KNOXVILLE - The Vols put the pads on for the first time Sunday afternoon, which head coach Derek Dooley saw as a welcome challenge for his squad.
Because of the heat at Haslam Field and the additional weight being hauled around by each player, Dooley was quick to point out that the first day in pads is always one of the toughest, but it also allows him and his staff to stress the importance of being mentally prepared each and every day.
"The big thing I wanted to emphasize to them was that no matter hard you train, how good you are or how experienced you are, what makes this sport special is that you are going to get knocked on your tail," Dooley said. "You are going to have times when you are struggling, it's hard, you didn't have a good period, didn't have a good day, whatever it is.
"All those people who worry about what happened yesterday, never get anything accomplished today. It's a great exercise to teach your brain how to focus on what's next. That is what training camp is about and today's practice was a great example of that."
It was the offense that rose to the challenge during Sunday's hard-hitting practice.
"The offense really came out with something to prove running the ball today and did a good job," Dooley said. "They came out with a little edge to them. They came out with a mentality that looked like a bunch of guys who have been kicked around the last seven months and wanted to do something about it. The other side came out like it was practice."
Dooley singled out the running backs for their improvement and effort on Sunday.
"They ran the ball really well," Dooley said. "They hit the holes and when they got into the secondary they didn't stop. They had a little something to keep moving. Jay (Graham) has done a good job of trying to coach that."
PUTTING ON THE PADS
Dooley wasn't the only one excited about putting the pads on Sunday, as multiple players commented on hearing the sound of pads cracking for the first time.
"It felt good to put the pads on," said junior defensive lineman Marlon Walls. "We had a chance to hit a couple of guys today. Sal's defense is great ... He's putting us in the right spots to make plays, we are excited."
With temperatures hovering around 90 and the humidity high, it feels even hotter for the players.
"The heat is different, it’s probably about 10 degrees hotter with pads on," said junior Ja'Wuan James. "We caught a hot day today but I think everybody did well conditioning wise."
James added that with a hot day you can tell a little bit more about who is giving more as the session moves along.
"Late into practice you could tell who is still hitting who is still going after it and I think as an offensive line we did a good job of doing that pretty consistently," James said.
Junior defensive back Byron Moore noted that first first in pads always comes with some challenges.
"As with any first day in pads, everyone is always going to have some rust to shake off," said Moore. "However as the days move forward, I think we will see a little more pop and some big plays happening as everyone gets comfortable putting the pads back on."
BREWING IT IN THE SECONDARY
Transition and change is nothing new for Brent Brewer.
The former minor league baseball player has undergone a transformation from shortstop and outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers to a defensive starter in the SEC. So when Brewer was moved to linebacker during spring football and then back to the secondary for training camp, the move proved valuable.
"It was not a waste of time," Brewer said of his stint at linebacker. "I'm still playing a little in dime packages. It helped me learn a little more. Everybody needs to learn everybody's position, so it helped a lot."
Brewer has been spent time at strong safety in training camp after starting the first eight games at the spot in 2011 before a torn ACL ended his season in the South Carolina game (10/29/11). Brewer says he has made a full recovery from the tear.
"I feel 100 percent," the junior said. "I feel comfortable. Just need to get in the playbook and everything will be good."
Dooley has been happy with Brewer's conditioning.
"The thing I've seen is that he is leaner so he is moving better," said the coach. "He was a little bit lethargic at times because he was big. He was almost a linebacker, but he has leaned up this summer and is playing faster. Hopefully, he will be able to pick it all up and make up for what he missed in the spring."
While he was sidelined, Brewer had a chance to work on his upper body strength while rehabbing his leg.
"My movement, my strength is a lot better," said Brewer. "I wasn't sure (how it would be coming back) I didn't talk to anyone who had been through the surgery. I didn't know what to expect."
VERSATILITY KEY FOR PALARDY
Coming into Tennessee in 2010, Michael Palardy was rated as the No. 1 kicking prospect by Scout.com and No. 2 by Rivals. During his first two years with the Vols he has done a little bit of everything on special teams when it comes to his foot. Training camp has been no different for the Coral Springs, Florida native.
"Well it is fall camp so everything is a competition. I want to do everything I can, whether it is placekick, kickoff, punt," said Palardy, who served all three roles at times in 2010 and 2011. "Wherever they are going to put me is what I want to do and what I am going to do. I am still working on everything and I want to do everything I can to help the team out."
Palardy has converted 14-of-21 field goals in two seasons along with 38-of-40 extra points. He has also punted 18 times for a 37.3 average, in two years, sharing time with Matt Darr. Palardy was the team's primary kickoff man in 2011, kicking 43 times for a 63.1 average with six touchbacks.
