KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (team release) -- Tennessee wrapped up its final full practice of training camp on Monday but the end of one chapter is only the beginning of another as classes start on Wednesday.
After a mock game walkthrough Tuesday night, the Vols will return to the classroom for the start of fall session the next day. When they reconvene as a team Thursday morning, the Orange and White will turn its sole focus on the field to North Carolina State, something everyone is looking forward to.
“(The dynamic) will change come Wednesday when classes start, of course,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “We have to get prepared for all of that. I think this is a good time for classes to start. You don’t want it on your game week and you don’t want it too early in camp. We’ll always go through a couple of days of issues there. Other than that, I think they are just ready to play somebody.”
With training camp nearing completion, junior tailback Rajion Neal deemed it a success.
“A lot of guys had a big chip on their shoulder,” Neal said. “Nobody is dwelling on the past, but we all still had in the back of our minds how last season ended. A lot of guys came out ready to play. We had a great sense of urgency to be out there and want to learn and want to get this turned around quickly.”
Although it was a long grind, Neal said the head coach’s mentality made training camp easier to get through.
“You just embrace it because Dooley does,” Neal said. “He never lets you forget that one day this will come to end. Like always, you will wish you had one more day. He tries to keep it fun, not so predictable, but we’re just embracing it. We’re out there ready to work. We have a lot that we want to do and accomplish this year.”
In addition to returning to the practice field on Thursday, the Vols will also release the first depth chart since the spring that day, although it will be subject to quite a bit of change over the upcoming weeks.
“I don’t think a lot of these positions will get settled until deep into the season, especially defensive line and secondary because we don’t really know who is going to be productive on game day,” Dooley said. “All we can do is suspect. We’ll set a starting lineup based on what we suspect but ultimately they have to go out there and prove it. If they do, they’ll get settled in and if they don’t, we’ll put the other guy in.”
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
The Tennessee sports staff and media were treated to some music today during the open practice period. There was some Lynyrd Skynyrd, your typical southern rap and one surprise.
The unexpected song began during the stretching period. Its name, `A Change Is Gonna Come', by Sam Cooke.
The song has been dubbed the unofficial song of the team this season and was brought to light by redshirt senior Herman Lathers.
"The song is to remind the guys that we are not going back to the way things used to be," said Lathers. "There is going to be a change this year and we're putting Tennessee back where Tennessee needs to be."
Lathers, who has had to make many big changes in his life through his career as a Vol, uses the song as a pseudo crutch when he is down.
"I always listen to it," said Lathers. "It is what I listen to on some of my down moments and some of my injuries. It always brings me back to spirits. I know it helps our guys out and through the offseason to work harder and train hard. It is a great song for us and we are going to play it a lot more."
Lathers has trained as hard as anyone in the offseason to recover from an ankle injury suffered last year. His competitive nature has made it hard for the defensive leader to watch from the sidelines but he feels he has grown after holding a spectator role last season.
"I think I just had a different outlook on things now," said Lathers. "The way things go, the energy on the sideline, the energy when some guys aren't in, when our playmakers aren't in. My job is just to keep the energy, keep the flow of the game going nice and smooth and just make calls and make sure guys are learning what they need to learn in case of injury. My job is to get guys prepared just as well as the coaches. It is a big role but I am ready to take it."
Lathers has given the blessing by his coaches to make calls and checks on the fly, simply because he knows what he is talking about. And when he is on the field, you better believe his teammates know it.
"My presence out there with them is enough for those guys," said Lathers, "so that means a lot to them and I am grateful to be out there. I feel like my team needs me."
NEAL CONTINUES TO GROW
With the final practice of training camp in the books, and the Vols starting to focus on NC State, tailback Rajion Neal has emerged as a leader in the backfield. After seeing time as a back and a receiver over the last two years, Neal has zeroed in on his role as one of the Vols' top runners.
"Just over time, just knowing what to expect," said Neal. "Standing under these coaches, just growing up. It's been fun, but being physical, watching film, standing up under these coaches as much as I can. Just becoming a student of the game more."
Neal ran for just 134 yards as a sophomore, in 11 games. He ran for that exact amount in the Vols' first scrimmage in training camp and added 47 more in the second scrimmage for a total of 181 yards on the ground in two outings. He continues to gain experience that comes with time.
"Just getting older. We kind of start to sew things up a little easier, you've been around, you know what to expect. Everything is kind of a little easy, it's coming to you. That's the big thing I notice. I'm just happy to be back."
Neal is competing with Devrin Young and Marlin Lane for the starting position, but knows that all three will see time taking handoffs.
