KNOXVILLE – As a player at Troy from 2001-04, current Tennessee cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley helped the Trojans engineer upsets over current SEC programs Mississippi State and Missouri. This Saturday, his job is to help prevent another.
In his four seasons at Troy, Ansley started 40 consecutive games, snagged 19 career interceptions, including two which he returned for touchdowns, and had 305 career tackles, placing him 13th in the school record book.
With the Vols celebrating Homecoming this weekend, it only seems appropriate to Ansley that they will face a foe with which he is so familiar.
“It’s a good chance to see these guys,” Ansley said. “I haven’t seen them in a year or so now. Coach Blakeney was obviously my head coach for five years and he was one of the guys that grounded me and created me as far as the way I am now. He gave me a lot of foundation when I was down there. When I played there, we were in transition to going to [NCAA Division] I-A. My first year we were still I-AA and then my last four years we transitioned into I-A. I think our class laid the foundation for the success they have now.”
As Ansley knows as well as anyone, players that end up at Troy often times have a chip on their shoulder because they weren’t recruited by the traditional SEC powers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t talented though.
“SEC schools can only sign so many,” Ansley said. “In state and in the South, there are a lot of guys who kind of fall between the cracks and we had a lot of good players that weren’t highly recruited coming out of high school. For example, Osi Umenyiora, him and DeMarcus Ware are both Auburn High School products in Auburn’s back yard and they didn’t recruit them.
“They came to Troy and bought in and both of those guys are Pro-Bowlers, DeMarcus Ware is probably going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There is a lot of talent like that which is why you have to do your research in recruiting and not go by what a guy is ranked. You have to evaluate the talent and make sure he is a guy that fits your program.”
McKENZIE VISITS PRACTICE
Former Tennessee linebacker and Knoxville native Reggie McKenzie was at practice on Thursday serving in a dual capacity. The Vol for Life is in his first year as the general manager of the Oakland Raiders. McKenzie spoke to the team after practice with words of wisdom from his various perspectives.
McKenzie recounted his story of rising from a his prep career at Austin-East High School to his time with the Vols to his playing career in the NFL with the Raiders, Cardinals and 49ers. Following his playing days, McKenzie spent 18 years in the front office with the Green Bay Packers before landing the GM job with the Raiders.
He relayed to the 2012 Vols that they need to work hard in every aspect of their lives. He spoked of how committing to a solid work ethic makes a difference when it comes to your future.
McKenzie will be honored prior to Saturday's game with Troy as the Legend of the Game.
A CONFIDENT LINE
The Vols offensive line has been the most consistent unit for Tennessee in 2012. Under the leadership of a new coach, Sam Pittman, the group has thrived to rank among the nation's elite.
Tennessee has allowed just four sacks, the third-fewest in the nation. For nearly all of the season, quarterback Tyler Bray has been 'clean,' meaning his uniform has not been dirtied by being taken down. Much of the success can be attributed to the growing confidence and experience of the linemen.
Among the most impressive linemen is sophomore Antonio Richardson, who has grown in leaps and bounds in his first year as a starter at left tackle.
“You watch Tiny just like I have and the great thing about sports is that you see what I do," said Pittman. "Tiny has come so far. Tiny wouldn’t have been able to play Jadeveon Clowney the first two or three weeks this year, but he was on Saturday. I think Tiny graded out 80 percent. When you grade out 80 percent against a great player you are doing something well."
The man in the middle of the line has been major component of the unit's success. James Stone re-earned the starting job as the center in preseason camp and has continued to flourish in the role.
“(James) does a nice job and he is very confident and the guys are confident in him," said Pittman. "The whole game is about confidence and when he came in there and started making all those calls the fellas started playing a little faster.”
Until the South Carolina game, the Vols started the same five-man front for the first seven games of the season until Zach Fulton was sidelined with an ankle injury. But the Vols didn't miss a beat with Alex Bullard and Marcus Jackson moving into the rotation with Fulton out of the game. Again, Pittman pointed to the group's confidence as a factor for their success.
“I am proud of Alex," said Pittman of Bullard, who started on the line for the first time in 2012 against the Gamecocks. "He has done a really nice job with his attitude, number one. You can’t play well if you don’t have a great attitude. Marcus Jackson played 20 snaps for us and we are pretty high on Zach Fulton, I think he is a good player and obviously we didn’t want to lose him but when you have those guys playing like that, it is a confident group. It is a close group and they are confident and they should be right now.”
MORE OF GRAY, WILKS ON THE WAY?
With the Vols struggles on defense well documented, some changes in the secondary could be on the way. Two players on different ends of the spectrum in their careers are making a push for playing time.
Senior Rod Wilks and true freshman Daniel Gray saw snaps at South Carolina and have continued to work hard and could see more time vs. Troy.
As a fifth-year senior, Wilks is fighting for playing time in what could be his final games on the football field.
“Rod has been a real light for our group, he has been a real light for our defense," Safeties coach Josh Conklin said of the former receiver, who moved to defense in 2010. "He is an upperclassman who hasn’t been able to play as much as he probably had hope for and expected, but he has really kept after it and he has gotten better every week.”
