neal. “They just put me in good situations and I am happy with the way we performed. A lot of guys played with each other and a lot of guys helped each other. It was a team effort and part of the reason that I had such a good day.”
Neal is also leading in rushing attempts this season, and not just amongst Vols as he is the only SEC rusher to have over 100 carries this season. And he isn’t tired.
“We played him a lot,” said head coach Derek Dooley, “but it was about the right number of snaps. I think he had about 50 or so snaps and touched it about 20 times, which is good. That’s a heavy workload right there, but that is 20 less snaps than he got in the Florida game and 20 snaps is a lot.”
“I feel that I will be able to maintain because Coach Graham does a great job of managing my game and managing what plays I am taking when,” said Neal. “He spaces it out very well to make sure I can get through the whole game.”
Neal isn’t worried about his workload as he has people around him helping him in every aspect of the game. He expects his snap count to remain high as the season continues.
“I almost feel that it is a compliment,” said Neal. “It means that we are doing something right. It means that these guys have faith and believe in what we are doing and everyone is behind it. It feels good to know that our offensive coordinator wants to keep running and our quarterback is agreeing with him and saying he wants to do that. It is a compliment and it is exciting to hear.”
GOOD, BUT LOOKING FOR MORE
Tennessee may have run for nearly 200 yards against a stout Georgia defense last Saturday, but it felt like it left even more on the field at Sanford Stadium.
With an off week before their next game, the Vols are looking forward to the opportunity to continue to improve before they head to Starkville for a showdown with No. 19 Mississippi State on Oct. 13 (9 p.m. on ESPN2).
“I think that our O-line and running backs have a ton of potential,” redshirt senior fullback Ben Bartholomew said. “It’s just beginning. We did a lot of good things, but we still left some plays out there, so we’re going to capitalize on those.”
The process for improving the run game has been a gradual one, but the results of the hard work Bartholomew and his teammates have put in each day at practice is beginning to become evident.
“As seniors, we’re definitely more responsible about everything and we have to be more technical about everything we do,” Bartholomew said. “I think run blocking is something you have to work on every single day. Even if you’re the best run blocker in the league, you still have to work on it because the defense is going to be doing the same thing.”
That leadership and experience from Bartholomew has been extremely helpful for junior Rajion Neal in his first season as the team’s starting tailback.
“Bart talks to me every series, every play, letting me know what he is doing and thinking and that helps out a lot,” Neal said. “It starts with him and the offensive line. In practice and these last couple of games we know how each other works and how to set reads up to get the most production. Bart knows how Marlin [Lane] and I run, and the same goes for the O-Line. They know their backs and what are the best helps and fits for each of us. Bart is a student of the game. He has been around for a while. He knows what it takes and what is going on out there.”
That trust Neal has displayed has not gone unnoticed, both on the stat sheet or by his lead blocker.
“Rajion is doing a great job of reading the O-line’s blocks and I think as each play goes on he begins to trust my blocks and the O-line even more,” Bartholomew said. “That’s helping him out and it’s showing on the field.”
FAMILIAR SCENE FOR NEAL
The game at Mississippi State is a big one for Rajion Neal and not just because he has been heating up on the field as of late.
Neal spent the better part of 2009 being recruited by the Bulldogs and head coach Dan Mullen, and only after a visit with Coach Dooley and Coach Chaney in January of 2010 did he change his mind and decide that he wanted to be a Volunteer.
"I think when I came [to Tennessee] it was a lot of love and fan support," said Neal. "The coaching staff and the situation that they were in, there was a lot that played a big part and I have no regrets."
Neal isn't nervous heading to Starkville next week, and is heading into this game like any other.
"It is important," said Neal. "I feel that this is just as big as any game. I am excited to go back but I am going to treat this game like any other SEC game or any opponent we faced."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the play of the offensive line)
“It’s a lot of things. It’s size and talent. They are talented guys, they have a lot of experience as a unit, they have a lot of good chemistry and just the physical maturity that you have seen over the last two years. It’s really everything kind of coming together which is what your goal is for every position. That is a group that was kind of beat up for a couple of years. They were beat up last year publically for our performance. It is really just a focused group, a committed group and talented group.”
