KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT/SUBMITTED) -- Spring football is officially underway for Tennessee as the Vols took Haslam Field for the first time in 2012 Monday morning. Although the performance wasn't perfect, the Vols are looking forward to progressing throughout spring practice.
"It was a typical first day," Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. "The effort was really good. I expected it to be that way. We have, of course, a long way to go from a discipline standpoint knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing why it's important to do it that way and going out there and doing it the right way. It was sloppy from that standpoint, but the key is how we learn from it and how we don't go out the next day and make the same mistakes. That's what I told the players."
With seven new coaches and multiple position swaps, change was evident on the field as much as it was with its surroundings. The development of Tennessee's new overshadowing football training center looks vastly different from what it did when the Vols last took Haslam Field in November.
"They seem great," converted linebacker Channing Fugate said of Tennessee's new leadership. "They know what they are talking about and they come from good programs that win. I'm just going to listen to them and let them teach me all they know."
Although Tennessee has worked hard off the field leading up to spring practice, the greatest lessons will come on it.
"No matter how hard you train in practice, without real practice you can't prepare for football without playing football," Dooley said. "That's just how it is. The key is not how you look the first day. It's how you take the first day, watch the film, apply it to the second day and you grow from there. That's what's more important than anything."
ANOTHER REASON TO SMILE
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter is always smiling about something. While everyone wearing orange and white was jubilant to be back on the field Monday, the occasion meant a little bit more to the Virginia Beach, Va., native.
"I was really excited to go back out there because I haven't been on a football field since the Florida game," Hunter said. "I ran out there and said `Let's go.' I was real happy."
Hunter, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL against the Gators last September, wore a red non-contact jersey during practice, but was able to go the distance.
"He went through the whole practice," Dooley said. "It's not where he can go full speed, and then we back him down. He's kind of at the same pace throughout practice. It's hard for him when he's getting pressed and those guys are full speed. He went through the whole practice. He ran a lot of routes. We just now have to see how his knee responds today. We'll figure it out day-to-day."
While Hunter knows the possibility of pain awaits him Tuesday morning, he's just using it as another way to smile.
"I'm pretty excited because the first day it wasn't that bad," Hunter said. "Tomorrow is going to be a different day because I was running on it a lot today. I'm excited about it."
As the wideout moves forward this spring, Hunter is doing his best to block out what's behind him.
"I think the biggest thing is I can't think about it," Hunter said of the way he landed at Florida. "If I think about it, I'm going to reinjure it somehow. I just try to go out there, not think about it and make the best of it."
A MORE MATURE BRAY
Entering his third spring football season, rising junior quarterback Tyler Bray is now a true veteran with the Vols as he begins the second half of his Tennessee career this March.
"I try to be a leader as much as possible," Bray said. "I kind of struggle with it, but I have been working on it. ... This year I am trying to get my act together and get this team where we need to be." Fellow rising junior Justin Hunter can see the maturation in his signal caller.
"He's older than last year. He's getting better," said Hunter. "He's throwing on time. We all know each other so well now, we know where to be at. We're growing up together."
Bray enters the 2012 season with 12 career starts and has racked up 3,832 yards with 35 touchdowns to rank among the Top 10 on Tennessee's career lists, in a short amount of time.
"I was talking about it yesterday how this is my third spring practice with Coach Dooley and some of the coaching staff," said Bray. "It is a little crazy."
Bray is at 100 percent after returning from a broken thumb late in the 2011 season. He spent the offseason working hard with both receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Hunter.
"I did a lot of rehab with (Director of Sports Medicine) Jason McVeigh and the guys in the training room," Bray said. "Just coming out here extra, me and Justin working. I would throw to him and work on his hands and I would work on my thumb. Having (Justin) and Da'Rick out there was great."
Dooley gave a brief view of his perspective on Bray after day one. "Tyler is doing fine," Dooley said. "He was real rusty on his throws, but from a quarterbacking standpoint he's doing well."
Bray echoed Dooley's assessment of his first day of action.
