KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- The Vols moved practice indoors and cranked up the noise on Monday as they tried their best to replicate the environment they will face this Friday when they line up across from NC State in the Georgia Dome.
In addition to preparing for the exciting atmosphere, Tennessee has upped the intensity in practice because it also knows it will be going up against a talented team when it hits the gridiron for the first time this season.
After getting the day off to rest and recover on Saturday, the Vols began installing the game plan for the Wolfpack on Sunday before their indoor practice on Monday. With just three days of work left, UT will spend the rest of its time fine-tuning everything before heading south on I-75.
“We just finished two tough practices to get them back into it and we’ll try to polish it up these next couple of days before we head down to Atlanta,” UT head coach Derek Dooley said.
Friday’s game will end nearly nine months of anticipation for the Vols as they have looked forward to the opportunity to prove themselves on the field since the moment last season ended.
“We have been watching film on [NC State] all offseason,” junior offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James said. “It felt good to get out here and work against the scout team, but they are going to give us a lot of blitzes and we just have to be ready."
Front and center on everyone’s mind going into Friday’s contest is NC State cornerback David Amerson, who led the NCAA with 13 interceptions a year ago.
“He is long, athletic and instinctive with a play-making attitude,” Dooley said. “He’s as good as there is out there at corner. It starts with height, weight, speed and position skills, which he obviously has, but there is also an intangible dynamic play-making attitude that usually the great ones in the back-end have, and he’s got it.”
Easily the most intriguing match-up of the contest will pit Amerson against Tennessee wideout Justin Hunter who returns to the field for the first time since tearing his ACL against Florida last year.
Based on how NC State has utilized Amerson in the past, however, Dooley isn’t quite sure how often the two will get to battle it out on Friday, however.
“He’s been playing to the field, but I’m sure they will adjust their game plan accordingly,” Dooley said. “He’s not the only guy back there, so I’m sure they aren’t fearing any of our guys. Those two safeties [seniors Brandon Bishop and Earl Wolff| have a lot of experience and a lot of production. I don’t expect them to change what they do because of us.”
It isn’t just the defense that the Vols are worried about though as the Wolfpack offense isn’t exactly devoid of talent either.
“They have an experienced offensive line and an extremely productive, tall, accurate quarterback,” Dooley said. “When you throw for 3,000 yards and complete 63 percent, it is pretty good. Then they have some special teams guys, their receiver and their runner, who can really hurt you. I’m sure they feel very confident going into this game and they should. They have all their guys back up front, have the quarterback back and they have some weapons on the perimeter.”
Another factor the Vols will have to overcome is the team’s recent history in the so-called “Dome of Doom.” After winning its first two games in the Georgia Dome – the 1997 SEC Championship against Auburn (30-29) and the 1998 SEC Championship game against Mississippi State (24-14) – UT has lost its last six contests in Atlanta.
Although that may be a well-known point of contention among the Vol fan base, the current players haven’t even let it cross their minds as they prepare for NC State.
"I wasn't even aware of that,” James said. “We aren't thinking about the past. We are just trying to focus on this game and getting the outcome we want."
THEY’RE 100 PERCENT. AND READY.
Tennessee starting wide receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson were peppered with the same question over and over on Monday.
"Are you 100 percent?"
Hunter, because of return from the ACL tear. Patterson, because of the shoulder injury which occurred during the first week of training camp.
Their answer was the same.
The wide receiver tandem will play together for the first time when the Vols head to the Georgia Dome for a meeting with NC State Friday. It will be their first time ever in the Dome, but they are both ready, even if there are some nerves.
"I think I'll get nervous," said Patterson. "I try not to think about it, but I have been getting nervous this week just thinking about it. I haven't played in anything like this. I try not to let it cross my mind.
"There isn't a lot of pressure. It is just like another game, but it is a big week. I haven't played since the Florida game. Coming out there in a game like this I'm going to get the jitters out of me in the first quarter."
The duo will go up against of the toughest secondaries in the NCAA who, in 2011, combined for 27 interceptions, including 13 alone by potential first round draft pick David Amerson.