(On Marcus Jackson)
“He is practicing well and he is playing well. He is playing with a lot of consistency and he has a lot of power. He is really playing physical football and we are playing seven linemen right now. Alex [Bullard] had about 15 snaps, Marcus had about 20-something snaps, so we are playing seven guys.”
(On giving up long runs)
“You line up a little bit wrong, you don’t play physical football and then you don’t strain to the football from the back end. It is a combination of bad ball. When you have a run that long, it is usually a bunch of bad ball. There’s really no other way to explain it.”
(On Curt Maggitt)
“The toe limits him but that’s really not the reason. He shows a lot of flashes where he is making good plays, but I think Curt’s biggest issue is that he just hasn’t played a lot. It is a new position for him as the SAM on the line, and so with all the play recognition you will see him early in the game screw it up and then they run the same play later in the game and he plays it beautifully. His lack of experience is probably the biggest thing. He missed spring practice, we can’t minimize that. He had 15 practices where everybody was working that new defense, new positions and all that and he missed every one of them. That hurt him coming in to fall camp and then he has been dinged up with his toe so he has missed some practice. He needs to play.”
(On Maggitt’s ability to adapt during a game)
“That’s what good players do, they learn how to survive and they start making adjustments throughout the game. They come to the sideline, [you tell them], ‘You played it wrong, this is how you have to play that.’ The next time they run it, plays it perfectly. You can teach it on the chalk board and you can run it against scout team but there is no better way to improve as a player than to go out there and play.”
(On leadership when adversity strikes)
“I think it has been really good. We haven’t had any problems. There hasn’t been any negativity, really in any game. No negativity, no finger-pointing, no complaining, that is not the issue. We just have to learn how to execute in crunch time.”
(On the amount of scoring throughout the SEC)
“I think it is a trend we have been seeing the last few years more and more. Offenses are doing a lot, tempo is moving, the rules help them out a little bit and quarterbacks are playing good. In this league, you are seeing a lot of good quarterback play which is generally an indicator of scoring points. You look and Georgia’s guy is playing great, Florida’s guy is playing great, Alabama’s guy is playing great, South Carolina’s guy is doing what he needs to do. Quarterbacks are playing good.”
(On the competition at kicker)
“Nobody has really said ‘I’m the guy.’ The one thing that is interesting is that we are 8-for-10 on field goals, knock on wood. There aren’t many coaches in college football that wouldn’t take that, I think we are third in the league in field goals. The problem is that we have missed three PATs, which leads to the ‘We’re the worst kickers of all-time.’ Both are true. We can’t miss three PATs because it is going to incite furor by everybody, including my kids. Then you look and we are 8-for-10 after five games in field goals and that is pretty good, 80 percent. Isn’t that true? We never say that though. We just say we missed three PATs, but you are right. You can’t miss three PATs because people are just going to say you missed three PATs, I don’t care what you did.”
(On the play of Mychal Rivera and Ben Bartholomew)
“They are playing consistently. Ben probably didn’t have one of his better ones but they both played consistent ball. Both have to really work on the run block. That’s the big thing because we are trying to get to the edge a little bit and we lost the edge a couple of times on some of those outside runs. We can do a little bit better.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On practice during the bye week)
“We didn’t go against the scout team. We went against the first defense so it was almost like training camp. So it was a little tougher than a normal practice would be.”
(On practice after tough loss)
“No one was down. I remember everyone being really down after the Florida game. No one really wanted to be out there and no one really wanted to practice. This week, everyone is just trying to move forward and move on to the next one.”
(On what was stressed in practice)
“Just finishing. For me, personally, just throwing the ball away. There were times in the Georgia game that I forced it and it cost us the game.”
