KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee football program has been considered the `best' in the nation five times and the `best' in the SEC on 13 occasions.
As the Vols work this spring towards being the `best', it's as much about what's inside each Vol's helmet as it is their physical abilities.
"Attitude is our number one core value," head coach Derek Dooley said after Tennessee's scrimmage Saturday at Neyland Stadium. "It is that old saying, `Things turn out for the best for those who make the best of the way things turn out.' Right now, when things turn out wrong, we have guys who don't make the best of it. That is what we have to learn how to do."
As Dooley cited plenty of positives from Saturday's scrimmage including the improved play of junior quarterback Tyler Bray, the return of junior wide receiver Justin Hunter and standout defensive performances from Herman Lathers and Brian Randolph, he also stressed where the Vols need to make significant progress.
"The biggest thing that is kind of holding us back right now is number one, our level of discipline on the simple things. (We had) a lot penalties. We make too many mistakes that are really simple things.
"The second one is, just our attitude when the flow of the game begins to happen and how we get affected by things that shouldn't affect us. Whether it is a play, you are tired, `I didn't get the call,' or maybe one guy is jawing a little bit. Those are the things right now that we really need to work at."
To be the `best' will require the Power T to also stand for toughness.
"This sport is about who is going to break whose will," Dooley said. "It is a physically, mentally and emotionally draining 60 minutes. At some point either you are going to break his will or he breaks your will. That is what it is. We got our will broken a little too much last year and you saw it in the second half. That is our number one thing this year. We have to toughen up. We don't make excuses. We have to get it done."
SPEAKING OF TOUGH...
Senior linebacker Herman Lathers is enjoying a solid and most importantly, healthy, spring camp.
Lathers missed spring practice last year recovering from shoulder surgery in January of 2011.
Returning briefly for summer workouts he was forced to miss the 2011 season with a fractured ankle suffered in early June.
Providing senior leadership and an example, Lathers isn't making any excuses this spring.
"Herman is doing great," Dooley said. "He is flying around. He is not giving me the `Well, I am 80 percent.' We are 100 percent and I think that is helping him get over the hump mentally. When you have had as many injuries as he has, the first sign of pain probably makes you a little nervous. He is working through it and he is playing really good football for us."
While Lathers didn't have any expectations heading into 2012, he's been pleased with his progress.
"I didn't have really any set standards, but it's going pretty good right now," Lathers said. "I am just trying to rehab and get better. I just want to get my body back together. My main job is to make sure everyone gets lined up and make sure they know their job. Once everybody gets lined up and knows their job, then our defense will click as a whole."
Lathers, the Vols second-leading tackler in 2010 with 75, is making the adjustment along with the rest of the UT defense to the 3-4 scheme.
But it's a familiar one for the Baton Rouge, La., native.
"I love it," Lathers said. "I played in it in high school, and it gives you the chance to show a lot of different looks. It messes up the offensive line. They have to change their protection a lot of times when guys are walking up, so it helps us a lot."
STREAKY DAY FOR BRAY
For the second scrimmage in a row, junior quarterback Tyler Bray completed 13 passes, but this week it came on 23 attempts, after last week's effort on 32 attempts. The signal caller started off the day brilliant as he connected on his first seven passes of the game, in gaining 104 yards very quickly. He easily surpassed the century mark with a little help from familiar partners Justin Hunter, Da'Rick Rogers and Mychal Rivera. Each caught two passes of Bray's first seven consecutive completions to start the scrimmage.
"We had a better scrimmage today. The tempo was a little better in the first half," said Bray, who threw for 180 yards including a 50-yard TD pass to Hunter.
After the great start, Bray's next five attempts all went incomplete, followed by six completions in a row, before finishing the day with five incompletions to finish the day. It was a streaky day to say the least.
"A little better day, but didn't execute well in the situations I didn't think," Dooley said. "We had a normal scrimmage where that was about two-thirds of the day and then the last third was end of the game situations. I told our team we need to watch football, we have guys that are sometimes it's third and one, third-and-10, first-and-10 and we have two plays to win the game and we just run plays. Tyler has to get better at that. That end of the game situation, the urgency - that play was incomplete and you have to go to the next one, get it moving. We need a little work in those areas."
Bray agreed with his coaches assessment of an uneven game, saying "we kind of got a little lackadaisical " in the second half, "but other than that, the first half was good."
Having Hunter back in action was a welcome sight, as Bray completed three passes to the receiver for 70 yards.
"His knee is fine. It's just all confidence and what the training staff will let him do," Bray said. "He can run, catch and do all the stuff he used to. It's just his whole mental outlook."
Having the tandem on the field creates issues for the defenses that benefits the Vols according to Bray.
"It helps," Bray said. "They can't just sit on Da'Rick's side and try to trap him all the time. They have to play both sides of the field."
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Marlin Lane)
“Marlin ran with a lot more toughness, aggressiveness and it showed. He had good numbers. What did he have about 6 yards a carry. So that was good.”
(On the offense not finishing)
“Here is what happens we set the tempo and we are rolling but when the defense settles in and makes a couple of plays, how do we get back going again. We aren’t there yet. Still, it is not something that changes over time.”
(On Justin Hunter)
“It was good to see him. On the first drive he catches two passes and scores a long touchdown. It just shows you the kind of impact a guy can have. He is a good football player. We need him to be healthy all twelve games.”