Both athletes know they have a tough test ahead of them, but are fully prepared.
"I am going to go out there like it's a real big game and focus hard," said Hunter. "We are up against a really talented secondary. All seniors, first rounders. Last year they had a lot of good balls, but some of them just gave them to them. We just can't make any mistakes out there."
"I have the playbook down," said Patterson. "I have everything down, it is just the fast pace and the tempo of getting everything set. I have just tried to take a lot of time to study and learn their coverage and I think they are a pretty good defense, but I feel like if we go out there and execute what we have been practicing we will have a good shot at it."
The pair also agrees that Friday can't come soon enough.
"I am ready to be out there as soon as possible," said Patterson. "When gameday gets here we will see what happens. I don't think I ever get too amped up. I just be ready to play."
"I am just saying," added Hunter, "I am going to be happy when they call my name and I go back out on the field because sitting on the sideline was really hard. Nervous? Not really. It is going to be cool. After the first play I know I'll be straight."
REALLY BIG MAN IN THE MIDDLE
Starting nose guard Daniel McCullers - a now-slimmer 360-pound presence in the middle of the Vols new 3-4 defensive scheme - was born and raised in Raleigh, N.C., the home of North Carolina State University. McCullers may call Raleigh home, but North Carolina has always been the Tar Heel State for the big man in the middle.
"I really liked the Tar Heels when I was younger. I never liked N.C. State," said McCullers. "I'm excited about facing them since it's my hometown and I probably know a couple of guys on the team. I'm ready for it."
It's not always glorious to plug holes, take on the double team and free up his teammates, but being a nose guard has its upsides and is a role McCullers is used to and fully embraces.
"It's big to take on the double team or triple team in order to free up your linebackers," McCullers said. "I also get to hit people and sack the quarterback. It's fun and it's what I like to do. I came here for that and we're going to do our thing this year. We're ready."
Dooley knows that McCullers can be a major asset for the Vols' defense.
"[Someone with his size] is really essential when you are running the 3-4 and they are trying to hammer the ball," Dooley said. "I think he has shown improvement every day and I mean that. That's not just coach speak, he really has. Every day we say you have to do better at this or do better at that, and he is conscientious and works at it. He shows that he's trying. He's got a great attitude, demeanor and is really a humble guy. If he just continues this pace, he is going to be a good, solid player for us."
SENTIMORE CONFIDENT IN D-LINE
Redshirt junior Darrington Sentimore is feeling very confident about UT's starting 3-4 defensive line of himself and Maurice Couch on the ends and big Daniel McCullers at nose tackle.
Sentimore feels that Couch's switch from tackle to end makes the unit more dynamic.
"I think we stop the run great," Sentimore said. "Mo moving to end, I think it helps. We can play double team blocks on each end and now we don't have to switch. Mo can play on that side and I can play on the other. We can play left and right. I think it's been great."
The size of Tennessee's front three is impressive as the 288-pound Sentimore and the 299-pound Couch are featherweights compared to the mammoth, 360-pound McCullers lining up on the center.
"(McCullers) is taking on two blockers," Sentimore said. "He's been freeing up me and Mo."
For the season opener against NC State, the Norco, La., native is excited to unleash what the D-line has been working on all summer.
"I think we're good," he said. "I think we get a lot of pressure on our offense and our offense is pretty good. Coach JP (defensive line coach John Palermo) has been teaching us how to convert the pass rush. He even gave us some pass rush moves we can use against them. I think we're ready for them."
DALLAS' NEW, OLD POSITION
Following spring practice earlier this year, sophomore Vincent Dallas moved from wide receiver to defensive back. But after Da;Rick Rogers' suspension last week, Dallas has found himself on the offensive side of the ball yet again.
"I'm very excited," Dallas said. "I just want to do whatever to help my team. It was a decision I made, a big decision. I'm just coming to make plays."
Dallas sat down with Coach Dooley this past Friday to talk about his position change, and spent the weekend digesting the offensive playbook.
Even though the Ellenwood, Ga., native said the transition back was smooth, his time on defense has benefitted him.