“On first down, instead of throwing a jump ball and it getting picked off. Just throw it out of bounds and go on to 2nd down and 3rd down.”
(On connection with Zach Rogers)
“I’ve played with him for three years now. We kind of know what each other is thinking. The same goes with Justin Hunter and Mychal Rivera.”
(On Rogers getting overlooked)
“Yeah. No one ever really reports on him or talks about him. And then he goes out there and scores a touchdown.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On mindset after the Georgia game)
“After the game, we were proud of ourselves. We were sad at the same time that we lost. We know that we gave it our all so we were kind of satisfied but not at the same time.”
(On fourth quarter confidence)
“I was like ‘we can do this.’ It’s not hard not having too much pressure on Tyler (Bray). Every chance we had when we were down, we just had the motivation to come back and score and run the game closer.”
(On staying focused without a game this weekend)
“We just go into it like we have a game this week. Practice is going to be the same. We’re going to go hard in practice, have game plans just the way we would and just focus on the next game next week and pretending like it’s the game this week.”
(On Zach Rogers)
“He’s going to be there. I think he had the most catches this game. He was there where we needed him to be and he helped us out a lot.”
(On Tyler Bray after the game)
“I go to him, I’m one of his best friends. I talk to him, make sure he’s alright. I don’t want him to keep his head down or anything like that.”
(On feelings in low reception games)
“I wasn’t really frustrated the whole game at all. As long as my team is doing good, we’re happy that we’re moving the ball. Even with three catches, my team was doing good. I’ll tell the quarterback and he’ll see it on film. As long as the team is doing good and we’re moving the ball down field, I don’t care if I have a catch or not as long as we win.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On frustrations of giving up big plays)
“It’s not frustrating, it’s not hard to compare. We did some great things in the second and fourth quarter but when you dig yourself into a big enough hole like we did, sometimes you get the results we got. We had a chance to win the game and we didn’t, so that comes back on the whole team with the mistakes that we made early on.”
(On how close the game was)
“It was definitely tough just to see the same plays that we gave up, we’ve got the same plays we need to learn more in the game. It’s just mental errors, alignment errors and fundamental errors that we just need to fix this week. We’re working every day to fix it.”
(On the fourth quarter vs. Georgia compared to fourth quarters in the past)
“We didn’t change a thing, we played the same calls. We played our fundamentals and our techniques right. When you do that, we have a great defense and we’re a great team so we’re just trying to clean those up this week.”
(On stopping the run)
“Breakdown is in technique and alignment errors, sometimes we aren’t aligned wide enough, sometimes we’re [too tight in], it’s just knowing what scheme we’re in and what alignment we should be in and that should take care of a lot of the mistakes and errors.”
SOPHOMORE LB AJ JOHNSON
(On if it is frustrating giving up big plays)
“I don't think it's too frustrating. We just have to come together as a defense to get it fixed.”
(On if he sees improvement)
“Yes sir. From last game, I know we got better as a defense. As a defense, we made big plays out there as well.”
(On fourth quarter performance against Georgia)
“We know that we can do stuff right, we just have to do it right all the time.”
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On Jarvis Jones)
“The thing is not overhyping guys and just going out there and playing. We feel like he is a unique player and he is really good but we have really good guys on the offensive line too. We didn’t over prepare, we just came in every day with the right mindset.”
(On the offensive line)
“First of all we have talent. Even with the second offensive line there is a lot of talent and depth now. Guys are going out there with the right mindset to work every day. When you come out there with the right mindset, you have no choice but to be better, and that is the difference.”
(On cutting down on mistakes)
“I had an offsides this game as well, me and Dallas both did. Being in those hostile loud environments where you can’t hear anything and you are trying to look at the ball. You make a mistake every now and then but I have really cut down on my mistakes and I believe I am playing better.”