"The competition between the backs is real competitive," said Neal. "It's still friendly but on the field we really compete and get after it. We try to do whatever it's going to take for us to get this running game started and open up the lanes for passing."
A major difference for the backs has been the addition of Vols legendary tailback Jay Graham as the team's mentor in the backfield.
"Coach Graham is a guy that played a position so he kind of knows what to expect," said Neal. "He knows what it takes to have a successful running game and produce a good back. It was hard, but it was what we needed and we enjoyed it. Just from him being a guy that played the position."
THE EARLY SCOUTING REPORT
With the season opener vs. NC State 11 days away, the Vols are focusing in on the Wolfpack and have starting watching film of a team that was ranked No. 25 by Sports Illustrated in its College Football Preview magazine. Here's a look at what some of the Vols have seen early on from Tom O'Brien's team.
Sophomore TB Devrin Young
"We have already started (watching) as far as their blitz scheme and where their strengths and weaknesses are. We have been on it for a couple days now. They are strong on the secondary. They are kind of young at the linebacker corps. They have a pretty good defensive line. They have their strengths and weaknesses and we are going to try and manipulate that and just win a ball game."
Junior TB Rajion Neal
"Their secondary is really nice. That's going to be exciting to see our receivers go against them. They had some great backers last year, but a lot of those guys are gone. They look like a real good, solid team."
Sophomore DB Brian Randolph
"I have seen that they have a lot of checks and a lot of motion. So for our defense, we need to get our checks down. [NC State] seems very disciplined, especially with penalties like off sides and stuff like that. They're pretty clean and smooth, so you have to be able to prepare for that."
Junior DL Corey Miller
"(NC State) is talented offensively from what I can see. We will have to prepare ourselves in order to be ready."
Junior DB Byron Moore
"Last week we started to look at some of (NC State's tape). They are a lot of motion, and shifts kind of team. They are going to do a lot of moving to get us thinking a lot. We just have to go in there knowing our assignments and just play fast lining up correctly."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the pre-practice music)
“I don’t have that song, nor do I know what it is or who sings it, if you call that singing. They came to me about 10 practices ago and requested music. I just said music doesn’t energize you, you get music when you are energized. It’s simple. It’s just like why we cancelled practice at Milligan. We didn’t cancel practice because they needed it, we cancelled practice because they earned it. It’s kind of how music is. It’s a privilege, not a right.”
(On Byron Moore)
“He’s done great. He’s been productive in both scrimmages, he’s had a great attitude, he’s made some interceptions and is tackling very well. He’s doing all of the things we thought he could do when we signed him.”
(On Quenshaun Watson)
“Que is doing real well. He’s a little light and this is all new to him. It probably would have helped him if he had been here in the first session and had another five weeks training, but he’s got a good skill set, he fast, elusive and instinctive. He’s made big plays in both scrimmages.”
(On trying to get the ball to Watson in space)
“It’s hard to [avoid contact] in this game. I’d rather him be able to do everything, but, yeah, he’s not a big guy if that’s what you mean. On third-and-one, we’re probably not going to run the iso with Que. I think that is a fair assessment, but it is hard to avoid contact in this game.”
(On Herman Lathers)
“He’s not 100 percent. He’s back but he’s not 100 percent. It’s just a little nagging injury that hopefully time off will help.”
(On whether Rajion Neal will be the No. 1 tailback)
“We’ll release the depth chart [Thursday]. A lot of depth chart questions today, it’s interesting. I’m not sure how many I can dance around before you all figure out I’m not telling you who our starters are. Rajion has had a great camp. I’m proud of him. He’s been very consistent, he’s been more consistent than he has ever been. He’s improved on the things he needed to improve on and he will have a real critical role for us.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On Cordarelle Patterson)
“CP is everything that everyone has hyped him up to be. He can go up and get the ball, he is a big, strong receiver, he is going to do very well in the SEC. His role will be very big this year. He is pretty much a starter already so he is going to play a big role. Between the three of them we should have a very good season.”
(On the veteran feel of camp)
“It is a lot easier in practice this year. You don’t have to describe to the young guys what to do, you just call a play and snap the ball real quick. I feel a lot more comfortable. Last year I was still trying to learn it, still young trying to figure everything out, this year I am much more comfortable.”
(On the offensive line)
“The first two years, the offensive line was just trying to feel each other out and see what they were going to do. This year they are starting to gel, if they aren’t already gelled. They are looking pretty good right now and we are running the ball great.”
