Vols special teams seek consistency

Knoxville, Tenn. (UTSports) -- The offense and defense are often in the spotlight in the sport of football. But the 11 players who lineup on special teams each play can have just as much of an impact as any player on the other two units.

After all, General Neyland's sixth maxim says, "Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made."

Every time a team scores, it is up to the kicker to convert on the PAT and place the ball to where the coverage team can make a play on kickoffs to setup the defense with good field position. Punt teams are responsible for swapping field positions to be in favor of the defense. These little things are what can change the overall momentum of a game.

"It's a consistency and performance," Mark Elder, who oversees the special teams, said. "The reality with special teams is that there is so much space. You need all 11 guys doing their job. For example, on kick return, you can have 10 guys do their job, and if the right center misses on his block, that guy can run down the field and make the tackle. Then you stink as a kickoff return unit."

After a 38-7 victory over Utah State this past Sunday, the Vols' special teams have much to improve on before Saturday's game against Arkansas State.

"We have to get better," Elder said. "Our coverage units weren't where they needed to be and kick placement needs to be better, so those are places where we definitely need to improve."

With consistency being an essential part of kicking, kickersGeorge Bullock and Aaron Medley continue to compete for the starting kicker spot.

"We feel that we have two guys that are performing at about the same level," Elder said. "We are always going to go with the guy that is performing best and with the highest consistency leading up to the game. If it is close enough, we may have to pick based on who is kicking best that day, but that is a good thing. It is a good thing to have competition."

WEATHERD OUTSIDE IS FRIGHTFUL

In watching junior linebacker Chris Weatherd at practice, no one would ever guess that his first day of Vols practice was in early August. The Trinity Valley Community College transfer hit camp at full-speed and has impressed not only his teammates, but he is making a strong impression on linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.

"He brings something that we don't have, which is an uncanny knack for rushing the passer," Thigpen said of Weatherd after Wednesday's practice. "I mean, he's as slithery as they come and he's got really good balance. It's really hard to get him off of his feet. He plays well, has great burst and we've got a role for him."

Relying in his instincts and speed, Weatherd has also demonstrated great versatility at practice when moving inside the line. For Thigpen, this represents a `Jack of all trades' skillset which will only continue to develop as he gains live reps.

"His role will continue to grow," Thigpen said. "Yeah, we wish we would've had him here this summer because he'd probably be a lot further along but like I said, he has something that a lot of guys on our football team don't have. And he can hold up when we put him inside the line."

Weatherd made his Tennessee debut on Sunday against Utah State with little more than four weeks of practice. He racked up his first tackle -- a 5-yard loss -- on the Aggies' first play from scrimmage.

That showed, despite his limited time in Knoxville, the defensive mindset and strategies clicked. He was effective, fast, calm and collected. And as Thigpen added, Neyland Stadium will see much more of Chris Weatherd in the near future.

"We put him in a third-down package [against Utah State] and we've got some first and second down packages for him as well," Thigpen said. "He's a guy that gives us a little bit more speed on the field and that's really something we were lacking. There are a lot of things we can do with him and we're going to continue to be creative with him."

SELLING THE CONCEPT OF BLOCKING

As wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni puts it, "It was like night and day difference."

In the opening game of the season, 10 different receivers were given the opportunity to put their hands on the ball. The result? A healthy 38-7 win over Utah State and the confidence moving forward.

"I told them, a year ago from Austin Peay to now, it was night and day difference from the effort and intensity level," Azzanni said. "That's just the culture Coach Jones and us as a staff have built and older guys buying in. Yeah, that's what it was supposed to look like. Is it there yet? No. We have a long way to go but you saw signs finally."

With a number of talented receivers to pick from, teaching them proper catching techniques and foot work isn't the only thing that Azzanni is emphasizing as an important part of the game.

