KNOXVILLE - For most college students, fall break means getting to sleep in. So what does it mean for the Tennessee football team, which practices at 9 a.m. in the mornings?
“We have fall break (Thursday) and Friday so we have to manage that the right way,” head coach Derek Dooley said. “We’re going to push our practice back a couple of hours, get them to sleep a little bit and take advantage of it. We’ve had a good week. I feel like our spirit is back. Our energy is back and I think these guys are ready to play. We just have to go out there and do it.”
It’s no secret that the Vols are a young team relying heavily on freshmen. Tennessee has played 12 true freshmen this season, including four that started the season opener.
Following three games and an open date, the Vols are looking for signs of progress from their rookies Saturday against Buffalo.
“Obviously, we want to see improvement,” Dooley said. “We’re not going to expect them to go out there and light it up. It’s not going to happen because it takes time. I’ve seen it in practice, a little more comfort at some things and some guys are playing a little faster. You just hope over time it goes. You reflect back to last year at this time, our freshmen were all swimming.”
Improvement isn’t just expected from the freshman class. It’s demanded across the board, including from those responsible for UT’s success on the ground.
“I never think things are as bad as everybody else does and I never think they are as good as everybody else does,” Dooley said of the worry surrounding the Vols’ running game. “I wasn’t in the mode of panicking.
“What I hope is we’ll block a little bit better. Tauren has a good week running. Marlin Lane has had a lot better week. He’s playing faster and he looks more confident. Tom Smith is back off the shelf, not injured. I hope they’ll run better.”
Tennessee will put its open date work to test against a Bulls’ defense that has yielded less than four yards per carry.
“We’re going to have our work cut out this week,” Dooley said. “These guys are very good against the run. They’re very physical up front. They have an elite player on the edge (linebacker Khalil Mack) who is going to be a high-round draft pick. It’s going to be a good challenge.”
Freshman specialist Devrin Young, known for his explosive speed and elusiveness down the road at Bearden High School, is slated to make his Tennessee debut Saturday against Buffalo.
“We’re going to play Devrin,” Dooley said. “He’s going to get an opportunity to get out there. We’ll see how he looks, how he feels and how he does depends on how much (he’ll play).”
Young’s practiced the week leading up to UT’s trip to Gainesville, Fla., but the coaching staff didn’t feel that was the right environment for him to start his college career.
“That was really the first week that he was back,” Dooley said. “He hadn’t been hit. He hadn’t practiced a lot of catching. He doesn’t know our stuff.
“It sounds good to just throw him in there and see what happens, but it’s not fair to the player to put him out there before I think he’s ready. He’s had the benefit of that week, an open week where we worked him very hard and then a good week this week. I feel like he’s got enough work in to go do the things we’re asking him to do.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows the Vols have to improve their run game and he made no secret that has been the most important aspect of UT’s training since the loss at Florida, nearly two weeks ago. Tennessee is averaging just 81.7 yards per game on the ground, 12th in the SEC and 112th in the NCAA.
“We need to run the ball better,” Chaney said. “It’s that simple. At the end of the day, we need to line up, snap the ball, block the man in front of us and run the ball better, reading our keys. That’s what we have to do. So, we have to get Tauren (Poole) doing that better. We have to get the O-Line doing that better, we have to get the tight ends doing that better, get the wideouts and quarterbacks involved better. We are not running the ball well enough from every aspect of it.
“My expectation is that this week has been better. We are looking forward to getting on to the game to see the results of a good practice week.”
Poole ranks 11th in the SEC in rushing per game with 72.3 per game.
The loss of receiver Justin Hunter didn’t change Chaney’s thought process either.
“Our whole mindset prior to the injury, or post-injury is that we need to be more physical running the football. So that is where there has been an emphasis for us since the last ball game,” Chaney said. “Whether his injury is here or not, that was something we have to work on as an offense.”
VOLS USE BYE WEEK TO WORK, NOT REST
Just because Tennessee didn’t have a game last Saturday doesn’t mean that the team was home playing video games all day. Instead the Vols were hard at work, practicing all week at Haslam Field. The bye week came at an opportune time as well, because it allowed the squad to focus solely on itself for a week as it prepared to enter the home stretch of its grueling schedule.
“(The bye week) was huge,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “Really it’s like having a couple days of fall-camp type practices and all those count. It’s really not about regrouping or catching our breath, it’s ‘go to work,’ and that really what last week was. I thought they did a good job for the most part, we had one day that wasn’t really good, but they did a good job of going back to work. We really don’t go back to fundamentals because we do the fundamentals all the time. We’re really just continuing to get reps in and get some experience as a player. That’s helping, especially the young guys.”
While the bye week came immediately after Tennessee’s first loss of the season, the Vols didn’t use the time to lament that fact, but rather use it as an opportunity to learn and improve as a football team.
“You go back to work,” Wilcox said. “The next day, you go back to work. Here are the reasons we didn’t win the game. Here is what we have to improve on and you go back to work. That’s really the only way, no matter what sport you play.
