KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - As the Tennessee football team approached the final week of spring practice, it could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But rather than focusing on the end, the Vols are zoned in on the process of getting there.
When taking Haslam Field as UT did Tuesday morning, or doing off the field work at Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, 180-plus feet are all in. "We made a real point not to stick one foot out the door this last week," head coach Derek Dooley said. "We have three practices and we have another game. This is a real important week to show improvement. We had every player identify two things that they need to improve upon the most in the last week. We keep moving some things around to evaluate players. This is another week and it's an important week."
The fourth and final week of spring practice got off to a great start as the Vols' mentality was precisely where it needed to be.
"It was a really good practice," Dooley said. "I think the players came off that second scrimmage. We got after them pretty good yesterday in the meetings, just about trying to make the game a little more personal.
"I told the team it's one thing to play hard, give effort and all of that stuff but there's a zero-sum element to this profession. There's a winner and a loser. You have to at that moment of truth have that mentality that you refuse to lose. That's what has to drive you. They did a really good job today and we'll see how they respond on a back-to-back tomorrow."
In Dooley's third spring at Tennessee, the depth he's built has made a noticeable difference. "I think more guys are developing," Dooley said. "In the past when you put the twos in, maybe there are only 30 percent of guys really developing who can help you play. Now, having a good two-deep, you feel like everybody out there has a chance to be a contributor. They're getting worked and they're getting better."
WHO IS JACOB CARTER?
As Vols fans look over the combined statistics from the first two scrimmages one name that might stand out as somewhat of an unknown is the leader in receiving yards. That man would be sophomore Jacob Carter of Nashville. The 6-0, 190-pound product has hauled in eight catches for 140 yards including a team-best 102 yards in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"Jacob is doing a good job," Dooley said of the walk-on. "We activated him on special teams. He's playing with a lot of toughness and he's playing with consistency. What he's doing out there hasn't been a fluke. He works hard. He has good size. He's tough. He has good hands. He's been able to be productive."
Carter's relationship with sophomore quarterback Justin Worley has really enabled him to get in the mix as he plays with the second-team offense.
"I just got opportunities and made plays," Carter said. "Worley and I are clicking well, but everybody has been able to make plays. When I catch the ball, Vincent (Dallas) is blocking, Da'Rick (Rogers) is blocking - everybody is blocking, I just happen to catch the ball on certain plays. If they catch the ball everybody else is blocking. It just looks good for me catching balls but everybody is doing the same."
Carter has four catches in each scrimmage. He came out of Ensworth High School, where he was a starting receiver and safety. Carter earned All-Region honors as a senior.
"When you're a consistent player, especially at wideout, you have an ability to be productive because the quarterbacks trust you," Dooley said. "They know where you're going to be and they know what your skill sets are."
Carter is somewhat surprised by his success, but points out the Vols are limited in numbers at wideout.
"We don't have too much depth right now," Carter said. "Everybody is getting some time on the field. But it hasn't surprised me. Everybody is getting opportunities right now so you just have to make the most of it."
Carter knows he still has a long way to go to earn significant playing time once the fall rolls around.
"Zach (Rogers), Da'Rick, and Justin (Hunter) are phenomenal receivers right now," Carter said. "I do what I can. Justin [Worley] is going to give me opportunities to make plays, I am going to try and help him out when I can. I am just doing the best I can right now."
Dooley agreed in terms of knowing what kind of impact Carter might make in the regular-season
"I think it's too early to tell," Dooley said. "He's still a young player in the program. We've had pretty good success with walk-ons. I've put a lot of guys on at walk-on since I've been here, a ton. We've had some being good contributors. Tyler Wolf, some of our long snappers. Nick Guess we put on. Nick, of course, I didn't do it but he's a great story. We had Shane (Reveiz) we put on, Joseph Ayres. We've had a lot of guys and those walk-ons are important."
DEFENSE UNDER CONSTRUCTION
The ongoing construction on the new football complex provides a fitting backdrop for UT's spring practices, as the Vols continue to lay the groundwork for a new defensive system.
While defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's system is still a work in progress, significant advances have been made over the past few weeks.
"I think they are progressing very well," Dooley said. "First of all, they like what we're doing. They have a belief and confidence in the coaching that they're getting. They're putting in a lot of work outside of football to try to learn it.
"I'm very pleased with the commitment level they're putting in there to get it. It's just something that's going to take time, experience and reps. We have to do a good job as coaches when we get to game week to make sure that we're playing fast and confident."
As noted by Dooley, the players have been quick to buy in.
When asked about the positive attributes of the new defensive framework, sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson pointed to the freedom it allows him to have on the field, as well as the confusion it causes on the other side of the ball.
"It gives us more room to play, to blitz or drop back and make plays instead of just having to sit in one spot and drop to one area," Johnson said. "The offense doesn't really know where we are coming from or whether we are sliding or not. We can switch up the protection on them and get in and out of changes so fast that it confuses them."
BENEFITTING FOR REDSHIRTING
The Vols have been among the national leaders in playing true freshmen over the last two seasons, as 32 have seen action since Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville in 2010. But in the case of some players, taking a redshirt season in their rookie college season can be a major benefit. Two of those players are redshirt freshmen offensive lineman Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson.
Both Tennessee natives used their redshirt seasons to gain experience as well as strength and size.
"That freshman year, being a redshirt, it really helped," said Kerbyson, who played at Knoxville Catholic, where he was a 4-star recruit. "In the beginning during training camp I didn't know if I was going to or not. When it was towards the end and finally our coach told me I kind of got a little devastated but then I realized that it was a gift to have an extra year to play football, to have an extra year to get an education.
