Vols begin preparations for Utah State

Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) The Vols began their on-field preparation for the opener vs. Utah State on Thursday.

The scout team donned blue jerseys for the first time as Butch Jones led the Vols in their first practice since classes started in Knoxville on Wednesday.

"The message from Coach is quite clear to me, we are in game week mode," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney, "everything is picked up a whole notch. Officially camp has end, it is kind of different how the weeks fall and so forth, whatever he wants and demands of us is what we see through as a staff and as a team."

The Aggies, coming off a 9-5 season and a Poinsettia Bowl Championship have the respect and attention of Tennessee. Utah State won six of its final seven games in 2014.

"They're very aggressive schematically and very sound," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "They're a well-coached defense and you can tell, they play hard. You know, we emphasize to our guys about being different with our level of effort and those guys I think buy into the same type of mentality. So, we've challenged our guys with it being our effort and our style of play versus their style of play. I give them credit. They play very hard and play a very physical brand of football and it's evident on video."

Mahoney was happy with the performance after two days away from the practice field to focus on the start of classes.

"Today was a great start," Mahoney said. "Getting the kids acclimated to the start of school, a lot of these kids are going through that process of class and now practice and then study table and bed, trying to get in that routine. So it is here."

MAGGITT BACK IN ACTION

After missing a period of time due to injury, junior defensive end Curt Maggitt was back in action in Haslam Field on Thursday. Despite being sidelined from in-practice action, Maggitt has been staying in shape and preparing to return to action on Sunday night vs. Utah State.

"He has been in the water, on the bike, on the treadmill, all of those things," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "I think he has done a good job of maintaining his conditioning levels. It is just going to be getting out there and actually playing. He hasn't played in a game in a long time. I am excited for him."

Maggitt is an undeniable leader of Team 118, so having him on the field always provides a jolt of energy for the Orange & White.

"I always feel good about Curt because I think he's older, said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "He's mature. He's a great leader. He has all the qualities. Obviously I would like to see him get a lot more practice but I feel there's still 10 days out and he's going to get plenty of work."

IMPROVEMENT IN THE SECONDARY

Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez is satisfied with the numerous improvements made in the secondary. With the countdown approaching to Utah State, the competition among the groups have shown the growth in skill and understanding.

"We've improved," Martinez said. "We're starting to figure out our style of play. I think the last couple of practices we've been able to develop some ball disruptions, better energy as a collective group, and more in-sync understanding of what to do."

Three individuals that have solidified their abilities to earn starting roles are Justin Coleman at nickelback, Cam Sutton at a corner and Brian Randolph at strong safety.

The competition for the remaining sports is heating up with just 10 days to game day. At the other cornerback position, Martinez says a decision won't be made until later in game week between Emmanuel Moseley and Michael Williams. The competition at free safety has also been intense with the decision coming down to Devaun Swafford, Todd Kelly Jr. and incumbent LaDarrell McNeil.

"Those three individuals have solidified up to this point," Martinez said. "Those guys have been consistent productivity wise."

Because of the healthy competition, the players in the secondary have progressed through pushing one another, improving consistency at the positions.

"It's a lot more player-coaching," Martinez said. "It's more player-driven. That's what's neat about it. They're putting more pressure on each other instead of the coaches doing it. That's nice to see. That's the difference."

"It's really good for us. We feel really good as far as the competition. We didn't have that last year. We have a lot of guys competing for reps at all of the positions."

GOOD WORLEY DECISIONS

Heading into game week against Utah State, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian is reaching a comfort and confidence level with his offensive. In particular, starting quarterback Justin Worley continues to show command and ownership of his position, which Bajakian notes as one of Worley's biggest improvements entering this season.

"He started that really once last season ended, but there's definitely now a little more ownership to it," Bajakian said. "I think that's validated a little bit more. He can even grow a little more in that role."

While the senior quarterback's individual growth is noticeable, his coach also praised the relationships he is building with the wide receivers unit and the offensive line. As Bajakian points out, this year's offensive personnel provide Worley with more options on both sides of the field, putting more of an emphasis on his ability to be connect with each player.

"I think there is a lot that goes into it but I also think that developing a comfort level with the receivers and timing with the receivers has also played a role," added Bajakian. "I don't know if it is as much scheme as it is just options for the quarterback. A lot of time, if we have concepts on both sides of the field, the quarterback can make a choice based on whichever side might give us the best look."

