KNOXVILLE - When the Tennessee veterans and newcomers joined forces for the first time in training camp on Monday, head coach Derek Dooley simply wanted them to focus on getting better each day. Or as he likes to call it, “Relentless pursuit of continuous improvement.”
For Dooley, that requires a three-pronged approach to practice.
“One is being coachable and with so many guys their pride becomes an obstacle to their ability to improve because they don’t want to take instruction,” Dooley said. “It happens in all of athletics, so being coachable is important. (The second is) having a plan on how you are going to improve and identifying a few things each day and then the third one is probably more important than anything. That is valuing self-improvement over self-promotion.”
That third prong is where the Vols ran into some minor trouble on Monday, but it was nothing more than Dooley had expected for the first combined practice.
“When you get a team and everybody is moving around on the depth chart and (seeing that) he is playing this position and he is playing that position, if you focus on your self-improvement instead of where you are relative to the other guys you tend to get better a lot,” Dooley said. “That is always an issue early in camp, especially when you bring the whole roster together because now they are counting reps. It was a good day other than that.”
One of the biggest obstacles facing the UT coaching staff was integrating the newcomers into the full practice after coaching them separately the first three days of camp. That work done on the front-end in terms of acclimating them to the expectations in practice paid dividends though as they stepped in seamlessly.
“They did good and I think that is the value of those first three days, just getting integrated into how we do things,” Dooley said. “They were fine. Nobody really stood out good or bad, just from standing out on the field.”
FAMILIAR FACE BACK IN PLACE
The Vols are glad to have Corey Miller back on the playing field and he is definitely glad to be back after missing spring practice while getting some of his classwork in order.
The lesson was a tough one for Miller, but he is happy to have earned a second chance and is ready to move forward.
"I changed my focus and just had to get my mind right," Miller said. "I'm just glad to be back and it's nothing but looking forward from here on out. It hurt me not being with my guys, so I got back this summer and took it full fledge, all the weight on my shoulders. I just have to get back at it."
Miller wasn't the only one happy to have number 80 out on the field again as head coach Derek Dooley was quick to comment on his return, one he hopes will help set an example for the rest of the team.
"It's good getting him back," Dooley said. "He has shown some things in our nickel package where he can help us. He's not a huge guy, but he has some good twitch so he is going to be right there in the mix.
"This is his second chance. He kind of messed up in the classroom, but hopefully he learned from it and hopefully everyone else learned from it too."
Just because Miller is back on the practice field doesn't mean he is going to step right back into the same role he had last year where he recorded 15 tackles and a sack in 12 games.
"You have to earn anything out here on this practice field," Miller said. "The coaches have been treating me well, they are great guys. I love the new coaching staff, I love these guys so I am going to work hard for them."
DOWNS UP FOR MORE ACTION
Sophomore Brendan Downs heads into training camp as the Vols' No. 2 tight end after the dismissal of Cameron Clear from the team over the summer. Downs is up for the challenge as the second-string tight end behind veteran Mychal Rivera.
"I'm obviously going to have a little bit more pressure put on me," said Downs. "They're going to ask me to do a little more, but I'm taking the same crush every day, working to get better, and doing different things every day.
The native of Bristol, Tenn., has worked hard to improve his strength as he continues to grow as a college football player.
"I'm been trying to get a little stronger in my lower body and in the spring I gained a lot of weight," said Downs, who played in eight games as a true freshman in 2011. "I've just been trying to get my speed back to where it was and I've done that pretty well. I took the speed up to go with the weight. Now I'm about 255 and last year I was 242."
Downs says playing in his first college season, as just an 18-year old, was a great benefit to his progression.
"When you get on the field, there are just some things you just can't teach about that," said Downs, who had three catches for 34 yards in his rookie campaign.
"Getting the nerves out too, so it really helped coming into this year. It's so much faster, when I got out there it's a totally different game for me and I've just had to adjust and get used to that."
MAKING THE JUMP
After grabbing three catches in 11 games last season as a reserve receiver, sophomore defensive back Vincent Dallas has made the move to the other side of the ball.
With four days of practice under his belt, Dallas has his mind set on two main objectives: improving his defensive game and getting on the field.
"I just play as needed and try to play my role," Dallas said. "I'm trying to do whatever I can to get on the field and improve my game every day."