"It's like I never missed anything," Dallas said. "I'm ready to execute and come out and compete. But it helped me a lot. Reading coverages and just learning the game."
"I just want to play, get out on the field and compete and do what I can to help my team."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On recent injuries)
“We had some freshman injuries over the weekend. LaTroy Lewis had a non-contact ACL so he is out for the season. George Bullock had a collision in practice and broke his leg, which is unfortunate. We are kind of depleted on our freshmen. LaTroy, George, Pig [Howard], [Jason] Croom, Kenny Bynum, Justin Meredith are all out, and of course, Downs and Christian Harris are second year guys [that are out]. It’s really hurting us on depth, but hopefully our upperclassmen will stay pretty healthy.”
(On Da’Rick Rogers)
“He is not a part of our team, as expected.”
(On what he expects of the junior college transfers)
“I don’t put the expectations on all these guys like you guys do. We are just going to watch and see how he handles it. If he handles it great, we’ll let him roll. If he doesn’t handle it very well, we’ll put another guy in. I’ve been in it enough to know the minute you start expecting something you’ve never see, you are just setting yourself up for disappointment.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“If we didn’t have that comfort level, we wouldn’t have him as a one. We didn’t put him as a one because he was a high-profile recruit, we put him as a one because he earned it. Now he has to go perform, and he knows that. We’ll see how much the newness and the environment – it’s the SEC against the ACC, and it’s a big game on TV – and all that stuff, how it changes. Nobody just goes in the first game and is the guy, so there is going to be an element of patience we are going to have to exercise.”
(On Vincent Dallas moving back to WR)
“Pig and Croom have been out, so all of a sudden we got thin at wideout. That’s what he was and he wasn’t in our two-deep at corner, so he’s got a chance to play for us. He’s done well and he’s excited.”
(On whether playing defense will help Dallas as a WR)
“It helped him as a special teams player, over there hitting and tackling and playing a little more physical. So it helps him from that standpoint and it probably helps him understand coverages a little better as a wideout.”
(On Zach Rogers)
“He’s very valuable. I guess I say we have no experience, but he does. He has to be able to fill in the blanks and you have to have guys like that.”
(On Derrick Brodus)
“Brodus has come back and I don’t have any qualms about putting him in a game, I really don’t. I think he is kicking really well. When I say I don’t have a problem putting him in a game, I mean it. He’s not the fraternity guy on a couch anymore, he’s a bona fide kicker.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On how the Vols have a different team for 2012):
“We have a team, or offense, that’s been together for three years now. Defensively, they’re putting in new wrinkles with Coach Sunseri’s new defense, but we’re going be good.”
(On personal expectations and goals):
“Just make it through the season. I haven’t done that since I’ve been here, so if I just make it through the season I think I’ll be good.”
JUNIOR WR CORDARELLE PATTERSON
(On stepping up after the dismissal of Da’Rick Rogers)
“It is very serious, you can’t let opportunities like that go to waste. You have to go in, do what you have to do and stay focused. There isn’t any pressure, but I think it is a good opportunity for me, even though he is gone. We miss him out here, but we have to move on.”
(On being on the same pages as Tyler Bray)
“I think we are. In the summer we did some extra practicing just me and him throwing the ball to each other so we could get on the same page.”
RS JUNIOR DL DANIEL HOOD
(On coming back)
“It’s been a long time. I’m just starting to get excited. It’s a lot more in depth than it was in the past. I feel like we’re ready for this game. I think I’m starting to get everything down.”
(On improvements in communication)
“We’ve still got a ways to go on it, but it’s definitely gotten better.”
(On switching numbers)
“Coach Dooley asked me to. He asked if I was biased toward that number, and I said no. I said I didn’t care. He could make me whatever number. It’s not weird that a kicker had the number before me, because Malik [Jackson] had it before him. It was kind of cool to get Malik’s number. I texted him and told him I was trying to follow in his footsteps.”
(On new members of the defensive line)
“It’s going to help me because during games we’ll be able to rotate more and stay fresh the whole game. Then, they’ll get used to pounding all game, and I can come in and move a little faster. It’ll be a good change.”
