KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Although the big news of the day outside of practice was the indefinite suspension of Da'Rick Rogers, the focus during practice remained solely on the goal of beating NC State in just eight days at the Georgia Dome.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley addressed the situation of moving forward without Rogers, but was quick to point out that one person does not make or break a team.
"When you get into the coaching profession, you quickly learn that the number one professional hazard is the behavior of 18-22 year olds," Dooley said. "I can assure you guy this, there is not one player or really one member of the whole organization that we are not prepared to go play without.
"Our focus is on the guys here and what opponent is coming up next. It's a great quality opponent so that is where we are. We had a real good practice and the players are going to get a couple of days off to recover physically and then we will crank up heavy game week come Sunday."
One of the players that will be looked at to step into the void created by Rogers absence will be senior wide receiver Zach Rogers, who echoed Dooley's sentiments after Thursday's practice.
"It's an unfortunate situation, but at the same time we have to play with who's here," Zach Rogers said. "Right now we have a good core group of guys and we're going to go out there and play whether he's there or not, so we're ready to play regardless. You just have to be on your toes 24/7. Some guy goes down and the next guy has to be able to step up in place of Da'Rick so I think we can get it done regardless."
After learning the hard way last season after injuries to both Justin Hunter and Tyler Bray, Tennessee was determined to be able to adjust to any possible situation this year, working on a number of contingency plans over the last eight months. Because of that meticulous preparation, the Vols feel comfortable moving forward without Rogers.
"I would say very minimal [catch-up is needed for the rest of the receivers]," Dooley said. "We have developed and planned, all through since January, for any contingency and I mean that. Whether it was Justin [Hunter], Da'Rick or Tyler Bray, so it is very minimal because the guys have gotten an inordinate amount of reps. Had somebody else, [Cordarrelle Patterson], gotten those reps, then we would have taken some reps from CP in other areas, so they really did the same. Really who it hurts is probably the eighth or ninth guy, not the third guy.
"The lesson from last year was not being held hostage by an injury or two. The deeper you are, the more talented you are at every position, that's when you can better handle all of these contingencies. I'm not saying we are there, we still have a lot of young and inexperienced guys, but we are certainly prepared for it."
The next step for the Vols remains the same as it did on Wednesday, unchanged by Rogers' suspension.
"You just have to believe in the coaches, stay up under them and let them guide you and coach you," junior tailback Rajion Neal said. "Then, as much as you can, distance yourself from the distractions, and just stay away from the internet blogs and things like that. Just focus, work, keep going and just prepare."
NEAL EARNS STARTING NOD
With the unveiling of the Vols 2012 depth chart, it was official. Junior Rajion Neal claimed the starting tailback role with the Volunteers. After bouncing around the offense as a receiver and back over the last two years, Neal finally has a defined home in the backfield.
"I feel like I've earned it," said Neal, who ran for 181 yards in the Vols' two scrimmages. "It's always great to hear that but I know there is still work to be done and there will be times that I still have to prove to the team and the league that this decision was made correctly."
Neal knows he has put in the hard work to earn the starting nod and doesn't take anything for granted.
"I just have to continue accepting my coaching and becoming a student of the game through them because those guys can help you a lot," he said.
That mindset and his consistent approach is what ultimately won him the starting job, according to head coach Derek Dooley.
"It's hard for me to say one day he had a great practice and one day he had a bad one," Dooley said. "I couldn't identify his great practice or his bad one. He's been real consistent and comfortable in that role, he's produced every day, he's progressed in all areas, so I feel good about him."
Neal battled with sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young for the official starting role was stiff, but enjoyed the nature of the rivalry.
"It's competition and competition brings out the best in everybody," said Neal. "Everybody knows what their goals are and what they want to do, so you are going to fight hard for what you want. Having a bunch of guys like that, it pushes you and the best comes out when you are pushed."
Neal enters the 2012 season as the starter with just 73 career carries for 331 yards gives a lot of credit to the offensive line for his success in training camp.
