KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT) - KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A day after the head coach Butch Jones challenged his team to practice better, the Vols made significant strides on Wednesday as they continued to prep for the No. 2 team in the nation, Oregon.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was pleased with the progress and how focused the Vols were after a sub-standard session on Monday.
"We responded today and I was happy to see that, especially after coming off yesterday's practice," said Bajakian. "We came out today with an even greater focus to execute, perform the techniques and mechanics that we ask them to perform. From Tuesday to Wednesday it's been a big jump and we'll continue to make that jump into Saturday.
"These guys want to be coached and they want to be challenged. They're a good group of kids. I like being around them and when they're hungry for that type of process, where they want to improve on a daily basis, it makes our job that much easier."
In honor of remembering those who lost their lives after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, Vols' head coach Butch Jones donned an NYPD hat for practice on Wednesday. The hat read "New York's Finest" on the back as a tribute to the first responders that went into action 12 years ago today.
LEVERAGE, PURSUE, AND TACKLE
There are three key elements to the Tennessee defensive game this weekend against Oregon. Leveraging, pursuit and tackling in open space.
The Vols improved on each from week one to week two, but still have a ways to go according to the defensive coaches.
With Oregon's potent run game, open field tackling is the key to stopping the Ducks.
"That has been huge throughout the week, talking about tackling and tackling in space in particular," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "Talking about leveraging the football, they have a lot of speed, they can break down angles very quickly."
"Their run game is extensive; they have a lot of different things that they could throw at you, you have to be on point in a lot of different areas," continued Jancek. "Our focus has been on leveraging the football, obviously great pursuit and tackling in space."
Open field tackling is not just something the safeties have to worry about this week. All facets of the defense have to be ready to tackle in space.
"Our pursuit from our defensive line will be key in running to the football," said defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. "All of the things that we pride ourselves in doing as far as playing fast, playing assignment, execute and run and play hard every play."
The other key? Finishing plays.
"Finish plays," said Martinez. "That is the key, finish the play. Once it is finished, snap and clear and get on to the next play. Even if you had a really good play or you didn't have a good play, there is no time to sit there and think about it with this group."
WE'RE TALKING ABOUT TEMPO
By far, the most talked about topic this week has been tempo. Whether it's Oregon or Tennessee, it's all about the tempo.
"Tempo is a huge part of our offense and it's very important at all times," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian after Wednesday's practice. "Whether [we're playing] Oregon, Western Kentucky or Austin Peay, we're emphasizing that and want to pick up the tempo."
For the Ducks' home opener against Nicholls, 57,769 came through the gates of Autzen Stadium, which has a listed seating capacity of 54,000. So Bajakian knows the packed house may play a role in the trenches, but thinks the Vols can still push the tempo on Saturday.
"The noise level causes you to do some stuff procedurally," said Bajakian. "But we still aim to move uptempo and keep the defense on their heels with how quickly we play."
Through two games, Coach Bajakian is happy with his offense's ability to adjust the tempo.
"We've done a good job of changing tempos," Bajakian said. "We monitor that throughout the course of the game and obviously postgame. We've executed - when we're checking plays at the line of scrimmage - we're going fast and have done a good job of pushing the gas pedal and then stepping on the brakes a little."
When playing uptempo, having a signal caller that can remain poised under any circumstance is crucial. The Vols have exactly that in junior Justin Worley.
"We always try to push him, but he is even-keeled, and that's what we want," said Bajakian. "We want our guys to never be too high or too low.
"He does a good job of having a solid temperament about him. We're always on him about improving, and he has that mentality too, so it's not like we have to push him that hard."
While Worley's temperament is right where it needs to be, Bajakian knows there are areas his quarterback must improve on this week.
"As is always the case, we just have to play pitch-and-catch when it's there," Bajakian said. "As windows close more quickly - whether it's man coverage or zone coverage - we have to have better ball location. That's the No. 1 improvement he needs to make."