(On playing through pain)
“It is team wide. It is something probably that we didn’t do as good of a job as we needed to in the last year. Again it goes back to getting affected, your mental outlook. I told the team the other day, life wouldn’t be so difficult if you didn’t expect it to be so easy. So when you get down there and you get hit and it hurts you shouldn’t be surprised. You should expect it to hurt and you get up and you play again. And that is what you do. We are getting a lot better at that. I said in the beginning of the spring, those core values of the attitude, the discipline, the toughness and effort are going to impact winning and losing more than anything. That is what we are honing in on this spring.”
(On Devrin Young)
“He is playing running back. He gets in there; I think he went through Tiny’s legs one play. He went right through them.”
(On any new injuries)
“I don’t think so. We will see. I think Byron Moore turned his ankle a little bit. I don’t think it is serious, we will know more. I think that is about it.”
(On maintaining offensive tempo)
“It depends on if a defense is stopping you or not. There were a lot of times last year when we were in rhythm and had a nice tempo and Tyler was in rhythm we looked pretty good. When we got out of rhythm and the tempo slowed down, we didn’t look good. We are constantly preaching to maintain that rhythm. “
(On Michael Palardy)
“Palardy missed one but he is making a lot of progress. He is money on kickoffs. He looks like a different guy out there. It wasn’t just moving him up five. He has a real confident approach, he adjusted some things. The biggest thing we are ironing out on field goals is we have a new snapper and a new holder. There are a lot of nuances that can affect a kick. But he is having a good spring.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On how his knee felt during and after the scrimmage):
"It felt pretty good. During the beginning of practice, I took a little bit of medicine, and I didn’t feel anything in my knee. Towards the end of practice, it felt the same, so I think it was a pretty good day for my knee."
(On the confidence boost from the scrimmage):
"I know I can go out there without hurting, so I hope to see that next week it feels the same. I feel good about how today went. I just went out there and played, and I was excited to be out here. I had some nerves at the beginning of the scrimmage just to see how I would do, but I just didn’t think about it and played good."
(On regaining chemistry with Tyler Bray):
"I wasn’t expecting to get the ball today because I know in practice I wasn’t getting the ball a lot. He surprised me by throwing it to me, especially when that hole shot for a touchdown. I think it’s coming along real good; I think by next week sometime it will be the same."
(On his touchdown catch):
"It was about 50 yards. It was like a go route, and they played Cover 2 and just hole-shotted me. I think the first catch should have been a touchdown too, but they said he tagged me, which he didn’t. I don’t know who it was, but they weren't going to catch me. Since I saw that green, I was going to be gone."
SENIOR TE MYCHAL RIVERA
(On offense’s overall performance)
"We came out, and we were a lot more physical than the last scrimmage. One more week left and really looking forward to the spring game. We came out and were really physical today."
(On focusing during spring practice)
"My philosophy is I try and take it one practice at a time. I don’t try and look ahead to next week. I just try to look at one practice at a time or one scrimmage at a time, but I can see where people start to wonder off a bit. The penalties are more just a lot of mental errors. Guys are tired and thinking about so many things all at once instead of just focusing on their task."
(On his personal performance in the scrimmage)
"Sometimes when I’m in the trenches, I don’t really know what is going on around me, and I try and just take it one play at a time. It felt like we focused a little more on the pass today. I was scrambling around, so I’m happy with it. I think we made big strides today from last week. We continue to be physical and grow on offense."
SOPHOMORE TB MARLIN LANE
(On improving since the first scrimmage)
“I wasn’t too focused on my yards from the last scrimmage. I just thought I needed to come out and stay focused, get my mindset right.”
(On being conscious of the competition for jobs)
“I come out. I know the job is open. I just focus on going out there doing my job and not messing up, lifting everybody up. Do whatever I can.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On his fumble frustrating him)
“It definitely frustrates me because you don’t want to have things like that to overshadow how good everybody else played and how the offense was. A fumble is kind of backtracking from the offense. So, yeah it is frustrating.”
(On running more physical play)
“It is something that we stress. It is something that we practice. We do drills. It is definitely something that is in the back of my mind. And I make sure I try and apply it when I am given an opportunity.
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On the running backs)
“I have to give all the running backs credit because they all came out here with the right mindset today. They all ran hard. They were doing really good work.”
(On improvement of the running game)
“I think so. From a discipline standpoint we had too many offsides and too many illegal procedures but as far as getting up field and getting vertical, that is what we are about is getting vertical up field with the running game. We have improved on that the last three practices and this scrimmage.”
(On the importance of improving the run game)
“It makes us a better team. We are not just one dimensional. We can run, we can move the ball up field, we can get vertical with the passing game. We have the running backs to do it; we have the o-linemen to do it. We just have to be consistent.”
JUNIOR DL MAURICE COUCH
(On confusing the offense with the defense)
“Even some of the offensive lineman they admit it, ‘we don’t know where you guys are coming from. The linebackers they look like they are going to blitz.’ So yeah I think we are confusing them.”
(On the team liking the change in defense)
“Everybody loves it. I think going into the fall we are going to scare a lot of teams, running the 3-4 defense. We have a lot of talent on the side of the defense and depth will affect it a lot.
SOPHOMORE TB DEVRIN YOUNG
(On how the running game performed)
"We have some special guys in the running back room. Everyman forces you to be on your A game. Everybody can hold their own water, so that’s good."
(On Justin Hunter opening up the offense)
"When Justin is on the field that is always a huge threat. Justin is liable to score anytime along with other guys on the field, like Da’Rick, Bray, Vincent and everybody. It definitely helps to have that impact player back on the field."
(Biggest improvement the offense had from last scrimmage)
"I would probably have to say being more consistent. I felt like today we messed up on some things though. That is the biggest thing though, just working on our consistency."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)