Making that choice, the right choice, can be the hardest part of the game. But with Worley demonstrating more and more ability lead the Vols offense, Bajakian feels sure that he will rise to the occasion come August 31.

"He's getting rid of the ball on time," Bajakian said. "His rhythm and anticipation have improved. He's making good decision, good decisive decisions. That's important."

O-LINE STARTING TO GEL

With game week preparations beginning to ramp up, offensive line coach Don Mahoney says he has seen his unit begin to gel, especially senior Jacob Gilliam and freshman Jashon Robertson, as the game has started to "slow down" for the two projected starters.

"They're really just playing a lot faster and a lot more consistent," he said. "The learning curve for both of them, you know, young guys when they first come in and play, when they really start playing well is when the game starts slowing down - at any position."

Mahoney has been especially impressed with Robertson, who has quickly earned first-team practice reps after recently being moved to the offensive line from defensive tackle.

"He's one of the best (freshmen) that I've had a chance to really be around," said Mahoney. "When he first started playing the position, the first day we had to practice, I left the field and I said to Coach Jones, `Coach, he's asking questions that most guys would not ask.' I said, `man, this guy's special.'"

Mahoney has also been encouraged by the versatility shown by two veteran offensive lineman, sophomore Dylan Weisman and redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson.

"I think he could definitely be a center or guard type of guy because of how smart of a player he is," he said of Weisman. "He's athletic, he's powerful, extremely dependable - those qualities you look for in a center. It's certainly not something that I would want to jump into right now with the learning curve with him coming to the position, gaining confidence, gaining accuracy, all the things that we're striving for, but I definitely see him being a two position guy for sure."

Mahoney went on to compare Kerbyson to former Vol, and current Kansas City Chief, Zach Fulton.

"He's a lot like Zach Fulton, playing some of [tackle] last year with certain situations with practice and so forth," he said. "He's a guy that has a lot of experience and understands the position, understands defense, understands alignments and those kinds of things...he, as well, is a very intelligent player."

AZZANNI WELCOMES RECEIVER DEPTH

For wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, having depth at the position is quite a change from a year ago. Of course, it is a positive change in the eyes of the caretaker of Wide Receiver U.

"I think it changes it a lot," Azzanni said. "I've said this before, we get to use everybody's skill sets. Time will tell. I say we have eight or nine, I don't know that yet. We've got to get through a game here with some of these youngsters, and see exactly what they can handle.

"I think I have a pretty good idea, but when the lights come on and it's for real, we'll find out if we can do that and limit some packages for some guys. Hopefully by week three, four or five, right in that mid-range, we have a pretty good idea."

Azzanni believes the Vols are equipped with many more options than last season.

"We have some guys with some multi-dimensional skill sets. We have some guys that can do a lot of different things," Azzanni said. "I've said this before, we asked Marquez (North) to do everything last year. We limited Pig (Howard) on some of the things he could do. We asked Marquez to do everything because we didn't have another option. We didn't want to be that vanilla. We had to play some football at the same time. Now, I think we can move some guys around and use their skill sets and make them more successful."

When asked about the possibility of a rotation, Azzanni hinted that nothing is set in stone.

"Now we're getting into game week and kind of seeing what guys can push past five, six or seven plays in a row, kind of getting a feel for that that way. What guys I can still trust more than two or three plays in a row," added Azzanni. "It's still a work in progress. It really is."

Azzanni made it clear that you can never have too many options at wide receiver.

"Not when you go so fast. You can't have enough great receivers in this offense, you can't. If you're great, we're going to get you the ball."

SOUND BITES

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

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN

»(On his confidence going into game week vs. Utah State)

" I've said this before about Jashon; he has everything we're looking for in an offensive lineman. He's tough, he's intelligent, he plays with great pad level and leverage maybe because of his background as a wrestler in high school. If we were to set a mold for an offensive lineman, particularly a guard, Jashon would fit that mold."

»(On freshman offensive lineman Jashon Robertson)

" I've said this before about Jashon; he has everything we're looking for in an offensive lineman. He's tough, he's intelligent, he plays with great pad level and leverage maybe because of his background as a wrestler in high school. If we were to set a mold for an offensive lineman, particularly a guard, Jashon would fit that mold."

DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK

»(On the team returning to practice)

"I thought they came back, there were a couple slow spots at the beginning but once we got it going I thought they responded well. I thought it was a very productive practice."

