KNOXVILLE - As the 2012 football season enters the home stretch, Tennessee’s senior leaders have been stepping up both on the field and off, knowing it is now or never with their collegiate careers quickly coming to a close.
“It has definitely entered my mind,” wide receiver Zach Rogers said. “I have four games left here, probably five with the bowl game. It is dwindling down here and I realize that, so I am just trying to give it all that I’ve got. It is my last time around here. You can’t leave anything behind and I’m just giving it all out on the field every Saturday.”
Throughout his years in coaching, UT head coach Derek Dooley has seen similar improvement from seniors over and over.
“It is hard to really minimize what those last years do to a player when you are on your last leg and you have been around,” Dooley said. “You just start getting it. It's just development.”
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Both Rogers and fellow senior Herman Lathers showcased that development at South Carolina last week, posting two of the best efforts of their respective careers. Rogers tied the school record with three receiving touchdowns while Lathers recorded a career-high 15 tackles, an interception, a sack and two TFLs.
Neither of the performances surprised Dooley who attributes their success to years of repetition and the confidence that comes with that more than anything else.
“Zach has always had the tools, it just takes time to [develop] that confidence,” Dooley said. “Now, all of a sudden, `I've been here, I've done that, I remember that, I remember that,' it is muscle memory. I've run this route now a million times. It is the deliberate practice that you get over time and you get better and better and better and better."
Lathers simply sees success as his responsibility as he tries to set a good example for younger players.
“[The senior leaders] are just trying to be consistent [throughout] the year,” Lathers said. “We know we have a bowl game to play for and that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to motivate our team. Our main job is to encourage these guys and get them to eliminate the big plays and then we’ll be right where we want to be.”
Right where they want to be is in a bowl game. To do that, the Vols will have to win at least three of their final four games of the season.
After not playing in a bowl last season, Rogers is adamant that this year’s senior class will not go out without one.
“Last year was the last of that business,” Rogers said. “That was a bad taste in our mouth and still is so that is not going to happen again here. I think this group of seniors that we have right now is not letting that stuff fly this year. Last year we had some ups-and-downs and some people who maybe didn’t think we were going to do so well at the end of the season, but this year is a totally different mix-up.
“I know we haven’t had the success that we want, but we are going to finish strong. We have four games left and a chance to go to a good bowl, so that is what is on our mind right now.”
RAJION READY TO COME BACK
After suffering a sprained ankle during the Mississippi State game, junior tailback Rajion Neal is nearing a return to the field to help his team this Saturday.
"I'm feeling really good and doing a little bit more week-after-week and day-after-day," Neal said.
Neal and the athletic training staff have been doing everything they can to get him healthy as quickly as possible.
The Vols' running game hasn't completely suffered with the loss of the starting tailback. Marlin Lane has started twice, averaging 55.5 yards against No. 17 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.
"Marlin [Lane and the other tailbacks], they're doing good," Neal said. "They're running hard and trusting the O-line. They're just coming into the game and soaking it all in and just taking advantage of their opportunities."
Derek Dooley feels that Neal’s return to the lineup would add an extra edge to the run game.
"We were running the ball pretty well," said Dooley. "I don't know how much of a difference it would have made for the last two games (having Rajion). Certainly, we were running it really well (prior to his injury) and didn't run as well without him."
Neal says that running backs coach Jay Graham has helped him throughout the injury and on the road to recovery.
"He's been a big part of my injury, especially mentally," Neal said. "He just has been telling me what to expect and how things are going to turn out.
With the comeback, Neal says it has been frustrating not being able to play, but he prepares the same whether he's on the sidelines or on the field with the ball.
"I just go into every game like I'm going to play," Neal said. "I go to meetings regularly, go to [practice], move around and just prepare myself as if I'm still playing. You just never know. I get a little emotional right before the game when they tell you that you're going to sit this one out, but it's just tough. I try to stay positive and give all the support I can to my team."
ZACH'S BACK, SOON
Another Vol that missed Saturday's game against South Carolina with an ankle injury was offensive lineman Zach Fulton.
Fulton came off the field at the end of the Alabama game and despite trying, just couldn't go against South Carolina.
"I wasn't close at all this past Saturday,” Fulton said. “I tried to go in warm ups and it hurt. I had a high ankle sprain, and I sprained my MCL and had a bone bruise on my knee. It was tough, it hurt. I wish I was out there the whole time but Bull [Alex Bullard] and Marcus Jackson did well out there."
Fulton was replaced in the starting line up by Alex Bullard who started all 12 games last season for the Vols. But number 72 should be back out manning right guard at Neyland this Saturday against Troy as the Vols look to earn their fourth win of the season.
"We just take it week-by-week and every day you try and learn something and try and get closer to that win," Fulton said. "I think we are close, we are very close every time."