Wilks has been a contributor on special teams throughout his career playing in 37 career games and has gotten the attention of defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri.
"Rod Wilks did some good things," said Sunseri. "Rod is out there and he is doing good. He had a good week of practice, he had a very good practice today, so the more people we can get involved with guys who are going to go out there and make plays, we are going to give them a chance."
Gray is a raw product, who played just two seasons of high school football in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., before coming to Knoxville this fall. He is a talented athlete who possesses top-flight speed.
"Dan Gray did a good job when he got in there," said Sunseri. "With these younger guys we are going to look at everybody to see who is going to give us an opportunity to have speed on the field and make some plays."
SUNSERI IMPRESSED WITH ANSLEY
A lifetime defensive coach, it can take a lot to impress Sal Sunseri, especially when it comes to coaching his own son. Derrick Ansley passed that test with flying colors though.
“When my son came to Alabama, he is the one that tutored my son and my son’s play speaks for itself,” Sunseri said. “That is what I think of Derrick Ansley. We can say whatever we believe in all that, that guy right there took my kid and developed him in the system and now he is playing on almost every down and he is making plays.”
Ansley’s work with Sunseri’s son, Vinnie, last season left such an impression that he was one of Tennessee’s first hires after Sunseri was named the team’s defensive coordinator last offseason.
“What he did with my son coming into Alabama was unbelievable and the bottom line is the guy is a [heck] of a football coach who is going to have a heck of a future and I believe in him and his players believe in him,” Sunseri said. “I know he played at Troy and this is a big game for him and all that and he has been coaching his heart out, but his future in this profession will be really high.”
TROY HEAD COACH LARRY BLAKENEY
“We have to get ready for Tennessee. By the way they are an SEC team and they are pretty good. If you let those three or four guys that they got on their offense and their kicking game get a hold of the ball you're going to have problems. Quarterback is good enough and their defensive guys look like an SEC team and they're good. We'll have to find a way to attack them and find a way to defend them and we cannot kick it to either one of those guys. We'll try to have a plan, which I promised the team last night. We'll try to control them in all three phases and we'll have a plan to win. It's not a plan to go look good losing close. If it was I promise you I'd burn more clock and burn 40 every time we had it. But that's not how we play and that's not how we are successful to get wins and that's not what we will do. We play the early game, the SEC game of the week at 11 a.m. central, so I hope we don't get any remnants of the storm but we'll have to deal with the elements.
(On motivating the team after a loss for a team like Tennessee)
There are certainly some points I can bring out and some corrections we can make. There are observations by others that will certainly be evident and most of the time the frame of mind is a little bit better. If we're going to do what we would like to do we better get some brow. Our coaches coach hard and we try to give them the plan to make sure they understand the circumstances. No matter how hard I preached last week, it didn't matter. I knew they were 1-6 and I knew the players would treat it that way.
(On Derrick Ansley)
“He had a nose for the football. He’s as good as any safety we’ve had. He’s really moved up the ladder fast. He’s going to be a heck of a coach. I’m proud of him.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On how he ended up at Troy)
“I came out of Tallassee High School which is about an hour up the road from Troy and 20 minutes from Auburn. I liked the program and I knew some guys that were already there because they did a good job of recruiting the Montgomery River Region area, so I had a lot of guys that I had competed against in high school that were already on the team. When I took my visit it just felt right. I wanted to get a ring because I came up one game short in high school and I got that in my first year when we won the [conference] championship. We kind of laid the foundation for the transition to [NCAA Division] I-A and those guys have had a lot of success down there.”
(On his relationship with Troy Head Coach Larry Blakeney)
“I have a good relationship with Coach Blakeney. I talked to him this year before I took this job just to get some advice and we talk pretty regularly. It will be good to see him this weekend when he comes up.”
(On why he was successful at Troy)
“The defensive scheme, I did my job, and the front. We had a really good front. We had two guys that are Pro-Bowl players now, [Osi] Umenyiora and DeMarcus Ware, and they did a good job pressuring the quarterback. We had a couple other guys that played a little bit in the league from our front seven and our secondary was pretty good. We just did our jobs and kind of knew where the ball was going to go sometimes and I was lucky.”
(On how he got his start in coaching)
“Everybody wants to go further and continue playing but obviously that wasn’t in my future. I just kind of got a call out of the blue from a guy who coached me at Troy. He called me out of the blue, it was a Saturday morning and I was at my now to-be wife’s house and he called me and asked me if I was interested in coaching. I had no idea if I wanted to coach so I went up there and checked it out. Some of the young guys he had on the staff had played with me and it was a good fit. I did that for five years at Huntingdon College with Coach [Mike] Turk, got into it and have been coaching ever since.”
SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
“They have a pretty sophisticated run game, I think. They do some things that will give you issues schematically. They also have a really good passing attack, as well. They throw the ball really well. They are similar to Akron. It is pretty controlled, pretty precise on the perimeter. Then they also have that vertical threat, they are not afraid to go deep and take their shots deep. They have some guys who can run. These guys aren’t slow, they have some quickity-quicks in the slot and they have some guys who can push your vertical. That combination of things can give you some issues. You want to be able to load the box for the run but you also have to have awareness of the vertical passing attack.”