Coach Dooley has a good idea of what makes Palardy tick.
"My most important thing is for him to be mentally and physically confident on game day," said Dooley. "That's what matters because he is feeling good and doing great, but we are also working on making sure that feeling doesn't change when we get out there on the big stage. That's the biggest thing that he has to keep conditioning his mind for."
Palardy agrees with his coach, especially when it comes to the cerebral part of the game.
"I think that is what our main focus has been, along with consistency," the junior said. " Mental discipline had been a thing that we hadn't really been focusing on a lot. We are all physically prepared but mentally, that is where our strong suit needs to be."
Additionally, Palardy says he is in the best condition and and health of his college career.
"Since before I got here, since high school. I have been dealing with a lot of injuries, little tweaks, groins and knees, stuff like that ever since I got here," Palardy said. "This offseason has been really good for me, I am feeling really healthy.
According to Ja’Wuan James, one of the things that new offensive line coach Sam Pittman preaches is going out and playing fast.
James feels that, though he is only a few days into fall practice, he is doing just that.
“I feel a lot stronger now [than in the spring],” James said. “When you use the technique you play a lot better, so I think that I have been playing a lot better.”
James has worked on his technique all throughout the spring and brought what he has learned into fall practice. With the playbook clear in his mind he is able to go out in practice and do just what his coach preaches.
“Technically, in the games, the mental part is out of it now,” James said. “I understand the playbook and I am just trying to go out there, play fast and use my techniques.”
James believes that he is not alone in his thoughts and thinks the offensive line as a unit has come together well in the last few months.
“I think we did a great job of coming out on team run (today),” said James. “The offensive line did a good job of coming out, and the running backs hit the holes. I think today we won that battle as an offense.”
To make each player versatile, the coaching staff has been switching it up a little during camp, something that James enjoyed today.
“They had us doing tackling drills as offensive linemen,” James said. “That was pretty fun though.”
Entering his second season in Knoxville, junior defensive back Byron Moore feels his increased comfort level within the program will allow to contribute more to the new-look Tennessee defense.
"I just feel more at home now," Moore said. "I feel more adjusted to the system and to the program. I just feel comfortable. I'm not worried about transition and having to move from California. I've already been here for a year so I'm just gearing up for fall camp and getting prepared to learn a new defense under Coach Sal (Sunseri)."
The Carson, Calif., native has adjusted well to life in the South and is looking forward to earning playing time at both safety spots. He has also been pleased with the implementation of the new defensive schemes.
"My confidence is very high coming out of the summer," Moore said. "I worked hard and got my body right and got faster. The coaches have also given me a lot of confidence and I'm just looking forward to getting back out here and building off that confidence.
"In the new defensive scheme, I'm listed as a strong safety but we have to know all the safety spots so we can be interchangeable. That will help allow us to do some different things on defense."
For Moore, one of the most exciting parts about the new defensive scheme is how much more aggressive it will be than last season.
"We are really going to attack the line of scrimmage and put some pressure on the quarterback and stop the run," Moore said. "With that, a lot more responsibility will fall on the secondary so we are going to have to play as one."
TENNESSEE HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Greg Clark's improvement on the defensive line)
"He's worked really hard, there's no doubt about that. Of course, the scheme has helped him a little bit and give him a chance. He's going to have good competition from some other guys, but Greg has done a good job. He's had a great attitude and has worked hard."
(On depth at safety)
"It helps having (Brent) Brewer back. With him, (Byron) Moore, (Brian) Randolph and Rod Wilks, those are kind of our four. Then we've got a bunch of young guys out there trying to figure it out. We have a lot of bodies at that position."
(On having players work at multiple positions)
"I always think that you are better at your position the better you understand the others. If you really understand something, it means you know what to do, how to do it and then you know why it is important. Just memorizing that I do this on this (play) is good, but if you really understand why it is important to do it that way then when things break down you know how to react better. The guys who usually play the best know the most positions. They understand it all."
(On how Waggner, Hunter and Brewer have looked coming back from injury)
"I'd forgotten about their injuries so that probably answers the question. They're in the mix, they're not hobbled or gimping. They are active."
(On balancing avoiding injuries with having a physical camp)
"That's always a hard thing because you can't really build a tough football team with hitting. Number one it is how you practice, staying up. We stay up and most injuries when guys are flying around on the ground, so we bend our knees and stay up. Also, what's important is the recovery part. What do we do between know and the next practice and how do we manage them through practice? There is a lot that goes into it. I wish I could say I have a perfect bead on everything but it is something you struggle with every year. You wish you didn't have to practice and go in healthy. It's a tough balance and always is. I've generally aired on trying to get them tougher."