JACQ IS BACK
A Vol that has been ever-present on the sidelines through the first two games will be back in action against Oregon this weekend as Jacques Smith has returned to practice this week.
Smith will provide an extra burst of energy for the Vols according to his position coach Steve Stripling.
"We anticipate Jacq being a nice shot in the arm for us to give us some burst of energy, fresh legs, some juice," said Stripling. "We are excited about having him back."
Smith, who has been out since the beginning of fall camp with a broken thumb, got back into action on Monday and has been shaking the rust off since.
"There is a rust factor," said Stripling. "I think a lot of these young men, when they come off and they haven't been on the field for a few weeks they think they are just going to jump out there and it is going to be smooth and it is not."
"He has experienced the rust factor," continued Stripling, "but it is great that we had him early in the week practicing, and we can knock some of the rust off."
** - Also of note, freshman Corey Vereen also returned to practice this week, but has been limited after injuring his meniscus during fall camp. Stripling says that he is doing good, and when he is ready to go he will be put in.
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood has been through it all during his time on Rocky Top.
And through it all he has continued to be the smart, steady presence that he is.
Butch Jones and Co. came to Tennessee to try and establish consistency with the football program; Hood is an example of that.
"Daniel Hood, he has been the rock for us to be honest," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "He has been stable, highly intelligent, given us great leadership, and is the model of consistency. A lot of the players are still up and down where Hood is really consistent.
"He is the field general," continued Stripling. "He is a very intelligent young man, we talk in terms of level two football, which is identifying back sets, recognizing run-pass, all of those different type of things. He is one of few that can do that."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek also likes what he sees out of Hood and the effort that he gives in practice every day.
"I love Dan," said Jancek. "He does everything we ask him to do, he is very smart, he gets lined up perfectly all the time, he helps out other guys get lined up."
Hood's hard work has already paid off in 2013 as he recorded his first career interception. The Knoxville native lined up in the correct spot, got his hands up at the right time, batted the ball into the air and caught it at the right moment.
Jancek was excited for his veteran lineman.
"In the first ball game when I saw him get that interception, I was really happy for him," said Jancek. "I know he has worked really hard and had a long road up to this point and it great to see him playing and playing at a high level."
Though Oregon is talented offensively across the board, the Vols' main objective is stopping the team's leader quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Mariota has thrown for 433 yards through two games this season also adding 235 yards on the ground for a team leading 26.1 yards per rush.
"I will tell you he is scary," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "He really is. When you think of quarterbacks and their speed, a lot of quarterbacks are potentially dangerous, he is dangerous. He has great speed."
"One of the things that we do is study the scrambles and obviously this young man can really scramble," continued Stripling. "Quarterback draw and scramble is very effective. It is something we are highly aware of."
When Mariota turns on the steam, he is hard to stop. That is why the Vols have to be in their correct gaps, ready and waiting.
"You have to mix it up on him," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "He is very athletic, he has tremendous speed, a great burst, when you see him on film, he just out runs angles. You have to have a plan, that is for sure."
That plan is to get lined up, and make plays.
"You just play disciplined and execute the defense," said defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. "We recognize how talented he is. Every time you have a talented quarterback, that is where it all starts on offense. We just have to execute and like I have been saying, get lined up, play with great leverage and make plays in space."
Here are sound bites from Coach Stripling, Coach Jancek, Coach Bajakian and Coach Martinez following Wednesday's practice:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On how the defensive line will attack Oregon)
"I think you change your point of emphasis on the quarterback. This is truly a great athlete so you talk about quarterback points. I would rather have him in the pocket to be honest than running down the football field. He is deadly when he runs down there. Also, I have a great respect, they have protected the quarterback well, they haven't given up a sack, so instead of sacks you are talking about ball disruptions and getting your hands up, maybe getting a tipped ball, those kind of things."
»(On the Oregon O-Line)
"They are very mobile and athletic. Fisher the left tackle, I actually know that young man, I think he is really a good football player. Their center is really experienced and a tough guy. I have great respect for their offense. When you put up their numbers and you aren't giving up any sacks and all of the things they are doing, they are pretty good."