(On coming back after the end of last year and wanting to restart)
“We talk about it a lot. None of us wanted to be remembered as the team that lost to Kentucky, but that’s our identity right now, so we need to go out and change it. The way to change it is to start with N.C. State.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On NC State CB David Amerson)
“He is really talented, 6-3 194, a good guy, first round draft pick so I have heard, he plays the deep ball really well and likes to go for it too. Going against a guy like that it’s talent on talent. That will give me a good day, a good workout.”
(On being more physical)
“I am doing a lot of the things better now than last year. I am playing the deep ball a lot better and trying to be more physical. I think going over it with the coaches they said that I have to be more physical, so I have been trying to do that in practice. I see it has been paying off. I have watched [tape of] Randy Moss a lot. Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and how they get off and jam the defense.”
(On his connection with Tyler Bray)
“I think we are doing pretty good. We came out here today and had a good practice, he threw me a couple deep balls that were really good and he read some of my routes.”
(On the role Mychal Rivera will play)
“He is a big target, he was a big target last year and he will be this year because we need some more veterans out there on the field.”
RS JUNIOR DL DARRINGTON SENTIMORE
(If game week feels any different)
“Not really. You’ve just got to prepare the same as you would prepare to come out to practice. You’ve got to work hard every day.”
(On what they’ve learned from studying NC State’s offense)
“They’re a great team but we’re a great team also. We’re just going to come out and compete.”
(On the thrill or nerves with going into the first game)
“You can’t really get too worked up because when you get too worked up you make a lot of mistakes. You’ve just got to prepare and do every technique that you worked on every day at practice. You’ve just got to go out there and play hard.”
(On adapting to playing football at the Division I level)
“I’m adapting well. I’m ready and my teammates are ready also. I think we worked very hard this offseason to get prepared to play against NC State and the rest of the teams in the SEC.”
JUNIOR OL JA'WUAN JAMES
(On the NC State defense)
"They are just trying to confuse you and get you looking at the wrong guy."
(On going back to his home state to play in the Georgia Dome)
"It does feel weird, but knowing this time it's full will be different. Back then, there was only about 15,000 people. But now knowing it will be full, that will be really cool."
(On his expectations for the offensive line)
" All our coaches have said it, the team will only go as far as the offensive line can take them. We are ready. We are leading everyone in the right direction and just doing everything we need to do right so everyone will follow us."
(On the pressure of playing in a big game)
"We enjoy the pressure. You know, you want that in your control as opposed to being up to someone else. I feel like as a team and as an offense collectively we are going to do well."
JUNIOR DL DANIEL MCCULLERS
(On the progress he’s made learning the 3-4)
“A lot of progress. Just learning the scheme, where to go on each and every play and learning what depths to get to and what foot to step with to get there. I’m getting through it.”
(On his weight)
“I’ve been working hard. I dropped down to 360 pounds right now. I weighed in this morning. That’s good and I’m going to keep going. I got to camp around 382 pounds.”
(On North Carolina State’s offense)
“They’re pretty good. They seem good on tape. They’re fast and execute real well. As a defense, we have to come together, maintain and just get through it.”
(On thinking a starting spot was open coming into camp)
“I did. I thought realistically I just had to work hard. Some of the other guys had been here since spring practice so I just had to work hard, learn the system and I should be good.”
(On if anyone on UT’s offensive line can block him)
“They can block me. We’ve got a good offensive line. They work hard every day. We go at it each and every day and all of us are getting better. They can be really good. From start to finish, left tackle to right tackle. They’re going to be good in the running game.”
(On the importance of this game for UT)
“It’s very important to start off the season with a big win against a quality opponent. We’re all ready to get down there Friday. We’re going to continue to work through the week and we’ll be ready.”
SOPHOMORE WR VINCENT DALLAS
(On everybody’s roles on the team)
“Everybody has a role on the team. We just all have to come out and execute and play to our abilities.”
(On how last year ended)
“Everybody has matured. Everybody came together and we came to a decision that would never happen again.”