KNOXVILLE – After the team’s pre-practice stretching session on Tuesday, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley huddled his troops and gave an impassioned speech.
His message focused on moving on from the tough loss to Florida, accepting responsibility for the mistakes that were made and doing everything that can be done to correct them.
“We were kind of resetting them for the week,” Dooley said. “It’s always hard when you come off a loss like that to refocus on what is next. I didn’t want to start off practice the wrong way. The important thing is number one accepting responsibility for everything that happens in your life. That is part of being a man.
“Then two, valuing the journey of self-improvement and what I can do to help the team. If our focus is on that, we are going to be fine. What we can’t focus on is the disappointment or the ‘he said this,’ or ‘we’re not this.’ If we can focus on self-improvement and what I can do to help the team, we’ll be fine.”
Following his speech, the Vols proceeded to have one of their best practices of the year by all accounts. According to Dooley, the improvement was a result of the team’s mindset. Instead of focusing on outside “clutter,” they set their sights on improving as a team instead.
“What you think about is so important,” Dooley said. “That’s what I was telling the team. What do you think? What do you focus on? You have to look yourself in the mirror and you have to answer to your teammates.
“If you can feel good about looking in the mirror and what my teammates are saying about me, you will see improvement and you will have a little peace in your life.”
Dooley’s speech, and other individual conversations he has had throughout the week, have not fallen on deaf ears.
One of his veteran players, Rajion Neal can see a definite boost in the team’s morale.
“I am pretty confident in us,” Neal said. “Coach Dooley has been giving us inspirational talks and talking to us individually, giving us a bunch of words before practice and definitely in our meetings yesterday. He is making everybody stay up and leave it in the past, and we had a good day at practice today. I feel like everybody let it go and moved on because we have a long season ahead of us.”
GREAT DAY FOR BRAY
Junior quarterback Tyler Bray has been the subject of much criticism following the Florida loss. But the external talk hasn't bothered Bray. The signal caller says it comes down to improved play on the field.
"I just have to go out and make plays," said Bray. "I just have to execute. We do the same thing every day, I just have to execute."
His head coach said Bray performed very well during Tuesday's indoor session and knows the role of quarterback comes with many responsibilities, many of which Bray is still adapting to.
"Tyler was really great today and he didn't feel good," said Dooley. "You look at all those NFL studies and a quarterback starts playing his best ball in the NFL in year six and year seven. That's a long time. Up to that point, there are a lot of mistakes, a lot of highs, some great plays, tremendous criticism.
"There is not a quarterback out there that hasn't gone through that. Tyler has made some great strides but he is still on a journey learning how to be a complete quarterback. He wants to be, I think he can be and I think he will be. He is ready to get into that situation again and respond a little better than he did, I know he is."
Bray is looking forward and isn't reflecting on the past. He didn't even watch the second half of the Florida game.
"It's not tough at all, it's the last game," he said, "we have to move on to Akron and hopefully get a win.
"A quarterback's role is always going to be a leader. I'm working on it, have to get better, and move forward."
BIG SAFETY SHOES TO FILL
Following the Vols' starting safety Brian Randolph's injury during Saturday's game against Florida, movements on the depth chart were made to cover the starter's absence.
The most notable is junior safety Brent Brewer move to the starting strong safety position.
"Brent has the capability of playing well," said head coach Derek Dooley. "This is a good opportunity for Brent to get in there and show that he is a capable starter. I think he has all the tools to be that."
Brewer says he is comfortable with the move and isn't worried about the changes being made. He says he, as well as the safety opposite him Byron Moore, are prepared.
"There won't be too big of an adjustment," Brewer said. "We are pretty used to it from camp and everything. I just have to step in and play. [Byron Moore and I are] both doing the same thing on both sides of the field - coming out, talking to each other and making sure we're on the same page and running the same plays. We're both comfortable. We get the sign from Coach Sunseri and communicate it to everybody else and make sure everyone is on the right page."