"A little rusty. I mean it is going to be," Bray said. "Everyone coming off of spring break. As far as tempo goes, we are still a little slow, but we are moving forward and we are just going to try and regroup and come back tomorrow and have a better practice."
MOVING PARTS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 3-4
As first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri installs 3-4 principles into the Vols' scheme this spring, the importance of having quality depth within the linebacker corps has been an obvious point of emphasis.
While 2011 Freshman All-American A.J. Johnson is clearly entrenched as the starter at the WILL position, UT has moved a few other players around to put them in positions best suited for their abilities.
One of the prime examples of that is former strong safety Brent Brewer who is now listed at the top spot on the team's organizational chart for the SAM position. Although he is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season against South Carolina, the 6-1 junior is excited about the change.
"I'm ready to take on the challenge," Brewer said. "It's a lot different than safety because I am going against the offensive line and tight ends a lot. I think it is more (mentally taxing). You have to really let the D-line know what they are running, let the linebackers know what they are running and make sure everybody knows what they are doing out there. It's a lot more leadership and a lot more direction."
As far as the knee, it will be a work in progress this spring but he is feeling stronger with each passing day.
"I'm just trying to get my feet back under me, get everything situated and work my way back out there slowly into team stuff, 7-on-7 and things like that."
The Vols also dipped into the offensive unit, switching Channing Fugate from fullback to WILL linebacker. The move is similar to the one made with Austin Johnson in 2010, which paid off in spades as Johnson topped the Vols with 81 tackles last season.
"Channing is a good football player and we need some more linebackers," Dooley said. "We're thin at that position. He has the body type and the athleticism. We thought we'd give it a try and he was really excited about it. He did some good things late in the year on special teams covering kicks. He showed some defensive abilities there. I hope it will work out."
The fresh start at a new position has Fugate excited as well.
"I always said if I didn't play running back I would want to play linebacker. I think it's a fun position and we should have fun with it."
While not new to the linebacker corps, the Vols are looking forward to getting senior Herman Lathers back onto the field this spring at the MIKE position. The team's second-leading tackler with 75 in 2010, Lathers was eager to get back out onto the practice field after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle.
"It felt good," Lathers said. "Last year sitting out the whole year was tough but I put it in my mind that I was coming into spring to work and try to get my ankle back to full as normal as I can get it. I went out today and it felt pretty good."
Joining him inside this season will be Curt Maggitt who spent his freshman campaign working out on the edge where he collected 56 tackles, good for fourth on the squad.
"It is going to be a lot different," Maggitt said. "Playing `Sam,' I wasn't really the leader of the defense and being `Mike' has to take control and know everybody's assignment."
Fortunately, he has had a good mentor in Lathers.
"I learned a good gist of it working with Herm (Lathers) and coming and watching film every day," Maggitt said. "It helped out a lot. He's a big leader. Even last year not playing, he was still a leader and somebody everyone looked up to. This offseason every time I seen him he was always happy and working hard and just a fun person to be around and learn from."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the return of Herman Lathers)
“It’s great to see him. Of course, he has a lot of leadership. He has experience. He’s a veteran. I just hope he’s able to maintain that.”
(On Justin Hunter and Brent Brewer coming back from ACL injuries)
“(Justin Hunter) probably did a little more than what we had anticipated back in February. They’re moving along. Him and Brent are moving at a pretty good pace. We have to be smart about how we manage them.”
(On improving the running game)
“That’s our number one priority on offense is not just finding different ways to run the ball, but really our execution of all 11 players. It starts today, but it’s really hard until you put the pads on. That’s the key.”
(On Rajion Neal’s move back to running back)
“We didn’t get as much production as we would’ve like to at wideout. We needed somebody that could give us production at running back.”
(On using running backs by committee)
“I’d rather not. I’d rather have a Heisman trophy winner at running back. We’ve won a lot of games by committee. When we won the national championship in 2003, we had three good running backs. We rolled them and it was good. I’ve been at places where you had one workhorse and he can do it. The most important thing is, how can you get production? If it means you have to do it by committee, then you do it. If you have a guy who can carry the load, then you give it to him.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On the hardest part of being hurt)
“I hate sitting on the sidelines. It’s so boring. You want to help your team, but you can’t help your team. Being on the field, you can do that.”