RS JUNIOR DL MARLON WALLS
(On the nickel defense)
"To be honest, that nickel defense is designed to free a lot of people up. More than likely, we are going to have at least one guy that is going to get free on the rush. So, that nickel defense is a great package. Coach Sal did a great job with it. We all just know what we have to do our job to free that one person up."
(On Defensive Coordinator Sal Sunseri)
"Relentless. He is a high motor guy. There hasn't been a day when I have come in here that is motor isn't going. He is always thinking about how we are going to get ahead, how we are going to get after the quarterback, or how we are going to stop plays on a certain down. He is just a very intense guy. When you come around him, it is time to cut out all the playing and focus in out what we have to do that day. He has a certain stare. I think it's that Italian in him. He is pretty good. We think he may be in the mafia somewhere because he is that intense."
(On how he feels regarding Sunseri)
"Oh, I love it and I think we all feel the same way. To have a guy that's been there and done that and has accomplished the things we want to accomplish; so when a guy like that speaks, it's time to shut up and listen. So we love it. Knowing that when you walk into the building you have to be on top of your game, that's a great feeling. So we enjoy Coach Sal a whole lot and I'm sure the rest of the guys do too."
SOPHOMORE DB BRIAN RANDOLPH
(On the team’s response to the 3-4 defense)
“Our whole defense is responding well to this defense. We all like it, it gives us a chance to show off our athletic ability, we’re not sitting back as much and we get to attack and make plays. Our defensive players are very aggressive, so it fits right into our mentality.”
(On having music during practice)
“The music isn’t Dooley’s iPod. It’s Herman [Lathers’] music. He knows his music. [The music] really does help. Practicing 20 practices in one month can really wear on you so if you have music it really gets you going. We asked for it, so we came together as a team to decide that we wanted music.”
(On the rest days coming up)
“It’s going to feel great [having a few lighter days]. We’re all banged up and have stingers, so these next couple days are going to be wonderful. Our bodies will feel better after this and our minds, too.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On the offensive line)
"The guys look good. They’ve been playing with each other for about 2 1Ž2 years now, so they just have that bond and that chemistry. Everybody kind of knows how to play off each other. They have a nice little chemistry up there and I think everything is going to work out.”
(On freshman Quenshaun Watson)
“Que is like a natural. He a little guy, but he’s quick, he’s fast. He gets in and out. He a good back, he got a lot of natural talent so it’s going to be exciting to see what he’s going to do in the next couple of years.”
(On knowing game day is nearing)
“Definitely. You kind of get tired going against your teammates every day. It was good to see different opponents’ film, seeing the ins and outs of their defense. It’s getting us excited and ready to play on the 31st.”
SOPHOMORE TB DEVRIN YOUNG
(On the start of the season approaching)
“I am just getting really excited. It is right around the corner. Obviously, Milligan was a good experience for everybody and everybody got some good work done. Our team came back pretty healthy which was really important. I feel like we are ready.”
(On being used in different places on the offense)
“Yeah. I just want to do whatever helps the team. It makes me even more excited knowing that when the ball is in my hand that is helping the team.”
(On the receiving corps)
“They are so fun to watch, especially when I am not in I just watch them run and play. It is like they are playing backyard football sometimes. We are all anticipating big things for them.”
“It is just getting rigorous. We are just doing the same thing every day, just like every other team is doing. You just have to start playing more mentally than physically when you are out here. I am ready for the games.”
JUNIOR DL COREY MILLER
(On being ready for NC State)
“I feel like we are making huge strides, we are improving, but there is still a long way to go. That is of course how every team is getting ready for their first game. I feel like we will be ready.”
(On his mindset)
“My mindset is set on ‘no days off.’ Of course there has to be some relaxation some times in order to be fully rested for a game. I feel like we will be alright, we have a pretty set out schedule.”
RS JUNIOR DB BYRON MOORE
(On having two secondary coaches)
“It is a whole lot easier. It is like you have four eyes out there instead of just two. When coach Ansley is talking to the corners I do not have to wait for him to be done with the corners, so I just go see coach Conklin and get my corrections from him. It helps us out a lot, and it keeps practice flowing at a fast speed because we are not slowing down while someone else is getting coached up. It is a great benefit (to us) that is going to pay off this season.”
(On being promoted to starter)
“After our second scrimmage after these last two practices they went ahead and promoted me up to the starter. I have been starting the last two practices.”
“Just being productive making plays in both of our scrimmages and showing up each day in practice just being productive. (The staff) says that the guys who are being productive out there are going to be the guys out on the field. I’m just trying to make as many plays each day as I can.”
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