KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – As the Volunteers continue preparation for their 32nd all-time meeting with the South Carolina Gamecocks, the time 12:01 has appeared in and around the Anderson Training Center this week.
Coming off the open week, the Vols’ hard work comes down to that exact moment, when Saturday’s SEC showdown at Neyland Stadium kicks off on ESPN.
YOUTH KEY TO PHASE THREE
From day one of spring ball the Tennessee coaching staff has stressed that football is a three-phase game.
Special teams can make or break a team’s performance each and every week.
Coach Mark Elder, the Vols’ special teams and tight ends coach, is responsible for relaying that message.
“It comes from us as coaches,” said Elder. “We emphasize it; we talk about how important it is. It’s one-third of the game; just as important as offense and defense. We emphasize it that way out on the practice field, talking about it away from the practice field in meetings and emphasize guys that are making plays in those areas.”
Many of those guys making plays on special teams are newcomers, and the coaching staff is showing their appreciation.
“They are getting just as much recognition as a guy making a play on offense or defense,” said Elder. “Guys get excited about that because when you emphasize it and are getting rewarded for it, they are excited and want to do it. It’s important for us to make it important to the team, and they’re buying into the whole concept. It’s been good and our special teams have been getting better throughout the season.”
The Vols will have a personnel change in that backline on kickoff return this week, as freshman defensive back Malik Foreman is new to the depth chart.
“We’ve put him back there and he’s done a nice job,” said Elder. “He runs the return well; he’s got good speed and so-forth. Anytime you’re trying a freshman out there for the first time at anything, I think there’s obviously the ‘hey there’s 100,000 people out here,’ and how that guy responds in that situation for the very first time.
“That’s always the concern. When you’re putting a guy out there for the first time in a big time game like this, that’s what you’re worried about. How he’s going to react when the lights come on and it’s a big time play.”
On the other side of the ball, the player that’s stood out is another rookie, freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The Clarksville, Tenn., native currently leads the team with six special teams tackles, including four on kickoffs.
“He’s running down the field, he’s avoiding blocks and he’s getting people down,” said Elder. “He’s a good football player; there is no question about that.
“In special teams where there’s less assignments, it’s essentially I’m going down there to tackle the guy. I have a couple assignments but it’s pretty simple, and a guy like him who has a knack for the football and is a good football player is shining now. He doesn’t think very much, he just goes down there and makes plays.”
ONE-TWO PUNCH BACK FOR BIG ORANGE
The Tennessee Volunteers will welcome back junior tailback Marlin Lane on Saturday, after missing the last six quarters of action due to injury.
According to running backs coach Robert Gillespie, Lane’s return could not have been more convenient with the Vols facing the No. 11/9 South Carolina Gamecocks in Neyland Stadium.
“It’s great to get him back,” said Gillespie. “Obviously, we’re prepared. He came at the right time, so he’s ready to go full speed on Saturday.”
With his return, along with the help of fellow running back Rajion Neal, Gillespie hopes to see more sustainment in the running game.
“One of our big three this week is to sustain, so we talk about sustaining long drives,” Gillespie said. “We have to do a great job. Coach Jones talks about it all the time – the best defense has a good offense. We have to do a great job of staying on the field, converting on third-and-short, third-and-long if we happen to get in those fourth-and-ones, if it comes to that.
“We just have to do a great job of sustaining drives. That helps our offense play faster. We’re not a tempo offense if we can’t sustain drives.”
The duo of Lane and Neal will provide more versatility to the Vols’ running game against a solid South Carolina defense.
“Rajion is better when he has somebody to push him,” said Gillespie. “He’s better – the pressure – so having a guy to push him and also to spell him during a long game or long drive definitely helps him become a more dynamic football player.”
Gillespie plans to use both Lane and Neal this weekend and has been pushing them throughout the bye week to earn that time.
“I think all the guys really understand where it’s coming from,” Gillespie said. “It starts at the top with Coach Jones and trickles down. We’re just a passionate group of coaches. We just want to see these kids have some success. It hasn’t changed. If anything, I’m tougher. They understand the demands.”
