KNOXVILLE - The Vols have learned a lot this season, sometimes the hard way, but they are ready to translate those lessons into action.
Their next opportunity to showcase their improvement will come on Saturday when they square off with No. 19 Mississippi State in Starkville (9 p.m. ESPN2) and they aren’t taking it lightly.
“We’ve had a good couple of days,” Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. “This is a big time for our team and I told them that. It’s time to go out there and start acting on all the lessons we’ve learned in these earlier games.
“We just have to go out there and be ready on the road, go out there and finish four quarters and be able to execute the plays you need to execute to win a football game. That is where we are.”
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Tennessee at Mississippi State Gameday Central: http://bit.ly/UT-MSUGameDay
The Vols know that the Bulldogs, winners of seven consecutive games, are not going to make it easy on them. Patience will be the key to success, according to Dooley.
“Their philosophy is sound, fundamental football and they grind teams out, that’s what they do,” Dooley said. “The important thing is that you can’t get frustrated and you have to play every play. If you play that way, opportunities will come. When the opportunities come, take advantage of them.”
In order to create those opportunities, Tennessee knows that it has to eliminate the defensive breakdowns that have plagued it so far this season.
While they could delve into the details of the defensive scheme, switch personnel or any employ any number of other fixes in an attempt to solve the issue, the Vols know improvement really boils down to the basics – physicality and attitude.
“We have to be clean, we have to be sound, but we want to be multiple,” Dooley said. “More than anything it is whipping blockers and running to the football. That will never change in defensive football because you can sit there and say that I have this gap and you have that gap, but at the end of the day it is 11 hats whipping the guy in front of them and running to the football. That will never change and that is what we can’t compromise. That is what we worked on in the open date.
“What happens is it is something that you temper when you get really drawn in to where you are supposed to be and then you have to remind them that it can’t compromise what matters. We do the same thing on special teams, whether it is kickoff coverage or punt coverage. There are certain fits and places that you need to be relative to the ball and the blockers, but when you are sitting there thinking about where I need to be sometimes you forget about the most important thing which is showing up in a real bad mood at the ball carrier.”
BRAY EYES TEXANS' SCHEME
Vol quarterback Tyler Bray watches a lot of football. He pours over game film preparing for opponents. He also watches the Vols to see how they can continue to make adjustments.
Bray also watches the NFL and takes notes of what teams are doing. On Monday night he was tuned into the Houston Texans-New York Jets matchup and paying attention to the way one of only two undefeated teams in the league use their offense.
The Vols signal caller took special note of how a former Vol plays a key role in the Texans' potent play-action offense.
"You can run the ball, pound and pound and pound and then the play action is wide open," said Bray. "The Houston Texans game from last night is a great example. They ran the ball with Arian Foster and then they play actioned and then Owen Daniels was wide open in the end zone."
Bray hopes to utilize certain attributes of the Texans offense and knows that the Vols' backfield will play a key role in the success.
"Each week you try to learn," said Bray. "I tried to force the ball down the field a little too much and made some mistakes. So I'm working on checking the ball down, getting it to Rajion (Neal), Marlin (Lane), Devrin (Young), and letting them make plays."
Bray is also trying to be more patient with his game can help the Vols' effectiveness on offense.
"As a quarterback, you feel like you can make every throw every time, regardless if your receiver is triple covered or not, so it takes time to learn to check it down,” Bray said.
HUNTER'S HEADS UP, READY FOR MSU D
Experience is definitely on junior wide receiver Justin Hunter's side this season as he continues improving each week.
Hunter has been watching lots of film to prepare for Mississippi State's defense - especially their cornerbacks.
"From what I've seen, I know number 13 (Johnthan Banks) is real physical, he's very long and lanky, just like the NC State corner (David Amerson)," Hunter said. "It will be a good test for me to see if I can get around him. The [corners] wait for you to make a mistake. They wait on the quarterback to get a rush and that's just the schemes they do.
"[Their defense] is a lot of zones," Hunter continued. "They have the defense blitzing a lot. I have to keep my head up high, and I have to think that I can beat him going into the game, otherwise I can't [beat him]."
Hunter is prepared to be one of the central focuses in Saturday night's game in Starkville, Miss. He already knows that being double-teamed by the Bulldog defense is a definite possibility.
"You have to learn techniques to get away from [the double-coverage]." Hunter said. "You're not supposed to let anyone cover you. I don't get too mad when I'm double-teamed, though. [Being double-teamed] is kind of just the norm, now. "
With the help of his teammates, the trio of Zach Rogers, Cordarrelle Patterson and Hunter has been making names for themselves on the field each Saturday. The Volunteer offense is currently standing second overall in total yardage, as well as fourth overall in scoring. The Vols are averaging 506.6 yards per game and 39.4 points per game.