"It means a lot because it reflects on us and the O-Line," said Neal. "Those guys have been working their butts off and so have we. We are ready to come back and prove everybody that Tennessee's running game is going to come back. We keep it on the mind, we don't dwell on it, but we definitely keep it as motivation to keep us going."
Z-RO SET TO STEP UP AGAIN
As a veteran, adjustments on the depth chart are nothing new to wide receiver Zach Rogers. Last season, Rogers showed leadership when his teammate Justin Hunter went down with a season-ending knee injury. Not only because of his age, but also his attitude, being a leader is expected for the senior.
"I had to [step up] last year when Justin (Hunter) went down and everybody's got to step up," Rogers said. "I have to be around for the younger guys to help them progress a little bit faster, because they weren't really expecting anything too much in these first few games. They're going to be forced into some playing time."
Starting in six games last year and seeing action in all 12, Rogers has had plenty of experience. He knows the work that is laid out for him, but with a strong set of underclassmen below him, he doesn't see a problem.
"I did [get more balls thrown to me today]," said Rogers. "Everybody has to move up a spot, even the young guys are going to have to be forced in a little bit more but everybody is doing a good job of learning the play book and getting in there, and everybody is going to get their reps."
Rogers says that the change in depth chart won't affect the offense much.
"Coach Chaney has always got a good game plan," Rogers said. "He'll probably tweak it a little bit but overall, it'll be the same game plan that we've practiced all camp."
Preparing themselves for their season opener in Atlanta in eight days, Rogers is confident in the offense on hand.
"We're kind of getting tired of hitting each other and we're ready to take it to the field to another opponent besides ourselves," Rogers said. "I think everybody is ready to move forward and get to that first game.
"It'll be a great first game," he said. "It will prepare us for Florida, Georgia or Alabama, who all have great secondaries, and all of the SEC has a great secondary, so it'll be a good tune up and a good secondary to face the first game to get our minds right."
RIVERA READY TO GO
Senior Mychal Rivera spoke to the media Thursday for the first time since Tennessee's August 2 pre-camp press conference.
Why the delay? Because Rivera was donning a red jersey during much of camp after a slight injury to his leg occurred during week one.
There is nothing to be worried about because Rivera is back and 100 percent heading into the game against NC State Friday, August 31 at the Georgia Dome.
With the multiple injuries at tight end during fall camp, Rivera's return is huge for the Vols as he has been a key playmaker for Tennessee. And he could not be more ready for the game.
"The focus has changed in meetings and practices," said Rivera. "We are focused on NC State, going in there and getting a victory."
The Valencia, Calif. native also knows that as one of the veteran leaders at tight end, he has to not only go out, catch passes and block, but also help develop younger players that are coming up the ranks beside him.
"This past week I have gotten back to everything that I've been doing," said Rivera. "We are just trying to fit other guys in there like Greg King and develop other tight ends that come up behind me. Adversity hits when somebody goes down with an injury, so we just have to get in where we fit in."
Rivera is not taking NC State lightly, but also feels as though the Wolfpack needs to do the same.
"They are going to play really hard," said Rivera. "They are going to come out in the opener. Anytime you get an opening game like that they are going to play hard and they are going to execute. We have to play really well."
"A lot of people are underestimating what we have. I feel like in the offseason we worked really hard. This game, I feel like we are going to show everybody what we are working for."
Rivera will be working hard in the season opener. But he is prepared and ready to go.
"I will be taking a lot of snaps this game and I am ready for that," he said. "That is why I ran this summer, that is why I prepared like I did. The plan is to run our offense and do what we need to do."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the two-deep)
“This is the result of the full body of work during camp and that is why I don’t like to release it in camp.”
(On Mychal Rivera)
“Mych’s back, moving good and that is good to see. We needed that because of [Da’Rick’s] situation.”
(On Corey Miller)
“Corey was a guy that was behind because of [missing the] spring, but he has really impressed everybody. He is a real slippery pass-rusher, he has some quick twitch and he always shows up in the backfield.”