"My strength numbers are up 40 pounds on my lifts. I went from 18 reps when I first got here to 26 with 225. So the redshirt has really helped and it is just like a fresh new start. I am only a freshman instead of sophomore. So it is really nice."
Crowder agreed that not being pressed into game action in his first college season helped him in so many areas to better understand the college game.
"I can comprehend a lot more and really the speed of the game has slowed down for me," said Crowder, who played at Tennessee High School in Nashville. "I have gotten used to it a little bit more. I have gotten used to playing with the guys up front and that's really a big part of the offensive line, just getting a feel for everybody around you. "
Both Crowder (center) and Kerbyson (right guard) were listed as second-teammers on the pre-spring organizational chart by Dooley. The coach feels the duo and several others who joined the program in 2011 have made some progress through the first dozen practices this spring.
"They're still a ways away," Dooley said. "Kerbyson and (Alan) Posey, probably Tiny (Antonio Richardson) and Mack have made the biggest jumps. Kerby and Posey still have a little work to do, but they're making progress and they're going to be good players for us."
With more offensive linemen in the mix for playing time, it means more depth, which is something the Vols have lacked on the offensive line in recent years.
"It's not where we need it to be, but we had zero depth when I walked in the first spring," Dooley said. "We didn't even have any starters, much less depth. We had one guy with three starts under his belt. Our whole offensive line has probably had over 500 snaps."
DISH O&W GAME SET FOR APRIL 21
The DISH Orange & White Game will take place on Saturday, April 21 with a 2:30 p.m., kickoff. Admission and parking will be free for all fans. In addition to free admission to the game, Fan Appreciation Day will feature an autograph signing with head coach Derek Dooley, assistant coaches and Vol players. The signing, held in recent years at Haslam Field, will be held on the field at Neyland Stadium from 12:15-1:15 p.m.
Head Coach Derek Dooley
(On UT’s scrimmage penalties)
“I think some of the penalty issues are not as much on the players as they are on some of the newness and some things we can do as coaches to minimize them. They’re little ticky-tack stuff that I think can be easily cleaned up. They’re not from laziness or that sort of thing.”
(On improving speed)
“We’ve made some big improvements, especially on offense. We’ve made some improvements on defense but we’re not as fast as we need to be. It’s a fast man’s game. It’s a big boy game and a fast guy’s game. What we’ve seen here is if you can’t get the big guys, you better at least have speed. You have to have something, size or speed. You want both, but if he’s a little bit size deficient, he better be able to run.”
(On Justin Coleman)
“He’s gone up and up the whole spring. When you look first off at height, weight and speed, he has SEC measurables. He has everything you want at the corner position from a height, weight, speed, athleticism, ball skill (standpoint). He’s a heavy-handed guy. He’s taking coaching better than he ever has. We’re seeing him having a really good spring.”
(On Jordan Williams)
“I think with Jordan it’s everything because he’s really a freshman. It’s a freshman in a new scheme so learning what to do and how to do it. I don’t think there’s a particular skill set that’s harder than the other for him right now. It’s just the overwhelming task of ‘I have to learn what to do and how to do it on every call.’”
Sophomore LB/DL Jordan Williams
(On learning the new defense)
“It’s a lot to learn, but it’s just giving us a lot of options for the season.”
(On playing as a freshman)
“I feel like I gained knowledge. It has slowed down a lot. I remember as a freshman it was tough that first time around trying to learn the pace, but now I feel like I understand it and it is slowing down a lot. Now it is more of a mental game. I’m glad I got that little bit of experience just so I know what to expect and what I need to prepare for.”
Sophomore LB A.J. Johnson
(On Saturday’s scrimmage)
“We improved more than last week, but we still have plays to get better on.”
(On Herman Lathers)
“It’s just like last year. He replaced Austin Johnson. He knows the scheme better and it’s good to have a senior on the field to play with.”
(On UT’s nickel package)
“I believe it’s really aggressive. We are going to have people coming from everywhere. You never know who is coming and who is popping and who’s dropping.”
Freshman OL Mack Crowder
(On his spring)
“I feel like it is going well. I am trying to push for a starting spot, which is always good for the team to have a little competition, and it is not just me, it is a lot of the second team guys. I think it is really going to help everybody in the long run.”
(On competing for a starting spot at center)
“It is going well. Like I said, competition is always good for the team. It pushes (Alex Bullard) more and it is not just me, it is Kyler Kerbyson, Alan Posey, and everyone is pushing to make the whole team better.”
Freshman OL Kyler Kerbyson
(On moving around on the line a lot this spring)
“It is pretty challenging. I have never played on the left side, I was a right tackle in high school. Now I have to switch over, switch my stance and switch everything that is going on. It has been a hard adjustment but I feel that I am finally getting in to it.”
(On his goals going into the summer)
“I am OK right now. I definitely want to get everything up. I want to get over 400 bench. I am at 390 right now. I want to get 550 squats. I want to get 225 up to maybe 30. I want to get all that stuff. I want to get more conditioned. I want to get more speed. All of those things are going to help me in training camp and in the fall.”
Sophomore TB Devrin Young
(On what is being emphasized for him this spring)
“The coaches are really looking to me to make big plays. I feel like as long as I can make a play almost every other time I’m in, I feel like I’m being pretty consistent. That’s what I’m shooting for every time, to make some sort of play.”
(On the competition between the running backs)
“Competition is every day. Everybody is coming out hard wanting the same spot and everybody is pushing everybody.”