"Zach (Rogers) has been doing a good job for us," Hunter said. "He's out there helping everybody. He goes out there to make the deep passes - it's been him with the deep passes all year."
With the solid spread of wide receivers, it helps each of them have plays off in order to rest and be one hundred percent on every snap.
Hunter knows that the win won't come easy, but he knows what he should expect from Mississippi State.
"I think they just try to mix it up," Hunter said. "They don't want to jam every time and then I just have to figure out how to get around it. They just try to keep me confused.
"They like to be real physical and get up in your face," Hunter said of the Bulldog defense. "It's a lot like Florida; they were one of the most physical defenses that we've seen this year, so at least we have something to compare it to. It's about the kill, shot, tackle, jam, just disrupting your route, everything."
Since the last time the Tennessee football team played in Starkville was in 2007, there are no Vols on the current roster that have experienced the cowbells ringing at Davis Wade Stadium.
But one Vol knows his way around a cowbell. And he can thank his mom for that.
"I have never been [to Starkville]," said offensive lineman Dallas Thomas. "But my mom has a cowbell so I am used to that."
When asked why his mom might own a cowbell, Thomas explained, "She had that cowbell since I started playing football. She told me this is how you know you can find me in the crowd when I played in big games. She would ring it; I would look for it and see her."
His mother actually got the idea from his cousin.
"It started back in high school," said Thomas. "Where my cousin played high school ball they had cow bells at their games so she went and got herself one and kept it."
Now that Thomas knows where his mom is sitting every game in Knoxville, the cowbell isn't as necessary, but Mrs. Thomas brings it to each and every game, and when Neyland quiets down, which doesn't happen often, Thomas can hear the ringing.
Said Thomas, "She's the only Tennessee fan with a cowbell."
BRAY IS ROGERS, ROGERS IS BRAY
The Vols had some fun after practice as quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receiver Zach Rogers decided they would switch jerseys while talking to the media.
Bray who stands at 6-6 and weighs 215 pounds had to squeeze into Rogers’ slightly smaller jersey (6-0, 172) for the interview.
Rogers was more than willing to trade.
“We traded roles today,” said Rogers. “He’s me and I’m him. I tried to get Tyler’s hairstyle. I don’t’ know how it’s working out so well.”
Bray thought the jersey switch would bring lightness to the media interviews.
“We're just messing around today for interviews,” said Bray. “I'm trying to keep things light. Everyone is starting to bare down, so at the end of practice we're trying to still have some fun.”
Rogers later commented on Bray’s need for a haircut.
“He got to put on the skull cap,” said Rogers. “He’s got some hair poking out the sides. I’ve seen better but we’re working on it.”
NO RED JERSEY FOR DOOLEY
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley started his post-practice media session with a short injury update on Tuesday. This time, however, it was a little more personal.
“I have a little hip issue and I’ll keep you updated on it," Dooley said. ““ I know I am here, I am working and nothing has changed. That’s all that matters.”
The injury has slowed him down a little on the field, but not quite enough to get him to don one of the team’s non-contact jerseys.
“I wasn’t in red, but I wasn’t moving like I normally move,” Dooley joked.
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On the difficulty of creating pressure against Mississippi State)
“It is always a combination of things. It starts with what are they calling and when are they calling it. They will move the pocket, they have a lot of play action and a good running game that sets it up, and their line does a good job. At the end of the day, their quarterback has a lot to do with it too because there are some quarterbacks who hold the ball and some quarterbacks who, when they get a little heat, they get rid of it.”
(On Tyler Bray)
“Tyler’s biggest thing is managing the game all the way through. He has shown a lot of progress in that and I think it is understanding when to make those aggressive throws, when you can take a risk and understanding when it is absolutely imperative that you don’t risk anything. That is a work in progress, whether it is red area, late in the game, first down, whatever it is, there are times when you can take some risks and there are times when you just absolutely can’t do it because it will kill you or kill the football team.”
(On Tyler Bray’s playmaking mentality)
“I think Tyler is the kind of guy that feels like he needs to make a play. If Tyler would have had three first-rounders around him his first year, he probably would have felt the same way. It is just learning how to let the plays come to you, that is all it is. Some guys are the other way around, they are scared to make a play. There are a lot of quarterbacks out there that are scared and throw it away every time they feel a little heat, and they are driving you nuts too. I’d rather tone down this kind of guy than the other. He just has to learn that we have a lot of weapons on offense. The biggest thing is that when you are having success, there is no reason to change. When you have 480 yards and 45 points with seven minutes to go, we don’t have to do anything different. Just keep doing what we are doing.”