Brewer is aware of how knowledgeable Randolph was as safety and is also aware that he will need to be just as knowing of his playbook.
"Last year, we had to do the same thing," said Brewer. "It's just a little more communicating and making sure everybody is doing the same thing. [Brian Randolph] is a super smart guy. He knew every play in the playbook. [Filling Randolph's shoes] falls on both of us - me, Byron (Moore) and the whole defense."
Brewer is ready to step up for his team and be a starter once again.
"I'm excited to prove what I can do on a daily basis and come in each week and work hard," Brewer said. "Hopefully I can get a couple big hits this week."
WAGGNER: BE A PRO
There's more to being a good play-maker than just physical strength. Senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner has proven to his team that knowledge on and off the field, in the play book and in the classroom - it's all important.
In his fifth year, Waggner is using his experience on the defense to help out the younger players and show them how to be a well-rounded, positive asset to their team.
"I would say that [I have been taking more responsibility]," Waggner said. "Like today at practice, every time the offense would come out in a formation, I would be yelling what play it was to try and help those guys out at safety, because the safety is our quarterback."
Besides just play-making, a lot of the game is mental. Waggner tries to help his defensive teammates learn to forget what's in the past and become better because of it.
"One thing I try to tell the guys in the room is to just be a pro," said Waggner. "In the NFL, guys lose a game then come back the next game and have a great game. So that's the main thing we stress in the defensive back room is to be a pro on and off the field, even in practice."
As a veteran, Waggner continues to lead by example for his younger teammates to be professional everywhere they go.
Junior James Stone knows that the energy level of the Vols late into the Florida game was lacking. But he also knows that you have to address the problem and move on.
"When you look at the film," said Stone, "you have to look at it objectively to see where the mistakes were and address it in practice. That is the only time you will get better if you address it in practice."
As the player that starts every offensive play in the game at center, Stone believes that he personally is getting better as the season progresses and making the right calls for his linemates.
"I feel like I am getting better with making calls for everybody and facilitating communication from tackle to tackle," said Stone. "If you want to be a good offense in the SEC you have to be able to overcome. You have to go out there and be able to execute your offense whether you are down, up or tied."
One thing junior tailback Rajion Neal took away from the Florida game is that when his team falls behind, they need to keep their heads up, go out and handle their business.
Against Florida, the Vols were not able to do that.
"Some things just didn't go our way and I feel like as a team we didn't react well," said Neal. "That is really a part of the game, things won't go your way all of the time, it is just how you react to those things. I think we just didn't handle it the right way."
What Neal and the rest of the Vols have learned from the game is the importance of being proactive in times of adversity.
"I am pretty confident (now)," said Neal. "I am sure that we are going to learn from this film like we have been doing. We are going to give ourselves a better chance not to even get put into situations like that. It is time to go ahead and put the foot down and keep rolling. We came out, had a good drive, and just lost it a little bit once adversity hit. We want to just be proactive about letting that even happen, before it gets started."
This proactive approach has transitioned over to preparation for Akron, an opponent that Neal doesn't take lightly.
"Every week the coaches tell you that you can't take anyone for granted," said Neal. "You have to go out there and have good days of practice and it starts Sunday after the game. You can't look past anybody and you can't dwell on the past. It has been said to us but we treat everybody the same, we come out prepared, work hard and fight to win every game."
SUPPORTING SPECIAL TEAMS
General Neyland’s sixth game maxim reads, “Press the kicking game. Here is where the breaks are made.”
The importance of special teams is not lost on current Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley either. Since arriving in Knoxville, he has taken a hands-on approach to a phase of the game normally delegated to assistants and it has paid off.
This season, the Vols are in the upper echelon of the league in multiple special teams categories, including kickoff return coverage (26.9) and punt return average (9.8). The upward trend in the return game continues to be a staple under Dooley, as UT’s averages have climbed in each of the last two seasons. After allowing 10.3 yards per punt return during the 2011 season, Tennessee is allowing opponents an average of only 3.3 yards per punt return thus far in 2012.
