KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Football is a game of inches. After practice on Wednesday every member of the Vols was given an inch, literally. Coach Butch Jones had rulers cut into inches and they were distributed to the players to emphasize the importance of each inch.
"We talk about the phrase, `inches make a champion,' and as we've emphasized," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "The process of becoming champions is an inch-by-inch process.
"You're not going to go from the one-inch line to the three-yard line without covering some ground in a gradual process. Our guys know that improving on a daily basis and improving inch by inch is the way to become a champion."
The little things matter and that importance is being pushed by all of the coaches on Jones' staff. The Vols' running game is improved from the last few seasons, but Robert Gillespie continues to preach the inches mantra as well.
"We talk about in the running back room, we talk about turning eight into 80," Gillespie said. "There's still just finishing our runs a little bit better, and some holes we're missing and becoming better pass protectors, so there's a lot of areas we can continue to get better in, but the thing is, that those guys come in every day, eyes wide open trying to find the extra inch that Coach is talking about."
When South Carolina comes to Neyland Stadium on Saturday, the Volunteer defensive line will be tested against the Gamecocks versatile offense and mobile quarterback in Connor Shaw.
This isn't the first time the Vols have faced a running quarterback this season, but each week, each quarterback brings a new attribute that the defense must prepare for during practice.
"I think the fine line is holding your points but yet getting pressure on the quarterback and it is a fine line- telling them to sit there and hold your points on the quarterback, because you want to put pressure on the quarterback," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "The balance of finding that line of pressuring the quarterback and yet keeping him in the pocket."
Tennessee will have to do just that against the Gamecocks' senior quarterback.
"He has the ability to throw it anywhere when he is on the run- across the field, down the field, I think that is what makes him a little more dangerous, especially when you don't have a lot of eyes on him to see where he is going," said Stripling. "I think their quarterback is outstanding and extends plays, meaning that that he doesn't scramble to scramble, he scrambles to find a better position to throw the ball and that is what makes him dangerous."
Applying pressure to Shaw will be key, but must be done with great discipline.
"There is a fine line," Stripling said. "You want to apply pressure to the quarterback but you also want to maintain those points. Connor Shaw extends plays. He never pulls down to run for a few yards, he pulls down to get a better launch point. He has his eyes downfield. That is obviously the point of emphasis."
NEAL'S PROGRESSION PROCESS
One week ago Tennessee offensive coordinator Bajakain senior tailback Rajion Neal as his mid-season MVP. Leading the Vols in rushing attempts (108), rushing yards (616) and touchdowns scored (7) makes Neal the obvious favorite for the award.
But according the Bajakian, the Fayetteville, Ga., native has come a long way since the start of training camp.
"It's been a process and he's made progress every week," said Bajakian. "Since week one and our first day here, he's improved in a lot of ways. [He's improved] in our pass protection and in his ability to make runs in a physical manner."
Those aren't the only areas where Neal has made improvement. He's established himself as the go-to playmaker for the Vols.
"As guys make plays, they get the ball more," said Bajakian. "Rajion has proved that he can make plays."
One key to Neal's improvement has been his developing relationship with the offensive line.
"We've got a great relationship on and off the field," Neal said on Tuesday. "We find ourselves sometimes off the field talking about games, stuff that we might have done during practice that just spring up on us. We're always kind of around each other talking about ball and just really spending time with each other."
At the encouragement of the coaching staff, that relationship has also blossomed in the film room.
"We encourage our guys to watch as much video as possible and to watch as a group," said Bajakian. "I think the receivers understanding what the quarterback is seeing and vise-versa is important. The running backs understanding what the offensive line is trying to accomplish and vise-versa is important.
"The offensive line knowing the running backs' reads and painting a clear picture for him is an important part of executing. We talk about 11 hats being on the same page. In offensive football, if one guy doesn't execute and 10 guys execute very well, the play can get blown up. In order to execute on the same page I think they all need to have an understanding of the entire scheme and the entire concept."
Neal also said that he's joined the guys on the o-line in the film room more this season than past campaigns, and credits the coaches for that.
"It's definitely more of the coaches," said Neal. "The coaches are bringing a lot out of us and have a lot of high expectations. We definitely find time to kind of get in and sit in with those guys and pick their brains a little bit."
A FAMILIAR FOE
There are two coaches on the Vols staff that are very familiar with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez went head-to-head with Spurrier from 2005-09 when they were at Georgia, winning four of their five match ups.
What they also know is that they better be ready heading into Saturday's meeting with the Gamecocks.
"His teams are always well prepared," said Martinez. "They are well coached. He has had great players. Bottom like that is what it is all about. Nothing to take away from him, he is a great coach, his record speaks for itself. But it is about the players."
This season, Spurrier has a slew of offensive talent.
"He has got a great experienced quarterback to run the offense," said Martinez. "A great tailback in Mike Davis and really a great receiving corps that has been productive. It all starts up front with a great offensive line so they got players."
With all of the good players that Spurrier has had over the years, he has always adapted his offense to their abilities.
Exactly what he is doing with quarterback Connor Shaw.
"When he had Lattimore he adapted to his strengths and formed his offense around him and now he has Connor and he is doing some really good things with him," said Jancek. "I just think he is a smart ball coach. He isn't stubborn, he sees what his talented level is, he sees what the skillsets of his players that he has and he adapts accordingly. There are a lot of things that he still does but I think to his credit he has adapted to what he players can do."
Jancek knows that they better be ready for anything when it comes to a Spurrier coached team.
"He is aggressive, he is going to take a shot," said Jancek. "He is aggressive. You have to know the situation. He is a guy who is going to try and open it up and hit you right off the get go, he is going to come out swinging. That is what makes it exciting."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)