KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – For the first time this season, Tennessee will play in front of a crowd that isn’t predominately decked out in bright orange when it takes the field against No. 5 Georgia at Sanford Stadium on Saturday.
Heading into an atmosphere like the one it will face in Athens requires a different type of mindset according to UT defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
“You know it is going to be a very hostile environment,” Sunseri said. “We have to go in there knowing that there are going to be 70,000-plus people going to the game and it will be us 70 playing against the state of Georgia.”
If senior tight end Mychal Rivera’s attitude is an indication of the same for the rest of the team, the Vols will be ready to go.
“I know the team will go out there and we will have a chip on our shoulder,” Rivera said. “We want to prove to people that we're better team than what's written out there."
As is the case for opposing teams in most SEC venues, crowd noise will be a factor on Saturday. The Vols, however, feel confident that they will be prepared to handle anything the Bulldog faithful can verbally throw at them.
"You just have to be accountable,” junior offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James said. “Each and every one of us has to be. It's going to be loud so we are going to have to take it upon ourselves to watch film so you can see the looks and know what you are supposed to do even if you can't hear."
One thing that will make it easier for the Big Orange is the no-huddle offense it is running this season. Not only are the calls based on hand signals instead of verbal calls, but it also provides the Vols more time to make adjustments.
"The communication set is signal based, so I would like to think that there wouldn't be a heck of a lot of difference as we move in the ball game,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “Obviously, when you have a bunch of people yelling at you and being mean to you it affects you sometimes."
Although the on-field atmosphere will be a new experience for the Orange and White this season, it already had a walk-through for the logistics of traveling to a game earlier this season when it played NC State in the Georgia Dome.
"I believe this is our second road game, in my eyes,” Sunseri said. “We went to Atlanta, you still had to travel, you still had to sleep in a hotel and all that. To me, we've already experienced that when we went down to Georgia and beat NC State. Now we have to go down to Athens to play Georgia and we have to play good, solid football."
MORE TIME FOR MACS
Two players who did not see much time in the Akron game but will see more action at Georgia are nose tackle Daniel McCullers and freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil. The pair of newcomers are expected to play larger roles on the Vols' defense according to their position coaches.
The limited playing time against Akron was due to the spread offense the Zips ran. The No. 5 Bulldogs run a more traditional scheme which will benefit both McCullers and McNeil.
"He will play a lot more this week," defensive line coach John Palermo said of McCullers, "because they will be in a lot more traditional formations."
McCullers was not on the field for a single snap on defense against Akron, seeing time solely on special teams.
"It's not so much conditioning; it's more so personal groups," said Palermo. "When we're getting spread offenses and stuff and we have to change personal, he lumbers a little bit getting on and off the field sometime."
In McNeil's case, the true freshman has seen his role expanded with the injury to starting free safety Brian Randolph. McNeil has been slotted in as the backup strong safety with Byron Moore moving over to start in place of Randolph and Brent Brewer taking on starting strong safety duties.
"He is going to be a guy that will probably take some reps this week," safeties coach Josh Conklin said of the Texas native. "He is becoming more and more confident and I am confident with putting him out there. I think anytime you look at a player and the more you become confident as a coach and understand that this guy can get the job done."
MORE MOORE MEANS MORE SUCCESS
Junior Byron Moore has made major strides in his season on Rocky Top. After making just six tackles in his entire debut season with the Vols in 2011, Moore is second on the team in stops with 30 through four games.
Moore's responsibilities have grown and changed already in 2012 with the injury to Brian Randolph in the Florida game. Moore had started the first three games of the season at strong safety but has slid over to start at free safety with Randolph going down for the year.
"He has stepped it up," Conklin said about Moore. "He has gone to work every day. He understands that he is the leader back there, he has to be the guy in charge, and be the one that takes control of it and make sure everyone gets on the same page. You can see him start to take over that role that Brian was doing a little bit more by making sure everyone is on the same page out there."
Moore became the first Vol since Eric Berry to intercept two passes in the same game when he did so against Akron and ranks fourth in the NCAA in INTs with three through four weeks.
"Bryon is getting better," said Conklin. "The thing that I like about Bryon is when he goes about this day-to-day process, there isn't a lot of flashiness to him. He isn't what you would call a dynamic guy as far as personal. He doesn't draw a ton of attention to himself. But in my opinion, that's what the great ones do."
SEE THE HOLE AND GO
The Tennessee running backs have a tough test ahead of them this weekend against a big and fast Georgia defensive front seven.
The Vols are averaging 172.5 rushing yards per game in 2012 heading into a meeting with the Bulldogs who have just allowed 135.5 ypg on the ground.
The key to putting up big yards against the Dawgs? Decisiveness.
"[The defense] is big, they can run but they are big," said running backs coach Jay Graham. "They close down the holes. They close down the space in between the tackles. They have some nose guards and defensive tackles that are 345+ pounds that can get off the ball and push your guys back. The key is when you see a small gap you have to go you have to hit it, there is no time for indecisiveness."