PLAYING FOR EACH OTHER
Tennessee football's past offseason was a little different than years past.
The team participated in a variety of team-building activities, culminating in the trip to Milligan College to help the Vols bond together as one unit.
Whether it was whitewater rafting, building houses for Habitat for Humanity or just hanging out during free time, this year's team has become a brotherhood.
And that has translated onto the gridiron.
"I think we are close to getting there," wide receiver Justin Hunter said. "A lot of us hang outside of football so we know each other really well and I think that is going to carry on to the field every game because everyone is fighting for each other."
This past weekend the Vols saw three touchdowns come from an unexpected source, senior wide receiver Zach Rogers.
The three TDs were more than his first three years combined and he was just the ninth Vol to achieve the hat trick of sorts in a single game.
It was possible due to Rogers' ability and because of the relationship he has developed with quarterback Tyler Bray over the last three years.
"A lot of it comes from that [friendship] on the field and off the field," said Rogers. "We hang all the time out off the field too. We are just kind of developing a good bond right now and it is working for us. We are clicking pretty well right now."
The team-building exercises bonded units together, for example OLP (Offensive Line Pride), but also saw strong relationships develop between the offense and the defense, another aspect that translates to the field on game day.
"They motivate us, we motivate them," defensive lineman Mo Couch said. "If things aren't going their way, we all support each other as a family, nobody is frustrated or telling each other to step it up. Everybody pretty much keeps their composure and motivates each other. There is no finger pointing."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Tuesday's practice)
"We had a good day today. Frankenstorm is wreaking havoc on us, but we had pretty good energy and the execution was good so (we) need to back it up tomorrow."
(On injury updates on Zach Fulton and Rajion Neal)
"Rajion looks better, he's not 100 percent. The same with Zach. We will probably know a little bit more when we watch them again tomorrow and again on Thursday. I would say (they are) day-to-day. Rajion could definitely play, it’s just him getting over the mental hurdle of understanding that it hurts. He could still play."
(On Troy's success vs. Mississippi State)
"They are up-tempo and they spread you out and they shoot those passes out quick and they just nickel you down the field. (They) prey on a mistake you make, a missed tackle and that sort of stuff. Anytime you play an offense that can generate yards and points, you have to hold on. They play very physical, sound, hard-nosed football on defense. They are not the biggest team, but they play hard and they have some very good players and they can be disruptive especially in the run game."
(On the Vols continuing to be focused on winning)
"I never had any doubts about their 'want-to' with this team. All I am trying to emphasis is that we need to win a game. That's what we need to keep our focus on. You are not going anywhere if you don't win on Saturday."
(On the defense's growing pains)
"There are more factors (to hiring Sal Sunseri) than just the scheme. I think there were going to be growing pains no matter who you brought in because it is new. Even if we went with a 4-3. (There would) probably be a lot less growing pains if you kept it a real simple system. Would we be playing better? Probably so. There were some other factors that went into it, as far as being in this league, understanding the league, having a belief in what we are doing and how we are doing it. Team staff unity and loyalty. You always make decisions based on what happened last and you try to correct what happened last to make sure the same mistakes doesn't happen. When you usually do, you are presented with some new things that you didn't anticipate or hope would be there."
(On how the hiring of the defensive coordinator related to 2012 being a critical year)
"I have never made a decision, since i have been here, [based] on the next game. I have always tried to make the right decision for the program, long-term. That doesn't mean you aren't trying to win in the short-term, but I wanted to get somebody in some system that when we get thing going, we don't want to make another change. Is there risk? Of course there is. Everything in our profession is risky, but you try to weigh the risk, offset, with some of the things you think are not risky at all and you go with it and you don't look back."
(On the change in the defense from 4-3 to 3-4)
"I think it's fair to say, we have had a lot more growing pains, whatever you want to call it, than we anticipated. Just look at the numbers, they don't lie."
(On Troy's quarterback duo)
"They have one guy that throws it real well and one guy that runs it real well. I wouldn't really say it's 'wildcat' because he can throw it too. But the one quarterback does a lot more. You have to defense those quarterback runs a lot harder. Their other guy can really shoot it down the field."
(On the Vols’ safeties)
"You have B-Moore (Byron Moore), LaDarrell (McNeil) and Rod (Wilks) and (Brent) Brewer. (Geraldo) Orta has been out. Those are our guys. What we have to do is master a few things, not be the jack-of-all-trades. We need to go and get a few coverages that we can hang our hat on and say this is what we run and we will go match every pattern. It doesn't mean we will stone you. If we can go play good sound defense and leverage the football, that probably is the most important thing we can do."
(On Moore's struggles)
"He just had a couple of breakdowns. Byron has been playing pretty consistent and steady, he just had a few breakdowns in the first half that hurt us on a pursuit angle, on a coverage. But he has great character. It hurt him, bothered him and he played better in the second half and he will be fine."