(On the run game)
“We get a lot of heat about our running game but we are very confident as run blockers and pass blockers so we just came in and knew that we were going to do well. When you have that mindset that you know success is going to come your way, you do well.”
(On playing against SEC defensive lines)
“From Florida to Georgia, we look at these great defensive lines and all of them have great players with great combinations. Georgia is big and powerful, Florida is big but they were speedy. These defensive lines bring a lot to the table so it is just preparing week-by-week for the personnel that you are playing.”
RS SENIOR OL DALLAS THOMAS
(On how to keep running momentum going)
"Just doing what we've been doing. Don't change anything. Just keep doing it over and over again. Just keep clicking."
(On Rajion Neal's performance vs. Georgia)
"He's just been working at it hard. I've seen him at the sleds just working at it every day. He runs those sleds as hard as possible. He's hitting the holes just as hard as he's pulling those sleds, and I'm proud of him."
(On the offensive line's performance right now)
"It all goes back to the spring when everything had started. They moved me around. Once we started clicking together and started working together, it's finally started clicking now and it's working out real good."
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On the Georgia defense playing deep)
“I think so. My big guys up front took advantage of it and took that opportunity to blow them off the ball when they were sitting back and trying to play the pass. I think they were trying to cheat a little bit and sit back in that coverage, but when they did that coach Chaney did some good play calling to have the runners attack straight downhill.”
(On his amount of catches against Georgia)
“Some of them were by design, some of them were just hot reads and check downs. It just goes back to T Bray giving me an opportunity just to get out in the open field and make some plays.”
(On getting the ball to Hunter and Patterson)
“I feel we will plan accordingly. But if they keep doing that I am sure we will try and find some way to get the ball down and get that pressure off of them.”
RS SENIOR TB BEN BARTHOLOMEW
(On his play at Georgia)
“I did well. We had a lot mistakes in the game and there were a lot of opportunities that we could have capitalized on and that’s just how it is. It’s what happened, but we came out to practice today to try and correct them.”
(On a chemistry forming between Neal, Bartholemew and the O-line)
“I think Rajion and the rest of the running backs are really learning to trust the O-line, and if we have a trust in them coming from the back field, then I can fit up on my block so the running back can fit on my block, so it all works out.”
(On the offense’s physicality against Georgia)
“I think overall against Georgia we just out-hit them. I think their defense is similar to our defense, so it was something that we knew we were going to see.”
(On being 3-2 and being a leader)
“I think leadership is very important in the bye-week. Teams take it both ways – it’s either a time to rest and get ready for the next week or a time to get better. I think our team has tried to step up and make sure we’re getting better.”
(On playing tight end)
“There’s a lot that goes into [being a tight end]. A lot of it is film work. As a tight end, you have to know the line, the backers, the safeties – you really have to know the entire defense. That really brings a challenge. There’s a lot of different ways to block, but I think with Michal (Rivera) and I being seniors, we’re going to do really well with it.”
SOPHOMORE DB JUSTIN COLEMAN
(On coach Sunseri’s reaction after the game)
“He is not a laid back guy so he is going to tell us what we did wrong, but he is going to tell us what we did right and what we can do better.”
(On what he is doing in the off week)
“We are just focused on our goals, they give us main goals to accomplish and we have to focus mainly on our technique. I am hoping to accomplish body control and my defensive technique of kick sliding and pressing and getting my hands on the receivers.”
(On getting over the hump)
“We know that we are becoming a lot closer. We feel that now we are getting closer to that hump and now we have to get over it. We have to work harder and do extra to get over that hump.”
(On holding Georgia to no points in the fourth quarter)
“It shows that we have the right people, the defense and the right calls and we can be a better defense and team. We can stop any team from scoring that is what it shows. In the fourth quarter, it showed that we had a lot of effort and really wanted to win the game, but some plays just didn’t work out.”
(On how it boosts his confidence)
“It boosts my confidence. I have a lot of confidence in the team and I feel like as long as we keep doing better we will get ourselves a lot of wins.”