Something the Vols have been doing better at as of late is hitting those small gaps for big gains.
"We are doing a better job of speed on the line of scrimmage too. You have to have patience in your footwork, but you have to read the speed. See the hole and go. So you can fall forward, so you can get the four yard gains. There is always going to be someone at the line of scrimmage trying to hit you."
Leading the way for the Vols is junior tailback Rajion Neal. In the last two games, Neal has combined for 238 rush yards, including a career high 151 against Akron.
Graham is pleased with Neal's improvements.
"It is not as much about the stats," said Graham, "it is about what you do beyond what the offensive line blocks for you. That is the most important thing. And he is doing a better job breaking tackles and getting yards after contact. It is not always easy once that ball is snapped in a game situation to do those things. He is starting to do them more consistently."
GEORGIA HEAD COACH MARK RICHT
(On The Vols)
“It sounds kind of weird to say Coach Dooley with any other team but Georgia, but Derek of course, the head coach at Tennessee, is getting them going. They’re 3-1 right now playing extremely good football, and especially offensively they are. I know the first four games that they’ve accumulated more yards than any team in the history of Tennessee football in a four-game span. They’re also number one in the league in passing and first downs, they’re scoring 38 points per game, and they’re over 500 yards per game so far (on average). They’re doing an outstanding job. Quarterback Tyler Bray is a very talented passer, and one of the most talented passers that I’ve seen in a while throwing the football. They have some tremendously skilled receivers. They’ve got a vertical passing game that I know I envy. We like to throw it down the field, but they can really lay it out there good.”
(On reminding Georgia about 2004 game vs. Tennessee)
"I told them that this situation just reminded me of that season. Tennessee came in with a freshman quarterback [Erik Ainge] and beat us, and I wanted to help them understand it could happen and that we better get our minds right. We better prepare just as hard or harder than the week before."
(On Tennessee's History At Sanford Stadium)
“Tennessee coming into Athens historically has done very well in our stadium. They actually have a better record in (Sanford Stadium) against us than we have. They’ve won 10 and we’ve won nine and there was a tie back in the day when you could have a tie. So we need to do a good job of defending our turf.
(On Tennessee switching to a 3-4 defense)
“Anytime you do something new it’s tough. There’s a learning curve for everybody. A lot has to do with do you have the personnel to do it. I remember our first year we didn’t have the big nose guards, or at least Kwame (Geathers) wasn’t ready to be the player he is today. We didn’t have John Jenkins. We were playing DeAngelo Tyson if you remember, kind of an undersized guy for that position. (Tennessee) has a big beast in there who can do it and edge guys who can do it and play coverage in space as well. It doesn’t really change your perimeter much. They may have had better personnel year one to start it out than we did. Are they going to be better a year from now? I’m sure they will, but they’re still pretty darn good at it now.”
(On Georgia's freshman running backs)
“When you have success early you do have fun. They’ve had success early, and they’ve earned it. They’ve worked hard. Todd (Gurley) came in the summer and being friends, Keith (Marshall), I’m sure was helping him. Murray and some of the other boys were helping him learn what to do. Both of them were very diligent in wanting to learn what to do and how to do it. You watch them when they practice our blitz pickup. They are really locked in and wanting to improve every time they get a rep in practice. They know how important that is as well. I’ve been real pleased with them. They are a very mature couple of guys.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On Justin Coleman)
“Justin’s doing really well. He’s competing every day, playing physical, using his hands. He’s a competitor and we knew that from day one. He’s finally starting to buy in the master’s craft, so we’re excited to have him back out there.”
(On Prentiss Waggner)
“Well one, he has done it before. Any time guys can prove they can play multiple positions in the SEC, it’s good, so you don’t feel worried about putting a guy back there that maybe hasn’t had as many reps as the other guy. So we don’t feel bad about putting Prentiss back there in situations, but we have some guys at safety that we feel pretty good about this week.”
(On playing younger players)
“Yes, I mean, anytime guys come out in practice and bust their tails and lay it on the line, you want to reward those guys on Saturday. So, we went into the game, wanted to play as many people as we could. Some situations, may not allow you to do that, so we got the guys in there at the moments we felt we needed to get them in there and we didn’t get some guys in as much as possible, but we ended up winning the game, so that’s the most important.”
(On Aaron Murray)
“Experience, one. Experience, he’s played a lot over there. He has good people that are coaching him, he’s got a good supporting cast, a really good stable of backs. He’s got a wide offset of improving guys in the SEC. He’s just a guy that just manages the game. He doesn’t lose it for them. He has enough capability to beat you also with his arm. Then when you fall asleep a little bit, he can break the tank. He’s a really good player and we’re excited about facing him.”
(On Todd Gurley)
“That’s what you want out of an SEC back. You want a guy that’s looking up contact. Gurley’s a special guy. He’s young, but he’s special. He’s got some special talent ability. He’s just like any other back you’re going to face on a weekly basis and move forward. All the teams you play are going to have their best stompers back there, so we have to do a good job of routing to the ball, gain tackle and make him snap it again.”
SAFTIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On the defensive backs scheme vs. Aaron Murray)
“It doesn’t change it too much initially. But when he gets out on the perimeter and starts to scramble, that’s when it affects you a little more. He’s got good legs. He can run. He can make plays when he is on the run. Obviously, you want to disrupt the timing early in the down. But when he has those loose plays and he is scrambling outside the pocket, that’s when it becomes a little more evident that you have to get in coverage and stay in coverage because you have to make those plays on the perimeter.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On Rajion Neal doing what’s important)
“He has done a lot better with it. He has been more consistent, he is started to understand running to the edge of the defenders, talking a half a man, all of those things that are important in breaking tackles, he is starting to use them.”
(On ball control)
“It is always a big emphasis. That is the thing that I try to do, I try to be proactive with it. Make sure he understands the importance of it beforehand, because when it happens, it is very difficult right away in the game to yell or do anything like that. So we try to work on it in practice so it becomes natural in the game.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On Georgia’s secondary)
“They are very talented back there. They do a really good job. You don’t see many deep balls get caught behind them. They understand that. They are really good at playing the different coverages and making them look the same and then turn around and play different coverages behind there. They are older guys that play a lot of snaps back there. They have mixed in some other guys, Malcolm Mitchell back and forth from offense to defense. They do a really good job of getting the best players on the field and executing.”
(On the importance of the receivers beating Georgia’s coverage)
“We are going to have to play really well with our hands, do a really good job with our pad level. We have to catch contested balls, because they do a really good job of catching and putting their hands on you. Then being able to have some contested balls whether they are across the middle, whether they are outside, whether they are deep balls, they always try to get a defender on you before you catch the football. They do a good job of that.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“It was a situation where we had some balls that were supposed to go to him that didn’t. Some were overthrown that he would have caught a touchdown. He was wide open and it was overthrown and there were some protection issues. It was a combination of a lot of things and CP can get better on his routes and all those kind of things. There is never a time when you can’t get better. He has to continue to get better, get his pad level down, work hard to get open, all those kind of things.”
(On the importance of the run game)
“We have to be able to run the football. We have to block on the perimeter. We have to be able to move the chains on 3rd downs. Then we have to be able to put the ball in the end zone and the red area when we are down there and not kick field goals.”
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On Todd Gurley)
“I’m going to tell you what-between Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley and Ken Malcome, they have a machine going at running back right now. They’re all really, really good players. I mean, they are. They are really good football players. They’re good inside runners, they’re good outside runners. We have to buck up now and be ready to go against this crowd.”
(On Gurley’s running style)
“He’s strong. He’s illusive. Once he breaks the line of scrimmage, I have seen very few safeties get him down. He has a lot of big plays.”
(On the explosiveness of Georgia offense)
“Well, I mean, they obviously have a great quarterback and like I told you, they have three tailbacks as good as I’ve seen. I’ll be real honest with you, I was at Wisconsin all those years. We had Ronald Dane, Brent Moss, and all those guys. These guys are in the same league as those kinds of runners now. They’re downhill runners. Their offense makes them downhill runners. Even when they’re ‘toss-sweeps,’ they’re downhill runners. They run the power, and they toss it back to the guy, so he doesn’t have to change direction. They want to hit it downhill. So, sometimes it’s famine, but most of the time, for this year for them, it’s been feast. Boy, they break the line of scrimmage and they’re to the secondary before you know it.”
(On giving up plays and improvements)
“Well two is too many, but the one was very disappointing. I felt like we played well except for one play. Yeah, but still it’s not good enough. It only takes one to beat you. They stayed in the football game, in my opinion, because of that one play before the half.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On the offensive line)
“I think we are getting a little more physical as it goes on which means we are getting a little bit more comfortable with each other. We still have to get better on short yardage and there are things that we have to improve on. For the most part I think we are getting better across the board, we have played seven guys and I think all seven of them have played pretty well. I think our depth is getting better, I think we are getting better and I am getting a little more confident.”
(On Jarvis Jones)
“He’s athletic. He finishes things, plays hard. He’s got IT. He has great balance, seems to understand everything about his responsibility. He is a good guy to flush people, people flush to him. He understands the whole scheme, a very smart player, very instinctive. You have to account for him every play. Or he will wreck your game. You’ll come home losing.”
(On Georgia’s size)
“I think that is the very first thing that came to my mind when we started watching film on Georgia. Thank God for Dan McCullers. That we felt that kind of physical mountain. They have two of them. When they go field goal team, they put them both on one guy and that is a lot of weight. They’re a different team than Florida, but are similar in that they have great talent, Georgia is just super big. So we are going to have to use some schemes where we can get two-on-ones and double up a little bit than what we have.”
(On Tiny Richardson)
“I think he is better than what he was, but until we get him where he is not hurting us when he is making those type of mistakes, he is not going to be there yet. I think he is better. I know this. He graded out the highest of anybody we had with those mistakes last week so once he is doing that he is playing really well. If he could just quit the jumping and the couple of missed assignments that he had, he would be one great player. He just has to keep working at it.”