(On tempering Tyler Bray’s aggressiveness)
“It’s over and over and over because you are changing something that is sort of the core of who you are. The other thing that is difficult is that he can do it nine times and do a great job, but it is that one play. There is no room for error because everybody is looking. He can show dramatic improvement and people don’t realize it, but is that one play.”
(On the tailbacks)
“Marlin [Lane] and Devrin [Young] are doing good. They’ve probably had two really good weeks of practice, [the best] they’ve had in a while. Devrin did a good job in the game, but he didn’t get a lot of touches. We feel good about all three of them.”
(On quarterback play around the league)
“I think [experience] is the starting point. That is always the starting point, talent and experience. You look around the league and Georgia’s guy is experienced, our guy is experienced, South Carolina has a guy who has a little experience, Alabama’s guy is experienced, Arkansas’ guy is experienced. It is probably as experienced and talented a group as they have had in this league in a while. Then you have guys like Florida’s guy who is extremely talented and learning. He is going to get better and better.”
(On Mississippi State’s wide receivers)
“They are solid, they are all weapons and they can all make you pay if you don’t play well. He has a lot of places to put the ball, that’s why they have been successful.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On what they think about playing such a late game)
“I'm sure you guys heard from Coach Dooley, we'll play in a Wal Mart parking lot, is probably what he said. We'll play anywhere any time, it doesn't matter, we just want to play some football.”
(On what he thinks about Mississippi State)
“They have a great secondary. They have a lot of veterans out there. They have one of the best corners in the nation, and we faced in our first game so our receivers are used to it. It's going to be a good game. They're whole secondary is great. They also have a veteran linebacker. They're going to be good.”
(On if they try to go after hyped up secondary early to set the tone)
“Everyone here is talking about their DBs and everyone over there is talking about our wide receivers, so it's going to be a great match up.”
(On how much it would mean to win on Saturday and get a victory over a ranked opponent)
“It would mean a lot. It does anytime you can get a big win. We just need a win right now. It doesn't matter who we're playing we just need to get a win, and get everyone's confidence back up about this team and then move forward.”
(On how he's been able to have a good short term memory)
“As Coach Hinshaw would say, it's a blank sheet of paper, just clear it after you make a bad play, forget about it and move on to the next play and help your team move forward.”
RS SENIOR OL DALLAS THOMAS
(On only giving up three sacks this season)
“We really don’t even think about that. We just go out and do whatever play Coach Chaney calls and protect. We rarely think about how many sacks we are giving up.”
(On Mississippi State’s defense)
“They are a real good defense and they are going to come out after us. We have to come back at them. [Their front four] are all good; I have been looking at film on all of them. They are all a good, big, physical group so you have to come ready.”
“They just move around a lot. They will try to confuse us and get us off balance; we just have to be prepared for that. The last team I remember doing that was NC State. They had a lot of movement, but they weren’t that bad.”
(On the offensive line)
“We are a confident group. We are just focusing in on what plays they call, we are getting our steps down, and just taking our time to do what we have to do to get a good play off.”
“I guess because we have been around each other for so long, we know what each other thinks now. We don’t have to make calls sometimes we just know what we are going to do. It just clicks like that.”
(On knowing the defense)
“That is the biggest improvement we have had. Just to know what the defense is going to do before they get lined up. It’s like having the answers to the test. You just know how to step properly, make the proper call and just get everything going the right way.”
SOPHOMORE TB MARLIN LANE
(On what he worked on individually during the off week)
“I wanted to work on finishing up routes and getting open a little bit more and add contact and deliver more blows. I am pretty sure I have been doing good but I want to do better. Just fighting for the extra yards that I can get.”
(On Rajion Neal)
“Rajion is stepping up. He is showing everyone who said the run game is not here. That he could only do it against Akron but can’t against an SEC team. We just came out wanting to show to everybody that we can do it against any team playing on the field across from us.”
(On the offensive line)
“I feel they just step up every week. The Georgia game it showed that they worked real hard to go out there and compete against an All-American, Jarvis Jones, and it showed that they are All-Americans too and that they are not going to let one man break down the whole offenseive line. They strive every day at practice and I think they are one of the hardest working positions on the field. They don’t get any breaks. They are fast-paced all day every day and they have to be in shape to do that and they work hard.”
(On keeping momentum)
“I feel we have been practicing well and keeping the momentum going. You can’t lose the momentum in mid-season. We just want to get this win streak going.”
