KNOXVILLE -- During his inaugural press conference as UT’s head football coach, Butch Jones said, “We’ll be working to be champions each and every day. We will be a champion in everything we do.”
Every day. Every snap. Every rep. Every play.
Demanding perfection. Demanding excellence.
Jones has demonstrated this mentality on the practice field, in part, with the installation of his new offensive and defensive schemes.
The team learns the fundamental plays early, then it builds from there. But the key here: the players must effectively master the plays they have before they can move on.
This strategy is likely most important for the long-term development of the most critical position on the team: the quarterbacks. They don't have much experience, so let's start deliberately.
"It is a little slow right now but it is good that it is slow,” redshirt-freshman Nathan Peterman said. “We really need to master things and that is what we are focusing on--mastering these basic concepts...These coaches are very into coaching the details and very little things. It makes you the best player you can be."
“They haven't installed too much because they want us to get perfect,” Peterman added. “We have to keep watching film, get better and work hard."
Fellow quarterback junior Justin Worley, the lone QB with any real snaps under his belt, explained that it’s been a more progressive installation rather than the all-at-once strategy employed by the previous coaching staff.
“We have been installing different protections and pass plays just about every day,” Worley said. “So I’m not totally surprised by that and I’m really enjoying it so far. I’m glad they aren’t throwing the whole offense on us in four days where we are out there trying to tread water.”
Jones’ insistence on making the uncomfortable comfortable, or “changing venues,” has been a theme in practices so far and helps the players sharp. Jones said he was pleased with the offense’s retention, despite the influx of new material and the unfamiliar setting.
“Obviously we threw a lot at them today with installation,” Jones said. “Doing some different trades and shifts and motions, different personnel groupings with our defense and things like that. Some different things in practice and structure. It is only the second time that we have been out there on our grass practice field so the environment changed. I like changing venues. I like changing environments. It goes hand and hand with being a good road football team.”
THE NEW VOICE ON THE LINE
There is a new presence on the defensive line. Sometimes he can be heard yelling about technique. Other times his presence is felt as he silently takes in practice.
He is Associate Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach Steve Stripling and though he has only been at Tennessee for just three months, he has already made a big impact on his athletes.
“Coach Strip, I love him,” said senior Marlon Walls. “He's the type that is going to get in your face and he's going to call you out. He isn’t going to sugarcoat nothing. If you weren't playing to the standard that it takes to play a Tennessee defense, myself included, he's going to call you out on it.”
This in-your-face coaching style is just what the defensive line wants and needs.
But Coach Strip isn’t just about on the field coaching, he has also taken the time off the field to build relationships with each and every one of the line.
“We have a good relationship,” said senior Daniel McCullers. “The whole D-Line is building something with him. He is a good coach, he gets on you but when it is all said and done he is just like another father figure to push you. That is what we need, a guy that works you hard, but can also joke around.”
Like the rest of the Tennessee coaching staff, Coach Strip is using this direct approach to make his players into leaders.
“Last practice he called me out and I needed it,” said Walls. “So it opened up my eyes and now like I said, I preached to the guys today about narrow focus. We're going to focus on a few things and that'll make us a better defense. We love it man. He’s the type that's going to get after you and we appreciate it."
LEADING THE WAY
Coach Butch Jones has stressed the importance of focus and leadership all spring, and as he noted on Tuesday, both senior offensive lineman Ju’Wuan James and junior linebacker A.J. Johnson have shown those two traits through seven practices.
“They have to take ownership,” said Jones about the pair. “Leadership is a skill set. You have to practice it and work on it every day.”
Two members of Jones’ staff, defensive coordinator John Jancek and linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen, are the ones pushing Johnson this offseason.
“They are pushing me, pushing me really hard,” Johnson said. “They’re marking me a better player. I know they are helping me learn the defense better. Coach Jancek is working with me one-on-one when I’m not on special teams, so they’re working me hard.”
James, who’s started every game of his Vol career, has taken notice of the Big Orange’s defensive leader.
“A.J. has stepped up a lot,” said James. “He’s the voice of the defense. You can hear him on the field, at practice or in the weight room. He’s taken charge of the defense.”
As for James, he’s seen a lot in his three years on Rocky Top and is not going to let his final campaign in the Orange and White go to waste.
“I’m trying to make sure we’re not lacking that leadership position,” James said. “I’ve seen how that can go bad. This is my last season. If some guy is going the wrong way or standing in the wrong spot, I feel like I’ve seen a lot and can correct them and everybody will respect it.