“When you come off a loss, nobody likes to lose and you take that time right after the game to talk about ‘you coulda-shoulda-woulda,’ but after that it is about fixing the problem and moving forward. You can’t afford to sit and wallow, because nobody feels sorry for you. Our job is to fix it, move forward and play better football this week.”
Head coach Derek Dooley
(On how Devrin Young will be utilized Saturday)
“We’ll see. He’s going to play. I know you guys want to know how we’re playing him but we’re going to figure that out Saturday.”
(On the Vols’ defensive communication)
“I’ve really been impressed with how well we’ve been communicating, especially in pass protection which generally is the hardest.”
(On what the Vols’ identity is)
“I don’t think we know who we are yet. I think it’s just too early to tell. We’ll find out in about two or three weeks about what is our team. We don’t know what our team is right now. You just have to keep playing and see who we kind of settle into become.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney
(On his brief time at Western Michigan)
“I was there six months before they ran me out so I never got through a season. It’s funny. I get a phone call in December. That particular year is when Western Michigan won the MAC Championship. Al Molde was the head coach there. He was my coach that I played for. He called me when they clinched the championship about 1 o’ clock in the morning. The staff was drinking beers and he said, ‘Thanks Jim. Had you been here, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish this goal.’ So I got me a championship ring because they thought they couldn’t have won it with me.”
(On Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack)
“I think they have a real dominant player in (number) 46 (Khalil Mack). I think he can change a game. You have to know where he’s at.”
(On the Mid-American Conference)
“I think it’s very competitive from top to bottom. I think that’s the strength of the MAC every week. There’s not one team that has everything more than everybody else. That’s the trick to the whole thing. It’s very consistent play. It’s a good conference, very competitive.”
“To me, the conference has nothing to do with it. We’re playing Buffalo and they’re a very good football team. On defense, they fly around and hit you. We’re going to have our hands full. Hopefully, it will be fun.”
(On Rajion Neal)
“Rajion is healthy for the first time in a long time so it’s exciting to see what he can do. If we can play him at a bunch of different positions that always easier. Right now, we have such a need out there on the perimeter. But we are going to put him the backfield as well and have some fun with it.”
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox
(On Brian Randolph)
“Brian has been doing a good job. He is a guy that is very smart, is a physical kid who will stick his face in there and he has gotten better with every rep. Brian has really done a good job of learning from mistakes. Whether he sees it in practice (or a game), he can carry that over and not make that mistake again, which is obviously key to growth as a player.”
(On Izauea Lanier)
“Izauea is doing a good job. He has shown up more and more in practice and that is really where you have to earn your reps. You have to play well in practice and execute at a high level in practice to earn your reps in a game and he has done that. He is just playing faster and more decisive. When he sees something he is reacting quicker. That’s the biggest thing. There is not a lot of time. When you play good football teams and you play in this conference, you can’t be unsure. You have to be decisive and go right now, and he has done that.”
(On Curt Maggitt’s versatility)
“Curt has done a really nice job of handling all of that. He is a bright kid, he cares about football, he studies it, he wants to be good and that right there is what you want. He’s not perfect by any means, but there has never been a point where we felt like he couldn’t handle it or he was overwhelmed. We’ve never felt like that. He’s playing fast. When you get in the games, the multiples of the game, the speed of the game, the tempo of the offense, sometimes that can freeze you up a little bit. He has made mistakes, no doubt, but he makes them fast and that is all we ask for. If you do make one, just go full speed and see if you can make something happen.”
(On A.J. Johnson)
“A.J. has been a guy that we have put a lot on him, pushed him and haven’t treated him like a freshman. Whether that is fair or not, it’s just the way it is. A.J. is a big, physical guy that loves to play. He is another guy where it hasn’t been too big for him. He’s made some mistakes, things get going fast and sometimes he is seeing something for the first time and it wasn’t quite right, but he plays hard, he plays physical and that is what we need. He is a big, strong guy so that helps him.”
“They are very multiple. They run a lot of four-wide, three-wide, they run two-back sets. They really give you a lot of formations, a little bit like our offense. You see the tempo is a big part of it, but you probably don’t see the same schematics.”
(On Buffalo WR Marcus Rivers)
“He is a big, athletic guy that goes up to get the football. He can create mismatches for you on the edges at corner. He is guy that has been very physical and can get open. He can obviously run down the field, but he is really good at using his body to catch the football.”
SEC TOGETHER WE CAN FOOD DRIVE
This is the final weekend for the annual SEC Together We CAN Food Drive! Every fall, the 12 SEC schools and the surrounding communities collect canned food to help fight hunger. Saturday, Oct. 1, from 9 a.m.-Noon, there will be collection bins at three or four locations throughout the Vol Village where UT fans can make donations. UT student-athletes will be collecting and happy to sign autographs and take pictures. All of the food donated goes to the Second Harvest Food Bank here in Knoxville. The first 500 donors will receive a coupon for a free appetizer with the purchase of any entrée at the Texas Roadhouse during Vol Calls with Dooley on Wednesday nights from 7-9 p.m.