KNOXVILLE - Despite poor weather conditions this week, the off-season installed greens at Haslam Field are in superb shape, allowing Tennessee to practice without being too affected on the ground.
“The field was good today because of the work we did this summer on the fields,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “There’s been a lot of rain. We’ve gotten two outdoor practices with wet-ball work which we needed. It’s good to see that. The fields’ guys are doing a heck of a job. We had a good practice today and we have to polish it up tomorrow.”
During Saturday’s rainy season-opening win against Montana, Tennessee rushed for 128 yards, but struggled at times. The Vols are hoping for dryer conditions Saturday, and a boost in the ground game.
“We’re a lot better off than we were a year ago, and then we have Tom (Smith) too,” Dooley said. “We have four guys who have ability. What we have to do is turn that ability into production and we haven’t done that yet. It will come in time. We have to be patient. We can’t forget, we act like our offensive line is the Green Bay Packers. These guys are four sophomores and a junior. And it’ s hard. It’s hard to play upfront. It takes time. It takes reps. They’re going to be there, but I don’t know when.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney agreed with Dooley’s assessment that ability wasn’t the issue, but rather the mental side of the game, as well as consistency. His focus this week has been getting everyone on the offense on the same page and working together.
“Occasionally we would get a good push and maybe miss a read,” Chaney said. “We’d get a good push and a good read and we’d mess up the perimeter blocking. I was thinking on Sunday I’d be able to come in here and yell at one segment of the offense. I was really disappointed. There wasn’t one of them that did very good in the running game. The running backs, the O-line, tight ends, wideouts, it was a unanimous decision that everybody on any given play were making too many mistakes. We’ve worked hard this week just to minimize those mental mistakes and to win our individual battles.”
The one bright spot Chaney found with the ground game was that there is still plenty of room for improvement in all areas. Even without clicking on all cylinders, the Vols were still able to run for a pair of scores.
“We can get more technically sound and we can outwork our opponents,” Chaney said. “That’s what we are trying to do across the line of scrimmage and I don’t just mean the offensive line. Our perimeter blocking was not where we need it to be throughout the ballgame so we have to improve that and the line of scrimmage play and run the ball better. We weren’t very good in any aspect of the running game on Saturday and we’re hoping to improve.”
An automatic spotlight is placed on you when you’re the starting quarterback at Tennessee. When you throw for 1,546 yards and 16 touchdowns as a freshman starter, it doesn’t help.
But the expectations haven’t hindered the day-to-day progression of sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray, who is handling his role with ease.
“He’s been good. I made the comment that the last 10 days of camp he really started showing some growth and fortunately, it showed in the game. Hopefully, we’ll just continue on. There’s no indication that we’re not going to at this point.”
Bray completed 17-of-24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns in the 42-16 win over the Grizzlies. It marked the seventh consecutive game dating back to last season in which Bray has thrown for multiple TDs, tying Peyton Manning’s UT record.
“He was focused in, had good footwork and was locked in to his assignments,” Chaney said. “Development, maturity. I think it has nothing to do with coaching. Quite honestly I think he was just focused and ready to play a good ballgame and he did.”
SPREADING IT OUT
The Vols will be facing a spread offense for the second week in a row as Cincinnati comes to Neyland Stadium this Saturday. Second-year defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox is plotting his gameplan to deal with the Bearcats with a slight advantage of having coached against a spread team last week in Montana.
“Some of the run stuff and some of the formations are similar,” Wilcox said. “They (Cincinnati) are more involved in the pass game, probably more route combinations and a couple of more run concepts than we saw last week. They create a lot of space and they have fast guys. We have to make some 1-on-1 tackles in space to be effective.”
The Vols are weary of Bearcat quarterback Zach Collaros, who torched Austin Peay for four touchdowns.
“The quarterback makes them go, he is an excellent player,” Wilcox said. “He can hurt you throwing the ball, he can hurt you running the ball. He makes a lot out of nothing sometimes. Even when everything is covered, he can scramble and buy some time and create a big play. That’s huge emphasis for us this week.”
The Vols have put an enhanced effort into the pass rush this season, which could be more difficult with a veteran and crafty quarterback.