(On Brendan Downs)
"Brendan is doing good. His injury was bad, and it's a real testament to his toughness that he was back so early. But the reality is him being able to bend his knees and hit and do what he does best set him back. He's doing good, he's doing fine."
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On the team’s mindset)
“We’ve lost a bunch of games in a row. We are tired of losing and we want a victory. We’ve been practicing like this for the last three weeks now.”
(On finishing strong)
“We just don’t want to finish with a losing record. We want to finish on a positive note going into next season and get that season started up.”
(On Zach Rogers)
“He runs great routes. You know where he is going to be at all times. He runs every route the same every time. He doesn’t switch it up ever, so he is just consistent.”
(On wanting to go to a bowl game)
“We always want to go to a bowl. You get to play an extra game against a team we haven’t seen yet or could see in the future, so it is just another game that we get to go out there and battle.”
JUNIOR OL ZACH FULTON
(On being the best offensive line in the SEC)
“It is rewarding. It shows us that we are doing the right thing and we have to improve on that every week.”
(On what the line has improved on since 2011)
“We are communicating better, it is a fast paced offense. You need to have good communication and get the right fits and our technique has been going pretty well.”
(On Coach Pittman)
“His technique that he has been teaching us has been working a lot. We believe in it and are fully engaged in it.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On getting catches early in the game)
“I think so, I got into the game early and it got me warmed up. I think that helped a lot in moving the ball downfield too. It was exciting that I got the ball four times early.”
(On Zach Rogers)
“We just know that if they leave Zach open or one-on-one that he is going to beat them so like I you saw Saturday, he is really good with his routes and he is a veteran so he knows how to work them.”
SOPHOMORE TE BRENDAN DOWNS
(On returning after his knee injury)
“Probably about five weeks, I came back after three and was still having some issues with it but after a couple weeks I was feeling fine.”
(On returning to 100 percent)
“It has been good. I made some strides in the spring and I was feeling really good about where I was before the injury. I have been starting to see some of those things come back and starting to play the way that I wanted to play, so it has been good. I still have a lot of things I have to fix, but I am starting to feel better about it.”
(On this season compared to last)
“It is definitely helping me make strides as a player. Last year, I could hardly hold me own against those guys but now I feel like I can block a lot better. It has been good.”
(On Mychal Rivera’s assistance)
He and Bart [Ben Bartholomew] both, I learn a lot. Mych treats it like a pro. He comes to work every day and that is what I want to do. They are helping me probably five or six times a day. We are always talking through something and they help me with little things here and there.
SENIOR WR ZACH ROGERS
(On Coach Dooley comparing him to Wes Welker)
“That is a high expectation to live up to because he is a great player, but he is the guy I like to model my game after so that is the highest compliment I can get right now.”
(On dragging his foot on one of his touchdown catches at South Carolina)
“We work on it every day in practice. Coach Hinshaw has us work that sideline drill every day. I just tried to drag it and hope it stayed in long enough before my other foot came down, so it paid off for us.”
(On the catch)
“I thought it was pretty cool. I didn’t know I was that flexible, I kind of did the splits. I have to get more flexible as I progress.”
(On playing behind Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter)
“They are definitely keyed in on those guys and they should be. They deserve all the credit they are getting right now, they are great players. They are getting all of the attention and I am kind of sneaking in behind defenses. Me and Mych [Rivera] are kind of doing the same thing, just kind of being a reliable source on third down. When they think it is going to CP or Justin, we are just trying to be the guy that moves the chains.”
(On the reason for his improvement this season)
“Continuous offseason work. We come out here after workouts every day, throw routes and get comfortable with our quarterbacks. Again, it is watching film, watching guys like Wes Welker, work the slot, work behind defenses, find the soft spot in coverages. I am just trying to learn as much as I can from the guys who have come before me.”
RS JUNIOR DL MO COUCH
(On this year’s team compared to last year’s team)
“I think it is [a better team]. On defense we are learning a new defense and we have a lot of younger guys that are out playing. They are going to make the mistakes and that is normal. We just have a lot of issues on small mistakes creating big plays. In this conference you can’t have that. That is something that we have to minimize and if we can do that we can win a lot of games.”
(On not getting into a hole at the beginning of the game)
“The biggest thing is minimize big plays and mistakes. We can’t get our team in a situation where the offense will have to pull out a victory in the last few seconds. In the SEC, there are a lot of times that is going to happen, but with the points our offense is scoring we shouldn’t be in that position.”
(On the personnel changes)
“I think it helps a lot, everybody is moving around. It is just understanding what is going to benefit the defense on the team. Nobody is mad or anything, it is just the best guys are going to play.”
(On focusing on Troy)
“We don’t want to look too far forward, we just want to take it one week at a time. We just want to focus on Troy this week and the rest will come.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)