BIGGER. FASTER. STRONGER.
Richard Seymour, John Henderson, David Pollack, Glenn Dorsey, Terrence Cody and Jadeveon Clowney. The SEC has been built on fast and physical defensive lineman and those are just a few of the league’s recent most dominant players on the defensive front.
Prior to joining the Vols, offensive line coach Don Mahoney had seen a few SEC defensive lines and says he expected the week in and week out battles in the trenches.
“It is about what I expected,” said Mahoney. “There have been a few years through my experience of coaching and some of the years where we have played SEC teams and you see them, you just didn’t see them that often. Now it is every week so I expect it. But you watch it on film and see how active.
“Probably more so than anything is the depth. After the first year, the next year’s rotation of guys is in and there is not that big of a drop off in the play. It is a tremendous conference in the skills and the speed set from the guys, the linebacking corps and all that. The Georgia game, now this one, next week will be another one. It just keeps going on and on. This is the one that is the most important right now and this is a tremendous defense.”
Mahoney knows his men will have their hands full on Saturday.
“They are solid without a doubt,” Mahoney said about the Gamecocks’ defensive front. “They will be one of the best of the best that we’ve played thus far. They are solid and thick inside and the two ends are extremely active. They can create problems. It is another challenge of a week with a quality opponent, a good opponent in South Carolina and we have to be on-point.”
MAGGITT OUT, NOT DOWN
When addressing the media on Tuesday, head coach Butch Jones said Tennessee junior linebacker Curt Maggitt may be out for the year as he continues to make his way back from multiple injuries suffered last season.
"Right now I don't anticipating him playing,” said Jones. “I always think of the worst case scenario, we are not expecting him to play this year. If he doesn't he will redshirt and we will move on. If he is ready to go and based on where we are at in the season we will make the determination. Right now I am not expecting him to play."
Maggitt may not see the gridiron in 2013, but each and every Saturday he can be spotted on the sidelines getting behind his teammates and taking on a leadership role.
“Some days are really good it seems like, then he may have a setback but his attitude has been nothing but positive,” said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. “He’s our leader, even though he’s not out there playing with us, he gives a lot of spirit, excitement and energy.
“When he’s out there and he can go, he’ll go as hard as anybody out there on the football field. He’s a great competitor and we’ll need his leadership and play next season.”
A two-year starter, Maggitt suffered a season-ending knee injury against Missouri as a sophomore. He’s back on the practice field now, but as is the case with most injuries, some days are better than others.
“It’s progress; some days are really good and then it’ll flare up,” said Thigpen. “Some days are not so good. It’s whenever he gets ready. If he needs to sit out this year to get the mind right, that’s all between him and Coach (Butch) Jones. Again, we’re not going to rush him until he’s ready.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On the SC secondary scheme)
"They play a lot of base defense, and when I see a team that plays a lot of base defense, that means they're good players. They can let them go play and react, and that's what they do. They also have some packages on third down and in the red zone that give you some problems. Overall, we're going to have to play a great game to be in it."
(On concern for freshmen hitting a wall)
"I'm concerned about all of them. It's the grind of the season. Freshmen have never been through a grind like this, never have been demanded so much. So I am concerned about all of them. It is a daily progress with me and Coach Jones with the young guys. So I am concerned about all of them. It is day to day."
(On how much Pig Howard can handle)
"As much as he can handle. I tell him, the more you can handle, the more I can see you handle in practice, trust is earned in practice. Confidence is earned in practice. He knows that. He has had, knock on wood, a great two and a half weeks all around. So I am very pleased with him and I am going to keep grinding him."
(On Devrin Young returning from his injury)
"I think he is a little rusty but that is to be expected. We tried the keep him, the best we could, conditioned as a wideout, not just lifting and on the treadmill. He ran routes and all those things to keep his conditioning for football still up. Anytime you take four or five weeks off you are going to be a little rusty but he has bounced back pretty good."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE\
(On making big plays)
"We're close. Like I said, I think the biggest thing is that the offensive line gets better every week. I think last week I said, what is it that we're doing different, that Rajion's doing different, just the offense line gets better and better. We just fall through some nice holes, so we just have to keep trusting what is going on up front, keep understanding the system and I think the long ones are coming."