(On how he felt Monday)
“It felt good. I didn’t feel a lot of pain when I was out there. Overall, I had a good day today. I felt like I did real good on my routes and everything else.”
(On what he needs to improve on)
“To run my routes like I did when I was healthy. I need to start running tight, not loose and out of control. I just need to get stronger.”
(On his rehab)
“It’s gotten easier. When I first hurt it, it was really painful and everything like that. We’re going through it real nice and smooth now.”
JUNIOR OL JA'WUAN JAMES
(On the new coaches)
"It was a lot different. The new guys, we haven’t seen them really coached yet in a practice situation. It was cool today; we got to know the coaches a little better. It’s comfortable."
(On trying to get past last season's disappointing end)
"The juniors and seniors after last year, we looked at it and we really need to take ownership of this team. We haven’t done that the past few years I’ve been here. We really need to take ownership for our work and everything we put into it. We just can't let that happen again. We have to try and come together and be a team."
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On his opportunity to play tailback full-time)
"It’s showing these coaches that we can pick up the offense. Showing them that I’ve still got it and nobody has set in stone who’s going to start so it’s wide open. It’s going to be a lot of competition."
(On if he pushed to return to tailback)
"There were definitely some conversations, some meetings, some phone calls. After the good recruiting they did getting good receivers in, getting Justin back, getting Da’Rick (Rogers) back, they felt we had enough at receiver and we knew we were lacking and struggling in the running game so they moved me back. A guy that has experience to compete with Marlin (Lane) and help the backfield out."
(On how much he wanted to return to tailback)
"I wanted to come back a lot. This is where I feel natural. This is what feels comfortable; this is where I feel at home. This is something I don’t have to think about. I just go out there and play."
(On comparing this past offseason to the 2010-11 offseason)
"I would say we’re 10 times better and 10 times more ahead than we were last time. Guys are more conditioned, guys are stronger and faster. I think we’re moving at a good pace."
SENIOR MLB HERMAN LATHERS
(On the toughest part about last year)
“Sitting out the whole year, feeling like I should be out there helping the seniors, sending them out the right way. Watching the season go the way it did was really the toughest part.”
(On if he thought he would miss the entire 2011 season)
“I planned on being back midseason. When I got back on the field to try and do some stuff it just didn’t work out as planned. I ended up missing the whole season, but I just tried to get in and get the young guys as much help as I could.”
(On possible playing a new position)
“I’ve been through a lot of defenses so it came easy and natural to me. I’m able to help a lot of the other guys and translate the stuff to something similar to the stuff from last year.”
JUNIOR SLB BRENT BREWER
(On moving to linebacker from safety)
“It’s a lot better. I get to use more of my strength, my hands and lower body than I used to and I’m not covering quick receivers as much.”
“I like the 3-4 because we can put more athletes out there on the field, quicker, faster guys and help our d-line out a little bit more.
(On the first day)
“We had a lot of busts and a lot of things we have to fix when we watch film tomorrow. Everybody is getting adjusted and learning the plays. It’s going to be fun.”
JUNIOR WLB CHANNING FUGATE
(On the similarities between him and Austin Johnson)
“He (Johnson) came back for the pro day and I saw him in the locker room and was like, you’re doing the same thing I was doing, the same timeframe and everything. It was pretty cool.”
(On the 3-4 defense)
“I think it’s good. You can do a lot of different things in it and I think coach Sal (Sunseri) will have us right to make plays.”
(On the new coaches)
“They seem great. They know what they are talking about, they come from good programs that win and I’m just going to listen to them and let them teach me all they know.”
(On if the Kentucky loss provided motivation)
“I think it definitely motivated me and everybody else too. That was a bad taste in our mouth after it and we don’t want that to happen again. We are just going to work hard every day and strive not to let that happen.”