JUNIOR LB DONTAVIS SAPP
(On what he expects from Mississippi State)
“We expect them to play hard. They're a tough team. They like to play hard and they're disciplined. We're going to need to be disciplined, play hard and hit harder.”
(On how much he thinks his role has expanded this year)
“I think it blew up a lot. Since the NC State game, I've gotten a lot more reps and my role has expanded from just being on special teams to being on defense a lot more.”
(On the environment at Mississippi State)
“I looked it up, and the stadium capacity isn't that big but they say it really loud and they have a big jumbo-tron and everyone knows about the cowbell, so I'm sure it will be interesting.”
JUNIOR LB JACQUES SMITH
(On improving the defense’s technique)
“Technique that is what really good pass rushers are great at. Just using technique, knowing when to throw moves, knowing when to hold back and knowing when to shoot for the quarterback. It depends on what type of quarterback you have. This week we can definitely go after the quarterback. He is pocket sitter and he isn’t really that mobile. We can definitely use our technique to do all those things a speed rusher would do to get off the edge and make a good play.”
(On the environment in Starkville)
“It will be my first time there but I know there will be a lot of cowbells. It is a loud environment, it is probably not louder than Neyland but we are expecting it to be pretty loud and people to be rowdy. It is a night game there so I know they will be pumped up.”
(On the difficult October schedule)
“I love them. This is what I live for. This is the heart of the schedule. I think everyone looks forward to this.”
(On the importance of a win)
“It would be very important. It is crucial for us to get a win right now against an SEC team. We have to go out there and finish. We need to minimize our mistakes and go out in the fourth quarter and win the ball game. It is something we are choking on. We need to go out there and do it.”
(On the pressure to win)
“I think we all know it. I think everybody knows it, our fan base knows it. It is out there. Tennessee needs to win a ball game, a good ball game. We know we are capable of doing it, other people know we are capable of doing it. We just need to go out there and play our ball and minimize our mistakes that we know we mess up on in the moment because we get too excited or we think we have something that we don’t. Play great ball and play for each other. I feel like that will work itself out and we will win ball games.”
SENIOR WR ZACH ROGERS
(On Mississippi State’s secondary)
“We are going to get it week in and week out with the SEC and Mississippi State is just another prime example of great secondary play. They have a good group of guys back there. One highly rated corner in Banks. He is a great player and I think he is projected first round. So we just have to go attack them and be confident in what we do.”
“He has gotten better with his short term memory. If you make a bad play, you can’t get too down on yourself because you have to come back the next play and do something better. The same with getting too high on plays. You got to come back and rebound and have a steady mind throughout the whole game. That’s what [Bray] has done and he has brought us all along.”
(On the importance of the Mississippi State game)
“We have a tough stretch and we know that. We’ve had it every year since I’ve been here, this tough stretch in October. We have to take it one game at a time. We showed some grit and heart and fight at Georgia so we know we can play on the road and compete against the best.
(On wearing a skull cap)
“I started it in high school and I don’t know why I carried it on to here. When I had long hair it was easier to keep in shape, so I just kind of got used to it with my helmet. I actually have convinced Jacob Carter to start wearing it. He has long hair and is going through the same stages I went through so I’m trying to teach him a little.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On the late kickoff game)
“It’s just going to be like another game. We’re going out there and we’re going to try to get a win as hard as we can and play up to our expectations. If we could get the win, it would be cool.”
(On Georgia’s defense to block the run)
“They had a little more people in the box and they had one person on me, which left Mychal [Rivera] open. Zach [Rogers] had the most catches, he had five. People are keying in on me and I think our running game is going better. It’s bad for them to just try to cover me.”
RS JUNIOR DL MO COUCH
(On reasons the defense allowing big plays)
"On the big plays we've been giving up, it's been something real minor. A guy taking a wrong step or looking at the wrong key and we lose the edge. Miscommunication. We've got to be on our A game as far as communication goes."
(On about what causes the miscommunication)
"Trying to get guys on field. Some guys are still not fully adjusted to the new defense, and Coach Sal doesn't hold anything back. We put new plays in, week in, week out. For some guys, it's tough for them to catch on to things very fast."
(On Mississippi State's quarterback protection)
"We've got to do a good job pressuring him. We've been watching a lot of film from their previous opponents. They do a lot play action to keep a lot of defensive players off the quarterback. We're just going to have to do a good job of getting to the quarterback and just do a good job of communicating."
(On either team establishing an ability to rush the passer early)
"It's going to be a physical game, an SEC game. It's going to be a great matchup. We've got a great offensive line. They have a good offensive line. We're going to go out there and be physically tough.''
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)