The Ellenwood, Ga., native has seen time at both cornerback and safety in the early stages of preseason, but claims he doesn't have a preference.
"I don't have a preference," Dallas said. "I'm a really aggressive guy and want to bring that to the defense."
With the Vols' talented receiving corps, head coach Derek Dooley weighed in on why he believes the 5-foot-11 sophomore made the transition.
"I think it was something he wanted to do because he probably had a better opportunity to get into the mix compared to where he was at wideout," Dooley said. "I think it was a good mutual decision and we'll see how he can do over there."
One thing Dallas believes he can do in order to accomplish his two main objectives is listen to what defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has to offer.
"Coach Sal is a great guy," Dallas said. "He's going to get you where you need to be and stay on you so you can improve your game every day and become the best player you can be."
GETTING BIGGER, PLAYING FASTER
Coming in to fall camp, Jordan Williams feels bigger, faster and stronger. He also feels as though the plays on the field have slowed down.
The last part is thanks to the countless extra hours he has put in throughout the summer learning the playbook.
"All of the off the field stuff, film, etc. plays into [the pace of the game]," said Williams. "I feel more comfortable. It has slowed down on the field more. Last year was more spastic, trying to figure out where you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to do, putting that extra time in definitely paid off."
Williams also spent time in the weight room over the last year getting his weight up to a solid 260 pounds where the coaches want him to be in order to play the JACK linebacker role in the newly added 3-4 defense.
"Last year I was maybe 245/250 and I'm 260 now," said Williams. "I feel good, especially in the 3-4 defense, you have people pulling you and one-on-ones with tight ends. You have to handle them. I was worried about losing some speed but I am about right where I was. I can handle blocks better and when pulls come last year I had to get low, this year I am hitting them."
Dooley agrees with Williams and believes he is settling into his position well.
"He is doing a really nice job," said Dooley." He is going to be a really good football player. He is getting settled in and the more he learns and understands what to do the better he plays. I think he is settled in at that JACK position which is kind of like a defensive end-outside linebacker hybrid."
The other thing that Williams is excited about is the more aggressive approach the team is taking on defense this year.
"We are way more aggressive," said Williams, "there are blitzes coming from everywhere. Last year we didn't have as many sacks, this year the goal is to get more sacks. Everybody loves sacks."
BARTHOLOMEW’S BALANCING ACT
Already splitting time between two positions, veteran Ben Bartholomew has added another hat to his repertoire as a team leader.
"We have a lot of veterans that have been through camp with Coach Dooley, so that's going really smooth," Bartholomew said. "We're helping lead the younger guys."
Although Bartholomew's main position is fullback, the Nashville, Tenn., native is also seeing action at tight end to help with the Vols' depth at the position.
"Home position for me is a fullback," Bartholomew said. "I work in some tight end. It's fun, I'm excited to be able to play both and have that versatility.
"I've been tight end a lot throughout my years, so it carries over pretty well. It's difficult for some of the guys. I'm trying to help coach some of the younger guys so we can all be on the same page."
The 6-2, 252-pounder has helped lead freshman tight end Justin Meredith through the first practices.
"The coaches kind of told me to take him under my wing and show him the ropes," Bartholomew said. "He's been my locker mate and ever since he got here he's been a real humble guy, a really nice guy, so I'm looking forward to working with him. He has a great attitude. I think he can bring something to the table, and it's going to be good."
TENNESSEE HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On today’s practice)
“Get better every day. You all have heard me say, ‘RPCI, relentless pursuit of continuous improvement.’ I gave up three things that I wanted those guys to think about on how you improve. One is being coachable. So many guys their pride becomes an obstacle to their ability to improve because they don’t want to take construction. That happens in all of athletics. So being coachable is important, having a plan on how you are going to improve, identifying a few things each day. The third one is probably more important than anything, value and self-improvement over self-promotion. When you get a team and everybody is moving around in the depth chart and he is playing this position and he is playing that position, if you focus on your self-improvement over where you are relative to the other guys you tend to get better a lot. That is always an issue early in camp. Especially when you bring the whole roster together because they are counting reps. It was a good day other than that.”
(On distributing reps to running backs)
“We do a lot of two spotting stuff. We run a lot of plays. I think we are able to do that without a problem. You can’t run the ball too many times or you are going to die. Even in a game, you run it twenty times that is a lot. We have to manage them and give them enough reps and do the best we can.”