“I don’t want to regret anything. I want to go out here, give it my all, and bring everyone along with me.”
A MENTAL HURDLE
Following an injury – especially one to the ACL – the highest hurdle for an athlete to overcome is often mental rather than physical. Defensive back Brian Randolph and linebacker Christian Harris know that all too well, as the redshirt sophomores use this spring to work their way back into the Vol defense.
“I’m not going to lie, sometimes you can feel it a little bit and it makes you start thinking,” said Randolph. “When I get into the same situation I was in during the game I did it, I start thinking about it then. For the most part I tune it out, just play and try not to worry about it.”
When you’re constantly backpedaling and cutting from side to side, one would think tuning it out would be the toughest thing to do.
“Actually, I thought I would be very scared about it, but I’m not as worried about it as I thought I would be,” Randolph said.
For Harris, it’s been easiest to just not think about it.
“I've tried not to think about it and I think that’s worked best for me,” Harris said. “I haven't had too much trouble thinking about it and wondering if I’ll get hurt again so it's alright.”
Coach Butch Jones credits the University of Tennessee staff and facilities for making the process easier on his players.
“Obviously, when you come off an injury it’s always in your mind,” said Jones. “We have a tremendous training staff here and a great set of doctors.
“Our players are doing a great job of taking advantage of the facilities and the care that they have,” Jones said. “It’s a hurdle but I think it’s ongoing, and that’s part of our mental conditioning program we talk about.”
After being held out of contact drills early this spring, Randolph used spring break to continue working his way back to full strength.
“I went home and just rested,” Randolph said. “I saw my grandparents and stuff like that. I stayed off my knee, got massages here and there and stretched a lot.”
Head Coach Butch Jones has put some high expectations on defensive lineman Daniel McCullers this spring.
They are telling me they want me to be one of the best linemen that ever walked into UT,” said McCullers. “That’s what they want me to be.”
The big man, who came to UT from Georgia Military College weighing in at 380 pounds, has dropped 35 pounds since stepping foot on campus, 10 of which came this past offseason, making him more agile on the line.
But McCullers knows he still has a way to go to be the best.
“It is a long way to go to be one of the best that came in,” said McCullers. “There are a lot of linemen that came here. There is a lot to live up to. I am just going to keep trying to work hard, we have the best staff in the country and they are going to get us ready.”
“Each day, they give me technique tips and push me forward to get better,” continued McCullers. “It is going to take some work to do because I am not there yet but we have a long way until the season comes so I am going to continue to work. I am just going to take it all in and get better each and every day.”
QUARTERBACK JUSTIN WORLEY
(On slot receivers)
“They have definitely been stepping up. Devrin (Young) is doing a great job transitioning from running back to a slot receiver. Pig (Howard) is doing a great job as well. They are definitely dynamic out there on the edge”.
(On some benchmarks he expects of himself)
“One of our core values at the quarterback position is leadership. We just need to be able to step up a little more and be a little bit more vocal. Once we get a little momentum going, we need to keep it going with the guys. So that is something I am going to work on over the rest of spring practice”.
(On practice without Marlin Lane today)
“Not having Marlin (Lane) definitely hurt with the depth at running back and we have had some guys step up big this spring. Alden Hill, Deanthonie Summerhill, Winston Williams, and a bunch of guys like that have stepped up and are getting reps and progressing well. So not having Marlin hurts and it is said to see him not there, but we need to continue on and have these guys develop as well”.
QUARTERBACK NATE PETERMAN
(On Jason Croom coming back stronger after spring break)
"That doesn't surprise me at all. I was probably around him more than anyone if not Kenny (Bynum). Jason is a very hard worker. I noticed it today and I went up to him and told him he looked great. I can tell the renewed sense of pride and focus that he had. He saw his family too which might have given him a little motivation. We were on the beach and he wanted to run. We were running together and he is just a very hard worker. Anytime you got a guy like that it pays off."
(On differences between this spring and last spring)
"I think I am getting a lot better right now as I get more reps. There are certain things you have to go through like watching film and other guys. There are certain things you just can't master that technique without reps. I am getting better every day and that is all I can hope for."
(On competition with Justin Worley)
"I think to be the best competitor you can be all you can do is focus on yourself. You can't worry about anyone else. We are just trying to do what is best for the team. I know I have up and down days where I am not happy with myself. I don't know how he feels but I can always get better."