»(On Jason Carr and Jaylen Miller)
"The true freshmen Carr and Miller that are playing in games, they are on the cusp. They are being trained and you want to get them in and get them some game experience. Down the line if they need to be in there they will be ready to go."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On Oregon's offensive speed)
"If they don't sub, you can sub. That is just the way it is. If they catch you trying to sneak a guy on they will speed up the tempo and you will get slapped with a 5-yard penalty. Our emphasis has been playing a lot, we scripted differently this week, we scripted more plays in a row, just trying to get ready."
»(On Oregon's offensive line)
"That is exactly what I would say. They are athletic guys, they try and stretch you, they get on your tips, they make you move your feet. They are athletic and they are good in pass protection too. I know our defensive line has a big challenge going into Saturday."
»(On the snap and clear mentality)
"That is part of it. You have to be able to handle adversity, we have to be able to bounce back, we have to be able to snap and clear and regroup on every single play and possession.
»(On the team being aware of Oregon's speed)
"I think they have watched enough film that they are pretty well aware that these guys are fast, it doesn't anyone too long, one or two plays, to tell that they have great speed on offense. We have harped on angles since day one, going back to spring, it is nothing new. They just have to be able to go out and execute and perform."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On balancing the offense and making big plays)
"It's something we stress all the time. To be a playmaker, you have to do more than what the play is designed for. Make the difficult catch, jump over a defender to make a catch, make a guy miss in space, break a tackle or whatever it is. That's usually what results in explosive plays. It's not necessarily throwing the ball 50 yards downfield and completing those bombs. It's a matter of athletes doing the exception before that 20-yard mark."
»(On the challenge of making big plays against Oregon)
"They're very quick, they're very athletic and particularly in the secondary they're very good tacklers. That is a challenge. They've done a great job - last year I think they were No. 1 in the country - in taking the ball away and this year they've continued along the same pattern. They do a great job of getting takeaways early and putting their offense in a favorable position. We've been stressing, as always is the case, ball security and not digging a hole like that."
»(On the Oregon pass rush)
"They have great length in their defensive front. They do a great job of block destruction whether it's in the run game or the pass game. They're defensive ends are 6-foot-7 - they're tall, let's put it that way. They have long arms so they can separate from offensive lineman and create a rush. They're very talented up front. Schematically they bring pressure form a lot of different directions so they can cause you some headaches."
»(On converting on third down)
"It's a matter of focus for us all the time. Coming off last week's game, we weren't very efficient on third down especially in the first half. We need to do a better job, I need to do a better job of putting guys in the right position and making sure that we execute."
»(On Brendan Downs' role)
"It's not very mentally taxing; the system is pretty easy to learn. The question becomes, does he have the skillset to execute at all those different positions? He's a pretty talented athlete and can perform at all those positions so if it's maybe a lesser athlete you limit their role out in space or something like that, but Brendan does a good job at all the different alignments we ask him to do."
ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/DBs COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On practicing against a fast tempo every day)
"The good thing for us is that we have a good example every day of our offenses tempo. We practice at a high pace so they are used to some type of a tempo whether it's just as fast, not as fast, at least they have an idea. We try and add some of that stuff of what we might expect that we are going to get from a crowd noise, faster tempo, they are averaging a little faster than other teams from one snap to the other. I think it helps us that we have an offense like that. It can only help."
"Any time on defense that you get them to turn the ball over and force some turnovers, it only helps your confidence, not just the defense but then entire team. Any time that you change momentum and keep the momentum, it is going to obviously enhance your chances of winning. We were able to jump on them really early because they are a really good team and take advantage of those opportunities. I thought our guys hung in there even when they started to make a push."
»(On Oregon's offensive talent)
"Which ones... They are all talented. You don't even need names. They are very talented at the wide receiver position, we are not even talking about how talented their offensive line is. There is no secret why they have been successful and why they are doing well."