(On the depth at tight end)
“I don’t feel good about the depth. I feel good about Mychal Rivera and Brendan Downs, where they are. I am worried about our depth. It is a concern. Justin [Coleman] is still has a little nagging hamstring and I am worried about that. Ben Bartholomew is helping us, so we are kind of integrating Ben into that fullback/tight end role.”
(On Justin King)
“We moved Justin over to offense to try and get him into that same kind of hybrid role. Because we are short on bodies. We will see how he does. If he does a good job we will keep him there. We aren’t moving him just to get through practice. We are moving him because we think he can help us. When we signed Justin, we signed him as kind of an athlete. We started him at SAM, we have a lot of bodies over there at SAM, and we are short on bodies in this other position which is somewhat a counterpart on offense.”
(On Jacques Smith’s mental progress)
“He is still working on his consistency. He has a lot of playmaking ability and trying to utilize his play making skills but stay within the frame work of the system is what we are working through.”
(On Darrington Sentimore)
“He is doing very good. He has been very active. Him and Mo [Maurice Couch] have shown really encouraging signs as far as their conditioning level, their weight, their ability to strain. All those things we were concerned about this spring.”
(On the depth of the defensive line)
“Depth is one thing but you have to start by seeing who can help us go out there and help us win games in this league. We aren’t there yet. We have a lot of guys but who are our guys that we are going to count on to help us win.”
(On Tyler Bray)
“He is doing on. He is engaged in practice, showing good leadership out there. He is making some nice throws to the big guys. So he is doing good.”
(On the physicality of the newcomers)
“I don’t know. It just depends on the position. That one signing class where we at Ja’Wuan [James], Zack [Fulton], James [Stone], we had some big guys on offense, we just now have some bigger guys who defense. Last year, we had some big linebackers, AJ [Johnson] and Curt [Maggitt], so we have had some big guys. What is encouraging is you look at our team and we look bigger and you can’t solve that in one class. So we have gotten big guys in different positions every year.
SOPHOMORE LB JORDAN WILLIAMS
(On growing in his sophomore season)
“I think I have grown a lot. Last year, everything was thrown at you all at once. There were so many things that you had to get used to and everything moves so fast. I was just trying to understand what I could. This year, my second year, everything has slowed down a lot.”
(On his position)
“I am mostly working on the JACK position and a little bit at end. I’m definitely a lot more comfortable that I was last year. I might have had about 4-5 days to learn the position and absorb as much as I could. This summer I have had a lot more time to study and during camp it has definitely slowed down a lot.”
RS SENIOR FB/TE BEN BARTHOLOMEW
(On Tyler Bray returning as an upperclassman and his influence on the offense)
"It's going really smooth. He's really stepped up as a leader and he's doing what we need him to do. It's really been great to see him mature through that."
(On Coach Graham)
"Coach Graham is an amazing coach. He's one of those guys that has been there and done it, so he has respect off the bat. He demands excellence. It's really awesome to see what he's doing with our running backs and the way he's pushing them."
(On having Coach Chaney back)
"We're definitely on the same page. It's great having Coach Chaney back. He did a great job with the quarterbacks, and the communication with the quarterbacks and coaches has really carried over to everybody else on the offense."
SOPHOMORE DB VINCENT DALLAS
(On the move from WR to DB)
“It’s been great. I’ve just been coming to play and improve my game on the other side of the ball.”
(On what he needs to focus on)
“Basically, just focus on my game. I have a little advantage because I’ve played receiver. I’m just coming to practice to try to improve my game.”
(On the toughest part of the switch)
“Learning the techniques and just being where you need to be.”
JUNIOR DL COREY MILLER
(On the change in defensive scheme)
“It’s like starting from scratch, but it’s all about study habits and getting in the playbook. It’s hard work but you just have to get it done.”
(On where he fits in with the defense)
“I do like the change and wherever they need me at is where I am going to fit in at. I just want to help the team anyway possible.”
(On fitting in better in the defense)
“I definitely see it as a better fit. I feel like I can understand the defense a lot better. So I am just going to take it on and see what I can do.”
(On the possibility of not being back on the team)
“There were times when I was kind of unsure. As far as everything goes I just had to keep working hard and keep my head high and keep pushing forward.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)