»(On prepping for Utah State)

"There has been implementation and basics since the beginning of camp. We had all summer to kind of know what we wanted to run, with a young team you don't want to introduce it a week before the game. There may be a couple of wrinkles, a couple of what ifs, but we will fit rule sets to the packages and all that. But we have been installing right from the beginning for Utah State."

»(On competition at cornerback)

"We are never settled, there is always going to be competition. Whoever is hot, whoever is making plays is the guy who is going to get the playing time. We are never really settled. We will go in with an initial start to the game but then we are going to be able to hopefully play whoever is performing well."

DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ

»(On preparedness)

"The great thing going against our offense: they're so multiple, they're so fast, that it gives us game ready reps. We're ready for any fast tempo teams."

»(On the secondary better at coverage or tackling)

"We'd like to be a lot better tackling group. That's really what we want to put our name on. You have to play with great leverage and you have to tackle in space. That would be the number one criteria, not giving up big plays."

DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING

»(On getting back to practice with 10 days left to game day)

"We took a step forward and did some little things right like body language, little things like communicating better, little things like thudding better, practice etiquette, so I thought it was a good day."

»(On the strengths of Dimarya Mixon)

"He can run. He's very athletic. Is he going to be able to sit in there and take on two 300 pounders all the time? No. So I think that's a little bit of a responsibility on us as coaches also to manage that and continue his personal development. Everybody forgets Mixon is a freshman."

WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI

»(On Pig Howard's progress)

"Well, I've said this before, he had a lot to prove, a lot to earn back, a lot of trust. Some things between me and him that he had to do. He's done everything we've asked him to this point. He came out and had a great training camp, not a good one, a great one. That's a tribute to him. Just all the habits that he finally realizes are important, that make him a big time player, are starting to come out. Everything from being the first guy out on the field, whereas last year he was last. Those things are all starting to transform in every part of his game. Now he's just got to be consistent and keep it up. The sky is the limit for him if he can do that."

»(On having guys with experience to help the younger guys)

"It's huge. It makes my life a lot easier because the expectations bleed down. Last year it was me telling everyone what to do. Now, before I can tell someone what to do, the older guys are helping them. I say older, the guys who have been here a year, but at least expectations are bleeding down. The more that happens, the better football team we'll be."

TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR MARK ELDER

»(On consistency of the placekicking game)

"Yeah, there's been some more consistency. Those guys have done a little bit better. We've put them in some stressful spots. We've had them kicking some long field goals and that's what you want to see, what their range is. Certainly, if you're kicking fifty yard field goals, your percentages are going to be lower than if you are kicking a thirty-five yard field goal. When you look at the numbers, you have to also look at where they're kicking from. Those guys have been steadily improving their performance over camp. I was looking through those numbers actually earlier today, and you can see a mark difference over the last week and a half than the first week."

»(On the possibility of splitting up kicking duties)

"Absolutely we could do that. We're going to put the best guy in each role for them to succeed. If a guy's best role, if he's the kickoff guy and that's all he's doing, then he will be our kickoff guy. If he's just the placekicker, then he's just the placekicker. If they handle both, then that's great too."

RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE

» (On the improvements of Jalen Hurd since the spring)

"He has made a lot of progress. He's still making some mental assignments that's he has to clean up here as we start to get in some game plan stuff. Leaps and bounds from where he was in the spring from a conditioning standpoint."

» (On Devrin Young's role)

"Devrin's role will be as big as he can make his role. If he can show us, as a staff, that he can continue to take care of the ball between tackles and can pass protect his role will be as big as he can allow it to be."

OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY

»(On recruiting Coleman Thomas)

"He's been a quick learner. He knows if a mistake occurs. He knows it, he gets it. He's very demanding of himself. He, as well as not playing as a freshman, he doesn't treat himself as a freshman...He's what you're looking for. We're very blessed."

»(On Jashon Robertson)

"He did have quite a few offers on the table, so that one did not come easy at all. He had the Florida State's, and he had the people that were really showing a lot of interest in him, but he felt excited about here, he felt right about here."

LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN

»(On Dillon Bates)

"He'll tell you, the first couple of weeks, he was "swimming." Every day he comes and he's got a million questions to ask. He comes in the afternoon and asks questions. He's been great. The fact that football's been in his family, he understands concepts and situational football, and that's what we preach a lot."

»(On the defensive freshmen)

"The great thing I like about these guys, they've got high character. They love the game, and the approach to the game. They come here and they watch tape, they ask questions, and they actually love football."


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