(On blocking by wide receivers)
"The first component before you start blocking is to have a physical mentality. There is a lot of technique involved in blocking, but some guys come in naturally not afraid of contact and some of them enjoy it. Some of them come in and it's really not their forte. That makes it a lot more challenging to get those guys embrace to not only embrace the value of blocking but to then go really do it and stick your coconut on somebody. Usually what happens is that once they learn how to do it and are willing to exercise a level of courage, it becomes something that is fun. I told one of them out there today that you don't realize how fun it is if you've never done it. It's like getting on a rollercoaster. You're scared but it's fun, so try it the right way."
JUNIOR OL JA'WUAN JAMES
(On Antonio Richardson)
"He is going to bring physicality. He is a big guy, he is a great run blocker, he is going to do well and add a lot of strength to our line."
(On adjusting to offensive line coach Sam Pittman)
"I think we have adjusted. We are comfortable with him now and we believe in his system and are just doing what he asks. He talks about playing fast and not thinking as much with the calls and just playing as fast as you can."
(On getting the opportunity to represent Tennessee at SEC Media Day)
"It was a great opportunity. I appreciate Coach Dooley for bringing me down there. It was fun and it felt good to finally go out there and talk about what we have been working on all offseason. To be able to talk about my teammates and how good they are going to be. It was a great experience."
SOPHOMORE DL GREGORY CLARK
(On getting a chance to contribute)
"Having a new coach (John Palermo), I felt like I had a new start and a better chance of playing. Everybody got a fresh start and I just came out and showed everybody what I can do."
(On playing nose tackle)
"Playing the nose is very important because you have to be the anchor in the middle in the 3-4 defense. You can't have somebody get moved out so it's good to always have a big nose."
(On defensive line coach John Palermo)
"He's straight up. He tells you what you have to work on. He doesn't sugarcoat anything. Coach (Lance) Thompson had a good style also. I have just adjusted to coach Palermo's (style) better. (Palermo) is more technical, he takes more time to teach each player his assignment."
JUNIOR K MICHAEL PALARDY
(On freshman kicker George Bullock)
"He is good. He reminds me of me when I was a freshman. There are a lot of things that I still need to work on and he still needs to work on and that everybody needs to work on. That is what this offseason is about, trying to get better and the competition helps too."
(On the new kickoff rules)
"Well the five yards always helps, I am not going to lie. It is just a matter of being consistent. Five yards really makes a difference but it isn't really that much of a difference. It is staying focused and taking one kick at a time. I have been healthy this whole offseason so that has really helped. I feel a lot stronger than I have in the past couple years."
(On his reaction to the new kickoff rules)
"It depends on what the teams want. Some may go for more hang time and down the team inside the twenty and have them go 85-yards instead 80. Whereas kicking a touchback they would have to go 80-yards. It is different. If I can consistently kick inside the end zone I don't think Coach is going to have a problem with that. So, we will see what he wants and what our scheme is going to be."
(On the strongest part of his game during fall camp)
"Being more consistent than I was in the past couple years. That has really been my downfall in the past couple of years. Staying healthy has also been my upside this year. I just feel a lot stronger. I am older, I know what to expect going into the season and offseason. So, that has kind of been helping me out a lot through this summer and this offseason."
JUNIOR DB BYRON MOORE
(On competing against the offense with guys like Bray, Hunter and Rogers everyday)
"Oh, it's really valuable to go up against those guys every day. It is a real advantage being able to work against them starting in training camp and going all the way through summer workouts . It is going to pay off for all of us in the end competing against the top receiving corps in the nation."
(On the secondary)
"It was definitely a good thing with so many young guys playing last year and getting game experience. I think that will really help out a lot this year. So we just have to carry that over into these practices now."
RS JUNIOR DL MARLON WALLS
(On the ball security drill)
"We like to have fun with each other. It was a hot day out there today so whatever you can do to bring a smile to another teammates face and get his mind off the heat, we look forward to do that. That is just another example of how the team is this year. We are more of a have fun type of team and enjoy each other. It was a good thing. We enjoyed the ball drills today."
(On his improvement of understanding Coach Sunseri's defense)
"A lot more comfortable. But as a defense we have to execute better. Today was the first day with pads and some guys got out of their gaps and that is what the tape is for. Sal is going to get it out of us, we are looking forward to getting it correctly."
(On the defensive line's intensity)
"It is a mindset. That is just the type of team we are this year. We enjoy each other. The love the guy that is next to me and they love me so we just have fun whenever we can. It was a hot day out there today and whatever you can do to bring a smile to another teammates face and get his mind off that heat we are going to do it."
(On his goals for fall camp)
"Just being a better leader with my play. We have a lot of young guys and I am in that role now that I have to do what I have to do on every play because someone is watching. I just have to lead and execute a lot better."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)