"I sell blocking on not only are we blocking for each other," Azzanni said. "Blocking for our running backs but also it helps open up the pass game for you later down the road," Azzanni said. "Our goal is to come out and be physical with the secondary and that helps us throwing the ball. Selfishly you want to be physical and block because it helps you down the line as well."

Although there have been improvements in the blocking game for the receivers, Azzanni's multifaceted way of play requires that they players understand the benefits of perimeter blocking for them to get better.

"We're better," he said. "We're not where I want us to be yet but we're better. I think the kids are buying in. our style of offense with what we do up the middle, side to side, and everything. We need to block so we can get those balls out there and have them go for more than a yard."

SOUND BITES

Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice

DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ

»(On the young secondary players)

"I thought overall they did a good job. Anytime you keep an offense that is spread like that, under a couple of yards average of yards after a catch and only have one missed tackle in the secondary as a collective group is pretty impressive. Then when you are dealing with an athletic quarterback that we played against being able to be eye disciplined when he starts to scramble and plastering receivers down the field, I thought they did a pretty good job."

WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI

»(On having multiple receivers to go to)

"It was nice to spread the ball around a little bit. I tell those guys you have trouble focusing on one guy in our offense right now. That's the goal. The goal is to have a bunch of different guys out there that can be weapons. I thought we took a little bit of a step forward that way."

»(On missing out on deep plays)

"There are a lot of technique issues. We had some chances at some big splash plays that again that first game went out there and reverted back to some old bad habits that I was disappointed in, but I thought we did a lot of good things too in the intermediate short game. That was actually our best during camp was our deep ball and splash plays. We're definitely emphasizing that."

TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR MARK ELDER

»(On Aaron Medley's confidence after his missed field goal)

"He got the ground on the one that he missed, which led to the kick being off. Then he drilled the next one. That was a good thing to see him bounce back. That is one of the things to becoming a good kicker. No one is going to go out there and make every field goal on the whole year.How are you going to respond to adversity. That is an important part of being a kicker. You need to have a short memory whether you are kicking great or not. You have to go into the next kick thinking that you are zero for zero on the day, and you have to drill this one because it's for the game."

»(On Matt Darr's injury status)

"Matt is progressing well. We don't think there are going to be any issues. He just got rolled up a little bit. We think he is going to be fine. The ball placement needs to be better. That is an important part of things. If we are punting the ball in the big field or toward the boundaries, we need it in a certain spot. The coverage team doesn't know where the ball is until it gets down field. They are running to where they are expecting it to be. If I am expecting it to be in a certain spot on the field and it is 20 yards to the left of that, that is a problem because you don't figure it out until it is a little bit too late. That is why it is an important to place the ball in the proper spot."

RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE

» (On the running backs performance on Sunday)

"I thought the guys ran hard, I thought we fit the ball in the creases that were there, broke some tackles, fought for extra yards. Very encouraged by what those guys did. Obviously we can always get better."

» (On Jalen Hurd improving)

"Just everything, he is going to get better in front of 100,00 fans each week. Obviously I am proud of the way he took care of the football, made some guys miss in some tight inside zone runs. Had a really good run on the screen where he had a couple guys miss and got into the end zone. Every week Jalen is going to find things to get better at. When we sat down and watched that film he is very motivated to come out and get better this week."

LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN

»(On sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin and the young linebackers)

"I'm pleased with where he's at and with his development. I thought that last year, he was kind of a fish out of water. Now he comes in and he's a leader in the room with A.J. [Johnson], and they talk football. It's a lot of growing for him. We've just got to keep him injury-free and get some younger guys developed in [Dillon] Bates and [Elliott] Berry, as well as Jakob [Johnson]."

»(On senior A.J. Johnson's improved speed)

"A.J. plays fast and the fact that he has a year in his system, he knows it. That was my challenge to him when he came back this season, like, `You'll make a lot more plays just because you're older, you know the systems, you know the checks and then everybody on the field is looking for you.' This summer, he challenged himself. He repped with the defensive backs during the offseason so he got a lot faster and his endurance is lot better."


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