(On Rajion Neal getting a lot of carries)
"I don't know. I definitely don't ask him if he likes to play a lot more. I don't ask him that. Obviously, with more opportunities you get a chance to have a little bit more success. I always try to get those guys in the groove and they know whoever has the hot hand is going to play. We just play it by ear. If the game flows, certain plays are called and looking at the guys body language kind of dictates whether they stay in the game a little bit more."
(On Marlin Lane)
"Looks good. Perfect timing. The bye week came along at the right time and got him a chance to heal up and get fresh. He's been really good so far this week."
"I just talked to him walking off the field and he said, `Coach I'm ready for everything you could throw at me.' We don't make any decisions prior to the game. The game flow kind of dictates how much he plays, but it's definitely comforting to me as his position coach and us as an offense to say we have a guy ready willing to play."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On comfort in returners)
"I feel great about it. We've been repping those guys all year long. They take just as many reps being the number two spot as they would being the number one spot. They've been taking a ton of reps all year long and feel like they'll do a nice job."
(On usage of Devrin Young)
"We're getting a feel for that this week and Coach is going to make the decision on who's going to be back there with all our returns. We're certainly getting a feel this week for how he feels and if there's any step back from how he's been. We're excited about him being back soon."
(On special teams coverage)
"I think on our coverage units the last couple weeks; we've done a very nice job of tackling. That earlier in the season was an area we identified that we needed to improve. We had guys where we wanted them to be, but we weren't executing, we were missing at the point of attack. The last couple weeks we've done a nice job as far as getting people down and not missing tackles. The first guy that can hit him is getting him on the ground and that's big."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
"They create a lot of space plays, especially with their running back out. Then the times when the running back is out, the quarterback will take off. With our defensive line being able to tackle the quarterback on the scrambles, being able to tackle the running back, the Davis kid in space. All those guys create a challenge. With the receivers they throw a lot of "now" passes, smoke passes to get it out there on the perimeter where you can go one-on-one with a guy."
(On South Carolina's Mike Davis)
"He's probably one of the best ones in the league. You look at him every week, it's taking more than one guy to bring him down; he has a lot of great second efforts. You think the kid is down and he somehow falls for eight or nine more yards, great balance, and lower body strength is about as great as anyone I've ever seen."
(On Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
"One thing we say is you get what you earn. This young man is on special teams showing up, so we put him in the rotation. We got him in on a little bit of nickel, a little bit of base, putting him in there with the twos and threes, so he's worked his way up. Still not big or strong enough yet, but every day for him is a progress in motion. The kid is really getting better which is important."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On Antonio Richardson this week)
"I really haven't [seen a difference in Tiny]. Because I haven't made much of it. [Jadeveon Clowney] also plays over Ja'Wuan (James) as well. He will also play over James Stone as well where they use him in different areas. This is about us as a team, us as a unit. There hasn't been much made of that. From my standpoint it is like I said. We have to go out and get better as a unit, we have to play better than we did. We have had a good bye week, we have had a good three days this week, that has been the importance. This is a team game. I know much has been made of that but I am not getting caught up in that and I am not letting him.
"The biggest thing I stressed to him, I haven't avoided it but I said this. `A good play happens, move on. A bad play happens, move on. You can't hang on to the good and bad plays and let it affect the next three, four, five plays. Let's get that out of the way right now.' He and I have met like we normally do. It has been business as usual. In his mind he is excited and that is just about it."
(On SC's interior linemen)
"They have good, solid size in terms of tying up double teams which allows their linebackers to come into play but I am really, as much is being made of Clowney and outside and all, I think their inside players are really solid. I think they are raising their play out of not getting that much attention that is deserving of how they play because they are solid. It is going to be, early enough Saturday, whether it is one of the best fronts that we have seen thus far."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)