“Everybody can’t finish above the quarterback,” he said. “You have to have certain guys that are responsible for certain things in the pass rush, but you also can’t walk off the ball. We are going to stay aggressive, but we have to be smart about how we rush him because he is so active back there.”
LUCK OF THE VOLS
Despite fumbling the ball six times vs. Montana, the Vols were lucky to not turn it over once. That issue has been addressed more than any other this week during practice.
“Number one is ball security,” Chaney said. “The ball was out way too much. We were very fortunate with what took place in that ball game as loose as we were with the football. That’s been a point of emphasis. Basically 90 percent of the emphasis has been about ball security, so hopefully we’ll get that cleared up as we head into this ballgame.”
Wilcox ran a lot of nickel package during the Montana game which allowed for multiple Vols to have big games, including senior linebacker Daryl Vereen.
“It’s great to have more options,” Wilcox said. “It gives you more coverage opportunities. That’s a big part of it. We have to be more execution oriented.”
Vereen led the Vols with six tackles as he thrived in the nickel.
“That’s part of Daryl’s game,” Wilcox said. “Daryl can run, he’s a space player at linebacker. He’s not the biggest guy, so that needs to be his role. He’s done a good job of evolving into that. He played well. I really thought he ran to the ball and tackled as well as he has, since we (coaches) have been here. We were excited about the steps he has taken.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On Texas A&M to the SEC)
“I don’t really have many thoughts on it, other than the questions we all have. Is there another one (coming)? How are we doing to do the scheduling? I’m a traditionalist. I think we had a real good think and I hope we don’t disrupt it too much, that we preserve that this is a special league. One of the reasons it’s so special is because we don’t day-trade our teams. We’ll see but the landscape is changing. It’s that old saying, ‘It’s not about the money. It’s about the amount.’”
(On sophomore Rajion Neal)
“He’s doing good. He’s running tougher. He’s playing fast. We feel like he’s back and we’ll see if he can help us.”
(On freshman tailback Marlin Lane)
“He showed a lot of ability and I think we all saw that. Now, it’s a matter of reps and confidence. He got his first game under his feet and hopefully, we’ll see him elevate a little bit more this week. He made some nice runs but still doesn’t have the full commitment that we need like a lot of freshmen.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney
(On Cincinnati’s defense)
“I think they are a very aggressive team and play very good football. They hit you and run hard. If you watch the game from last week, there are two or three clips, if you slow it down, you’ll find all 11 guys all around the football. I’m sure that’s what their defensive coaches are preaching. Swarm the ball and they do that. They are a good football team. This is a group of kids on defense that are used to winning and we know that they are a formidable foe and that we are going to have to come to play or we’re going to be in trouble.”
(On whether Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers can handle carrying a big load in the passing game)
“We’re going to find out week-to-week. They are good football players, so they demand the football in a lot of ways. Fortunately we got the ball to them and they made some good plays. We need to get (Mychal Rivera) involved a little bit more at tight end. We had balls called to him, but the structure of the defense took the ball to other places. It was just one of those games for him. It was very similar to Luke (Stocker) last year early in the season. Plays we had rolling towards him just didn’t materialize. Hopefully we can get Mike more involved and keep spreading the wealth around. We would rather not be two-dimensional but they are good players and they are going to demand the ball.”
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox
(On improvements from week one to week two)
“On D-Line, our contain in our pass rush is going to be critical. Playing the screen game is going to be critical, which the interior screen game last week, did a pretty good job. Linebacker, we have to tackle better. It’s something that going to be continually emphasized. In the secondary, we have to be more physical on the edge, in the bubble game and the run game. We have to be 100 percent on our coverage assignments. These guys (Cincinnati) can hurt you real quickly.”
(On freshman linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt)
“They did a pretty good job. They had their mistakes for sure. They played fast and (the game) didn’t look like it was too big for them. But this (Cincinnati game) is going to be a different speed this week.”
(On Justin Coleman having a touchdown scored on him)
“You go back to practice. That’s all you can do. Especially at that position (cornerback), you are going to give them up every once in a while. You just have to learn from your mistake. He will improve every week. He’s shown nothing any different from that. We don’t have any worries about him.”
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