KNOXVILLE - Tennessee completed its preseason camp Wednesday evening with a mock game at Neyland Stadium. The Vols will have a day off before preparing for their season-opener opponent Montana beginning Friday.
“I always like these mock games just because there’s usually about six, seven, eight or even more sometimes, little administrative details that you just forget about and take for granted,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “They come up and there are always some things that happen on the field. That was the same case tonight. It was a good job by the players. It’s the end of camp and we’ll start (preparing for) Montana Friday.”
One of the primary objectives of the mock game is to get a feel for how the players, especially the newcomers, respond ‘under the lights,’ albeit minus 102,455 raucous, orange-clad fans watching.
“What you feel good about is their abilities and the skill sets that they have; the size, the speed and the athleticism,” Dooley said of the Vols’ rookie class. “They’re engaged. They want to do well. That gives you the hope and confidence that they’re going to be fine in time. You also know they’re going to go out there and make a ton of mistakes. They made them out there tonight, a lot of the freshmen, simple things. You get in the lights and it’s different. I’m going to have to be a patient coach to keep encouraging them, to keep them to develop and get them to play their best. That’s what we’re going to have to do.”
With five Vols (Malik Jackson, Ja’Wuan James, Tauren Poole, Dallas Thomas and Prentiss Waggner) that started at least nine games in 2010 returning, Dooley is eager to see how the other 17 will perform in their unfamiliar roles over the course of an entire season.
“I think we learned a lot about their talent level and we know a lot about their makeup, especially the upperclassmen,” he said. “What we don’t know is all the guys who didn’t start last year, which is pretty much everybody on the team, is how they’ll understand being a starting player in this league and can they manage it for 12 games. What we don’t know, (is) everybody out there can they go 12 games and compete at the level that they’re capable of? I don’t know. Time will tell.”
The Vols will have three of the next four days off to refresh for their first game week of the 2011 season.
“The key is recovery, recovery, recovery,” Dooley said. “They’re going to come in Monday a little rusty and we’re going to knock the rust out of them. We’re going to get physical and then when we get the rust out, we’ll be ready to go.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James, who gained valuable experience as a freshman and started all 13 games in 2010, doesn’t just see a noticeable difference in his comfort on the line from last year. Since the starting front five was determined, he’s seen a difference from fall camp alone.
“It’s a lot better,” the freshman All-SEC selection said. “We’re a lot better from two weeks ago. We have our five guys up there that we feel comfortable with. We’ve been practicing these last couple weeks together, we’ve been communicating and we feel pretty good about it.”
Joining James in the trenches are junior Dallas Thomas and sophomores Alex Bullard, Zach Fulton and James Stone.
With the dismissal of Janzen Jackson, the Vols will feature a restructured defensive backfield moving forward. Most noticeably, junior Prentiss Waggner will move from cornerback to safety.
“I’m totally fine with (moving back to safety),” Waggner said. “I have a good grasp of the playbook. I just love the game of football. Wherever the team needs me, that’s where I’ll fill in.
The move isn’t all that out of the ordinary for the Clinton, La., native who spent some time at the position in each of the last two years, as well as the entirety of spring practice.
“Because I took all those spring reps at safety, I basically have a feel for the safety position. Right now, I’m just trying to get the little things down as far as the angles and the check downs in the base group because I was already getting reps at safety in the nickel package.”
Arguably Tennessee’s top big-playmaker on defense last year with five interceptions, including a UT single-season record three returned for touchdowns, and three fumble recoveries, Waggner actually thinks the move to safety might allow him to be even more dynamic in 2011.
“I feel like I’m more free to make plays now. Playing corner you are in a more man-to-man type scheme. At safety, you get to read the quarterback’s eyes and basically read the route and make more plays on the ball.”
With Waggner’s move to safety, the battle for playing time at cornerback should really heat up before the Vols open the season against Montana on Sept. 3.
“I would say Marsalis (Teague), Justin (Coleman) and Izauea Lanier are our three (starting) corners,” Dooley said. “So (the loss of Jackson) hurts us back there. That’s no mistake in that. We’ll see if they can hold up and if they can’t, then we’ll maybe try to do something else. That’s probably where we’re headed right now.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On the difficulty of dismissing Janzen Jackson from the program)
“Yeah, it’s hard. When you’re a coach (or) when you’re a parent, the toughest form of love is tough love. That’s the hardest kind of love to dish out to a young person is tough love. Because as parents, we hate seeing our kids in pain. We hate seeing our kids cry and hurt, but sometimes that’s an important part of their growth is the pain. Pain is a part of life. Disappointment is a part of life. Sometimes the only way to really figure out how to get our life going in the right direction is by some very difficult things happening. Was it difficult? Yes. But my responsibility is to this organization and my responsibility is to our young people. I think the decision we made was in the best interest of both.”
(On being able to move on from the NCAA investigation)
“That was a real positive thing for our program. That was something that literally since the day I took the job has been a black cloud hanging over. I’ve been saying all along that we felt confident that the worst was behind us but today validates it. I’m grateful that the NCAA did what I think was the responsible decision for our football program. The worst is behind us, the case is closed and we can now move on. That’s a good thing for our program. It’s a real tribute to the guys internally how we handled our business, especially (Senior Associate Athletics Director for Administration) David Blackburn, who oversaw the program during a lot of transition. He just did a great job and I think because of the job our administration did, it allowed us to survive the stormy seas.”
(On a dropped punt during the mock game)
“That was a part of the script. What’s so funny? We script everything so we don’t get a crazy reaction.”
Junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner
(On the confidence level of the secondary)
“The confidence level is still high. We know the guys we have in the meeting room are good players and highly touted players. I’ve been watching film on Montana and they are basically a zone read team. We just need to get the film down and move forward from there.”
Sophomore offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James
(On the mock game)
“It’s a huge difference just being under the lights at night here at Neyland Stadium, genuinely running feeling like a game going out there and doing all of the game maxims and stuff inside. Tonight, we got a lot done with the execution and substitutions.”
(On how Wednesday was approached)
“We were calling everything out just like a game. (Offensive line) coach (Harry) Hiestand told us to come out here and treat it like a game and prepare ourselves. We only have limited opportunities before playing Montana.”