(On the team improving)
“That is kind of the reoccurring question that we have had over and over again. I think we are. I do. I think as a coaching staff and as position coaches, we keep taking a look at how you are teaching things and how you are communicating things. I told the position group today, I don’t think any player goes out there and wants to be bad. They don’t want to mess up. You put some accountability on the player, but you also put the accountability on how we communicate, how we teach them. It is the same thing, I know it sounds a little repetitive. But that is what is comes down to and how can we clean it up for them. Keep it, not simple, but clean, I think is a better word.”
(On the concern of making mistakes versus going out and making plays)
“I don’t know about that. I think they want to go out there and make plays. It is that time, there is some stuff that is in their mind. It is cleaning up. Especially for the older guys and it is getting cleaner. We have done a better job over the weeks making it cleaner too for them as far as them being able to just play, react and go make plays and play at the speed that they can play at.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On what Rajion’s injury did to hinder his performance)
“Nothing really. It is just adjusting. He is doing all the plays that he was doing. The important thing is now we are going to get you hit a little bit. So, he is doing that. He is doing a better job of practice fast and getting more and more reps in practice. Now let’s see how he feels tomorrow.”
(On a running back moving past an injury)
“Well think for anybody, for any of our players. For running backs, you are going to get your ankles twisted up, you are going to get guys driving all over the place, so you have to get used to getting it out of your mind and also adjusting to how it feels because it is going to take a while to feel 100 percent.”
(On having one standard running back or a team of them to rotate)
“It just depends. It depends on the type of players you have back there and how many guys you have that can play well. Right now we have had some guys that can step in there so it has been a lot of different guys playing.”
(On running backs getting into a rhythm)
“Sometimes, yes. When you are running a fast-paced offense, it is hard. Because you will look down and you try to play one player, you will have forty-five reps at halftime. That is the thing that is difficult, you have to rotate guys in and keep guys fresh. Usually at the end of the game if some guy is taking it over you will let him finish.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On the receivers against South Carolina)
The whole receiving corps got involved. That’s why you have to work hard in practice, you never know when you’re number is going to get called. Vincent Dallas had a touchdown. Zach Rogers played probably one of his best games he’s ever played. A couple situations in the game where we could’ve made some plays that would’ve been big. We just have to continue to work on the detail of our routes and keep working on making plays.
(On Zach Rogers)
He’s come a long way. His strength, his ability to lead and make plays and his confidence is really doing well right here. I call him an old, salty dog. He’s a guy that is constantly going out there. He’s working hard in practice every single day to get better. He’s making plays in practice and guess what, it happens in the games.”
(On Vincent Dallas and Jacob Carter emerging)
They’ve been working so hard. I’m so proud of those guys and proud of them as a group. That’s exactly why you go out there and practice every down like it’s your play, it’s my time to go make a play and then it happened in a game.”
(On Alton “Pig” Howard)
“We have special things where we put him in different positions and do stuff with him also. Again, continue to get better at route running and doing everything that he’s doing, which he’s getting better and better as a true freshman. And then be able to run all those special plays correctly and be able block correctly, when it’s time for him to block. There’s some times where he’s getting the ball and he has to be able to execute those plays.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
“They are going to load the box, they are going to put a lot of guys in there. They are not really as multiple as some of the teams that we have played but they play downhill fast, they are going to line up in an open front and you spread them out and they are going to give you a few more looks. They play hard, they are going to play fast and Brynden Trawick is going to come down and try and stop the run and they have had a nice season to this point and obviously they have had a long rich tradition of being good in football. We are excited about our opportunity to play them.”
(On blocking for the running backs)
“No. The bottom line is that we have an efficiency level that we need to be running the ball at and the last two weeks we didn’t. Against Alabama we were just a few percentages off but last week was the worst percentile that we have run the ball all year. We are not a pass protection O-Line, we are an O-Line that is supposed to be confident and do both very well and we didn’t last week. So we are making a big emphasis and Ray will help us with that too. Our other backs are playing well, if we don’t run the ball well, it is the offensive line that needs to amp it up and get it done.”
(On Tiny Richardson)
“You watch Tiny just like I have and the great thing about sports is that you see what I do. Your opinion may be different but you see the same thing. Tiny has come so far. Tiny wouldn’t have been able to play Jadeveon Clowney the first two-three weeks this year, but he was on Saturday. I think Tiny graded out 80 percent. When you grade out 80 percent against a great player you are doing something well. The problem is the play was amplified so much because of the result that it ended up being. I am proud of him and he will be fine. He is young and you know how those young guys are, they get over stuff so fast.”
(On Tiny’s attitude)
“It is a rare deal. Tennessee is fortunate to have him and the other guys that we have. They had to go out and beat out a lot of schools to have everybody that we have in our room. There are some talented guys, but the make-up of the guy too, to have everything that he has and for him to go over there and cry because a guy beat him on one play, there aren’t a lot of those. And if there are, they are playing in the league. Guys that care about it that much. Sometimes the better you are, the lazier you are and that is not the case with this cat here. He goes out and works.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)