Vols spring practice: Day 3 (3/29)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT RELEASE) -- With a roster containing 95 student-athletes, it's impossible to completely avoid distractions, but head coach Derek Dooley is focused on improving the Tennessee football team day by day.

"My worries when I'm out on the practice field are the (95) guys out there," Dooley said. "That's all I can focus on and that's what the team is focused on. It's just like a guy with an injury. We can't worry about the guys that aren't there that day. We come in the next day, and try to reshape things. We go out the next day and see who's out there. That's all you can keep your focus on."

Dooley addressed the status of All-SEC junior wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was not out on Haslam Field on Thursday morning.

"Da'Rick has some things he has to do internally," Dooley said. "When he does them, he'll be back. It's an internal team issue. It's something he has to finish doing some stuff and when he does, he'll be back."

Day 3 of spring practice for Tennessee marked its first in shoulder pads. From the outset, the Vols struggled with the mentality change.

"The first day in pads and of course, that's always an exciting day on some fronts," Dooley said. "Guys had a lot of anxiety and it showed early in practice. We had to get them going. The mental outlook wasn't what we wanted it to be."

That is, until the spider drill.

"We had a pretty enthusiastic spider drill, which kind of energized them and we ended up pretty good," Dooley said. "We have a long way to go, but there were some good things out there. We'll watch the film and get to the next one."

What exactly is the spider drill?

"It's just like an old-fashioned Oklahoma drill, one-one-one," Dooley said. "We line up with the O-Line and D-Line. In the second level, we have a tight end and linebacker going against each other and a runner going through a barrel. It was just one of those first-day-in-pads-fundamental-toughness drills. It kind of energized everybody."

The energy was evident at the end of Tennessee's work on Thursday.

"It felt great being back out there with the guys in pads," junior wide receiver Naz Oliver said. "You have to deal with having the weight back on your shoulders, but it's pretty much the same. Football is football."


Rising junior Alex Bullard has entered spring practice with a much clearer idea of his role with the Vols. Last fall when he joined the team as a transfer from Notre Dame, he was in the mix for playing time at tackle, guard and center. After earning a starting job as the left guard -- where he played for the first half of the season -- he moved to center for the final six games.

This spring, Bullard has been the primary snapper in front of signal caller Bray and he has his mind on helping the team improve its running game, which ranked among the worst in the nation last season.

"Team run period is probably one of my favorite periods in practice," said Bullard, a Franklin native, who returned to homestate after two years with the Irish. "Not only is it competitive, and, you know, fierce competition, but that is a drill that we, as O-lineman, expect to dominate every time because we are expected to dominate on the line of scrimmage in the games."

Dooley has made it clear where the Vols putting a focus this spring.

"Our emphasis this spring is what?," the coach said. "Running the football. And that's what we're doing. We're getting a lot better at it."

Bullard feels the Vols are adapting well to new offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who has made some changes in hopes of seeing tangible results in the running game.

"Some of the techniques and things are a little different than our old offensive line coach, but he is phenomenal offensive line coach as well," Bullard said. "Coach Pittman is really encouraging and is willing to work with us, he is willing to put in extra time with us, and he wants the best for us and we know that. So we are going to play hard for him."

With the changes in the staff and some alterations on the line as sophomore Antonio Richardson figures to see much more time, Bullard says the Vols are primed for improvement and won't settle for anything less.

"We are all determined and we all want to win," Bullard said. "(Last year's record of 5-7 is definitely not good enough. We want to win the SEC East and win the SEC Championship. So, we have to put in the extra work. If you just do what the coaches ask, we will be 5-7. We want to put in the extra work; we want to put in the extra time. We want to be great."

With an entirely new defensive coaching staff teaching a new defensive scheme this spring, the Vols will have a balancing act to perform as they try to keep their teachings as simple as possible, while still working to implement the multiple defense they would like to roll out this fall.

"It's the never-ending dilemma of being simple, but not enough or being enough and we don't know what to do," Dooley said. "It's something you battle all the time as a coach. Schematically, you want to do as much as you can do to put the players in a position to have success. Simple is good sometimes, but you also have a hard time creating plays on defense. Complex is good because you have a better chance to stop guys, create plays and create negative plays, but the downside is it requires a lot of learning."

Another challenge the UT coaching staff faces is making sure their players are in the right positions to best utilize their abilities. For Dooley, one attribute stands out above all others when he is evaluating what position a player should play.

"Really what I'm looking at is body types," Dooley said. "You take a guy like I think Jacques (Smith) is a good example. When he plays in a 4-3 and he's a defensive end, he's a little bit undersized. It doesn't mean he can't be good. It doesn't mean he can't play. From a prototype of what you want, he's a little undersized. When you stand him up as an outside linebacker, he's a perfect size.

"I think Malik (Jackson) would've been a good example. He was a 270-pound guy. It doesn't mean he wasn't good. He was really good playing on the guard. When you move him out a little bit wider, he becomes possibly even more dominant. It doesn't necessarily mean they can't play in the other and can't be effective, but when you look at a prototype of what you're looking for, you're trying to slot the body types in the right spot."

While most people are looking to trim down as we get closer to the summer months, Tennessee defensive linemen Mo Couch and Marlon Walls are looking to go in the other direction.

With an emphasis on size on the line in the new defensive scheme, coupled with the fact that both players dropped weight throughout the season last year, both players are working hard on bulking up while still maintaining the athletic abilities that allow them to be successful. "By the end of the season last year I was probably about 273lbs and right now 288lbs," Walls said. "I am moving good so that is a good thing. That means I put on good weight. Plus (the extra weight) will help me in the 3-4 defense because you have to have a little weight on you." Couch expressed similar sentiments when asked about his ideal size.

"Towards the end of the season I always tend to lose weight," Couch said. "I got kind of small, I want to say I was about 270. I had to kind of bulk up to closer to 300 and still be very agile and athletic and have my legs fresh under me. The (coaches) were wanting me to put on weight, but good weight at the same time. I just want to be a very healthy 300 pounds."

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