“That’s why I am so involved in special teams,” Dooley said. “First of all, it is a great evaluation tool of what their strengths and weaknesses are as a player. You know, their twitch, their size, their speed, their competitiveness, their instincts, their ability to learn and process. You can see it on a real small level and then you can better project what he is going to look like when he is in there on defense or offense. He showed that on special teams.
“It is also a great opportunity for those guys to go get their feet wet. Dan Gray was out there at corner and the gunner ran right by him. He didn’t even touch him. You’d rather that happen than a receiver run right by him for an 80-yarder, so you’ve got to get out there and get your feet wet when the consequences, hopefully, aren’t as big. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. We are on them and coaching them and you can see how they progress on special teams.”
In addition to being used to evaluate some of the team’s younger players, Dooley also sees it as a way to get some of the team’s veteran players who may not be at the top of the depth chart on the field more often.
“Every team has their starters that play on special teams, then these young, promising, talented guys and then you have what we call core guys who maybe aren’t starters but are on every special teams and they have the size, speed, effort, toughness and instincts to pour it all in and commit to being a great special teams player,” Dooley said. “Channing [Fugate] is one of those guys. Dontavis Sapp is one of those core guys. They have just given us a lot of production. [Channing] has been our player of the week twice out of three weeks on special teams.”
TENNESSEE HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Tuesday’s practice)
“They had good energy, made a lot of mistakes, there is a lot to polish up and clean up, but it was a good practice.”
(On the possibility of Daniel McCullers not playing many snaps against Akron)
“There is a good possibility of that, given the amount of sub stuff that they do.”
(On redshirting freshmen quarterbacks)
“Yeah, because it means you’ve got a good one playing. Definitely. You don’t ever want to get to where you have to play a true freshman unless he is some ridicuous, I don’t know what. It’s a hard position and there is so much glory that comes with it and so much criticism that comes with it. That’s just how it is. It’s one step removed from what my position is. When you are the head coach you get all this praise when everything goes good and when things goes bad you are just a disaster. That’s just part of it.”
(On Curt Maggitt’s toe injury)
“He seemed fine today, so I’m hoping it kind of slowly goes away.”
(On Marsalis Teague)
“He was out there working today with a good attitude.”
(On A.J. Johnson playing better at a lower weight)
“I don’t know if it is the weight loss or just the year of training that he was able to do. He played as a true freshmen so it was really his first offseason training. The way we train, I think it is going to get better and better each year, just like a lot of guys on our team.”
(On nearly blocking a punt against Florida)
“That’s two in a row now. We almost had one [against] Georgia State. We were close on both of them.”
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
“LaDarrell shows a lot of promise ability-wise. We have three freshmen that have a lot of ability, but it is a question of how quickly they can get to where they can play good, winning football for us.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On Coach Dooley saying that sometimes he wants to succeed too much)
“I think he means that sometimes I just try to make a play that's not there. I force the ball down field trying to make that play to get back into the game instead of just going through my possessions and doing what the offense needs me to do.”
(On if the players responded well when Dooley challenged them in practice this morning)
“Yes. We had a great practice. It was probably one of our best Tuesday practices that we've had as far as energy level and tempo.”
(On how close they felt like they were to executing)
“It's just inches. If I throw it with a little less air under it and I hit CP right here it's a touchdown, if I wait for Justin to clear through it might be a touchdown, it's just little things.”
(On what happened on the play where he got the intentional grounding called on him)
“A blitzer just came free. I tried to throw it to an out pattern, and I got up and pointed saying 'hey, he was supposed to be running an out route' to the ref, but he threw the flag.”
(On if there's an understanding on the team that it's going to be like this sometimes in SEC play, and that you won't be able to score 50 points every game)
“If our run game wasn't there, it's not the running back's fault, it's not the offensive linemen's fault. We just weren't clicking at the right time. Either the linemen are blocking and the running back might miss a hole, or the linemen aren't blocking and the running back is running well. Everyone just wasn't on point.”