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN MARLON WALLS
(On how the retention rate was from when they returned)
"We were loose or whatever. That's usually usual coming out of the Spring Break, but we had that meeting yesterday and Coach Strip (Stripling) ripped us another one. Guys understood how, and myself he challenged me because I'm a senior on this defense and I call myself a leader on this defense, and how that we practiced that practice before Spring Break was unacceptable. So he got after us pretty good. Attention, it quickly shortened up because the coaches aren't going to allow you to slip and that last practice we slipped. I think we had a better day today. Like I said, there's going to be some mistakes but I appreciate my guys for how they came out here today."
(On what the defense is looking to accomplish the last three weeks of spring practice)
"Focus man, focus and attention to detail. Like I said, these coaches aren't going to let you slip and that's the reason why we appreciate them. They're going to get in you and you've got to have thick skin. That's what it's going to take to play defense here. We just, it isn’t to install we know we got a lot of great plays, we just got to narrow our focus and focus on a few things as a defense and we'll be a better defense if we can get down those things that we're trying to accomplish."
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN DAN MCCULLERS
(On adapting to the new defense)
“I adapted pretty well. It has taken time. It is all about technique. My D-Line coach, Coach Strip, he wants hand placement and for us to stay low. That is a big thing with him, leverage and staying low and taking on the double teams. Getting upfield. The pass rush that is another big thing for him.”
DEFENSIVE BACK BRIAN RANDOLPH
(On the retention after break)
“There were some things we were unsure about like some of our checks, but once we started getting back into it we caught on to it.”
(On his comfort level with this defense)
“I feel pretty comfortable… it’s not too complicated. It’s just one concept for half the defense so once you know one play; you pretty much know how to run the others.”
(On the complexity of last year’s defense)
“It was a lot more complicated. We had a lot more checks. This year, we have a lot of calls that apply to each formation. Last year, we had different calls for different offensive formations so this is a lot easier.”
(On competition at safety)
“We just look at it like we have enough people there to give us breaks. If one person gets tired, we don’t have to tough it out. Having a good backup is a good thing for us.”
LINEBACKER CHRISTIAN HARRIS
(On his feelings toward moving back to the 4-3 defense)
Well, I didn't really worry about it too much because my high school ran the 4-3, so I'm comfortable with that. We moved to the 3-4 last year and that was different to me and everything. I'm alright with the 4-3.
(On coaches forcing players to master a concept before they move on to the next one)
I feel like it's good for everyone. We're not exactly taking it slow but the coaches will make us do stuff over until we get it right. The coaches say the same things a million times just to remind us, which is good because last year we had a lot of missed assignments and people not knowing what to do. This year we're pretty confident.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JA’WUAN JAMES
(On wearing a different number at practice today)
“Me and Marcus (Jackson) just switched numbers today to see if the coaches would notice. And they did. This morning when we were getting dressed I think I grabbed his jersey on accident and said might as well put it on so we switched.”
(On gaining confidence)
“Any day you win feels good. Any day we can beat the defense, but it’s nice to see them compete as well. It’s not one side beating the other every day, we’re all competing and that’s what’s going to make us all better.”
(On Mack Crowder getting reps with the first unit)
“Ever since Mack has been here I knew he was going to be a good player. Mack works hard every day and he wanted to get a chance to play with us. I feel like he does a good job playing with the ones and he’s done a good job in the past when he takes reps with us.”
(On gaining confidence in the skill positions)
“I saw a lot out of Jason Croom today that I liked. He’s been doing well. Paul (Harris) – they had him wearing that ugly jersey – he bounced back today. All of them work hard every day. They might mess up, but you can tell they come into every day with the approach of trying to get better.”
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN ZACH FULTON
(On being comfortable)
"I am pretty comfortable with everything. It is not too much different than last year, same techniques. It is kind of the same calls so it is pretty easy to get down."
(On the running backs)
"They are playing a lot more physical. They aren't dancing as much, just hitting the holes. They are running guys over. I see that a lot more in practice. I have seen a lot from Rajion Neal and Alden Hill."
"It is similar from last year but I would say it is a tad bit faster. Not too much but it is a tad bit faster. We have a certain tempo where it is really fast."
(On Spring Break)
"I drank a lot of water and I think that counts for something. I actually lost weight when I went home, so I am going to enjoy a good time in Gibbs here in 30 minutes to help put that back on. I was 318 so I got 2 pounds to put on."