(On Devrin Young)
“He’s going to play probably as much [as Rajion Neal]. Now we have to go to the game and see. Marlin [Lane] is still in the mix too, so we have to go see if we can go look like we did in camp in the Georgia Dome. That is the next step and I told the team that. We have every reason to believe that we can go play well, now let’s go do what we do.”
(On Alex Bullard not being listed at center)
“I don’t think [Alex Bullard] played himself out at center, as much as James [Stone] played his way in. Mack [Crowder’s] body type really only lends him to the center position. That doesn’t mean Alex can’t play center, but Alex’s body type allows him to play center, guard or tackle. He is a lot more versatile and certainly has more experience. We count Alex as a starter, just like Marcus Jackson, but we just can’t list them all.”
(On Daniel McCullers being named the starting nose tackle)
“His fit in that base defense and not having someone with that kind of bulk is the starting point, and then watching him work and progress. He’s gotten better, he’s finishing plays. That was going to be our biggest concern is could he finish a play. He has done well, I hope he can keep going. [Reporting in shape] was huge because the conditioning component of it, we weren’t having to get him in shape to where we could coach him, so we started coaching him day one.”
(On having only two freshmen on the two-deep)
“That’s the biggest difference. We haven’t had to force playing guys who really aren’t ready and I hope that doesn’t happen. That’s definitely the biggest difference. We feel settled and comfortable with who we are going into the game with, but that doesn’t mean we know exactly how they are going to perform because there are a ton of guys who haven’t really performed at a high level in the SEC. That doesn’t mean they can’t. We are pretty comfortable, based on what we’ve seen that these guys can perform.”
(On listing Lathers at Will and Johnson at Mike linebacker)
“A.J. [Johnson] is a Mike body type, I think that the Will backer you can keep them off the guards a little easier, slide them in under. So their body types are more suited to where we are putting them. The Mike has historically been the signal caller and so Herman, having that command has been at Mike. But we think he can still be the signal caller and put A.J. where he needs to play. That is really where he fits in this defense.”
(On the punters)
“They have had as good a camp by two punters as I have ever been around. We charged every punt they did, it didn’t matter if it was practice or game, they are punting lights out. Matt will probably go out there first, but we have two punters. Mike is really our guy right now [on kickoff].”
(On the secondary)
“You have to play a lot of DBs. I think it is fair to say three corners, three safeties and your nickel. We have seven guys we feel confident about getting in the game right now. They have all played a lot and we will see who goes out there and performs the best.”
(On Marsalis Teague’s improvement)
“That is why we list him as a co-starter. He has earned it in camp and now he has to earn it on the field.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“He’s got the size, the speed, the ball skills, and the competitive character, now. Our biggest challenge is helping him play fast by knowing what to do and how to react. He has never been in this environment so there are going to be some growing pains. The same with Justin. Justin is going to have to knock some rust off. He hasn’t played since the third game a year ago. That is a lot of time. We just think he is going to go out there and look like Lynn Swan or somebody and it doesn’t go like that. He is going to be rusty, game speed is different and we are going to have to stay patient.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On the suspension of Da’Rick Rogers)
“We are just focusing on the team right now, you have to talk to Coach Dooley about that, we are just focusing on NC State.”
(On how losing Da’Rick impacts his position)
“Losing a receiver never helps but we have two receivers right now that are really good. We have Zach Rogers who is stepping in right now and Mychal Rivera at tight end.”
SENIOR TE MYCHAL RIVERA
(On the suspension of Da’Rick Rogers)
“It is Coach Dooley and the staff’s decision, we are going to go with whatever they say and go with the players that are here and focus on NC State and the next game after that and continue to go on with what we are doing…It is always a blow to hear bad news about one of your teammates. But like I said, we are just going to move on as best as we can…No matter what it is you are going to experience adversity in a football team whether it is an injury, whether somebody gets suspended. You have to move on and do what you need to do.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On the suspension of Da’Rick Rogers)
“It was a big shock. You never want to see one of our players punished or taken off the field. We don’t know the full extent of why, but we definitely didn’t want to see it and weren’t happy to hear it. It’s something we have to overcome and stand with the coaches and let them coach and guide you and distance yourself from the distractions as much as you can.”