JUNIOR DB BRENT BREWER
(On the defensive communication on the field)
“It’s very hard. When everyone is on the field, everyone has to communicate and talk so everybody is on the same page and knows what they are doing.”
(On burden being more vocal)
“Middle linebackers could be running a different play, defense line can be running something else. Everybody just has to talk and communicate.”
(On getting better at communicating)
“Just getting everybody to know the signs. Multiple signs can put pressure on the defensive backs, and the linebackers may not know the signs. They’ll go over to Coach to get the signs. So just making sure the D-line knows them.”
(On moving forward)
“Staying focused and playing hard. When that second half comes around, just keep pushing and fighting through the fourth quarter.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On his performance against Florida)
“I feel like I did alright. There is still room for improvement but I feel like I was productive and did what was asked of me when I was called on. The majority of them I got what I could. There were some where I got shoe string tackled when I got excited being out there in the open field. It is never a perfect game, there are still things that I know I need to work on and that will come with time and definitely help us win more games.”
“At the end of the day, I wanted to win so bad that I could have had two yards and I would have been happy. I wanted to do everything I could on my half to help this team be successful and win.”
(On Tyler Bray’s passion in the Florida game)
It was different, but you could just tell the passion that he was playing with and how bad he wanted to win. It wasn’t more or less we were just mad at how frustrated he was, we could just tell that he wanted it so bad it got the best of him, and it did that to many of us.
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On quarterbacks who can run)
“It’s real hard because you have to stay disciplined. Our guys have to keep the edges and in the Florida game, we let the quarterback get outside on the edges so that’s the main thing with the D-line – just containing the edge and playing disciplined football.”
(On bad communication)
“Right now we are expected to have no trouble with [communicating], but realistically, we aren’t perfect out there. We learned a lot [this week], our scheme is tough; we have a lot of plays. So the main thing is just to not have as many errors as we did in the Florida game. I would say that [the reason we have bad communication is that] guys aren’t talking every down. They’re getting discombobulated into what we’re doing, but we have to help each other out every play. So the main thing is just getting things like that down. Every practice, the whole secondary is asking, ‘what’s the call?’ so that we can [get used to] talking every play at practice.”
“We’re going to have some busts every game but the big thing is to keep all the guys on the same page and just work together.”
(On Marsalis Teague)
“He’s normal. Playing the cornerback position is really tough. You’re going to have some bad games, you’re going to get beat, you’re going to get scored on, but that just comes with the territory. That’s the life we live and that’s what we have to deal with. [Marsalis Teague] is all right though.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On the morale of the team)
“Morale has been a little down but we came out and had a great practice. The guys were a little down before practice so we called it up and got everybody on board. We had a great practice.”
(On getting the team’s morale up)
“Yes. Curt Maggitt and I did the chant we always do. We got the guys together and got a little hype and just went to individual and got going.”
(On comparing Akron’s offense to another team)
“Maybe Oregon. They have a fast tempo offense. They run quick plays and snap the ball quick so we have to get lined up and get subs in and out.”
(On Akron’s scoring ability)
“It does. It shows you the team has talent and the ability to score points. You have to get lined up and play your defense no matter who the opponent is.”
(On the disappointing loss)
“It was really disappointing. Not just for myself but for the team. Just knowing how much investment we put in for the fans. We have been working hard ever since the Kentucky game last year. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted but it is a long season ahead so we are still looking forward.”
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On focusing on Akron)
I feel like we really had a good practice today. I think we really got after it out there and that is what it takes. You can’t linger too long on a win or a loss you have to go out there and when practice comes you have to go to work.
JUNIOR LB CHANNING FUGATE
(On what makes him successful on kickoffs)
“You know, I just try to help the team as much as I can. Right now it’s on special teams, and I’m just running as hard as I can down there so I can smother some people.”
(On a special mentality to play on special teams)
“Yeah, it does. You just run down there reckless and try to make things happen.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at firstname.lastname@example.org)