KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Vol assistant coaches met with the media on Wednesday to talk about Saturday's clash in Tuscaloosa. They spoke about how the Vols are readying for the challenge of taking on the No. 1 team in the nation, 7-0 Alabama.
When coach Butch Jones spoke on the SEC Teleconference on Wednesday, challenge was one of the first words he said: "Obviously a tremendous challenge ahead of us," said Jones. "I think Alabama, as we all know, is a very, very complete football team.
Very disciplined, very sound, very skilled. And that's one thing, they're extremely athletic, very disciplined, very well-coached, tremendous efforts. Defensively, it all starts up front. They're extremely disruptive but in the back end I've been very, very impressed."
Check out these comments from the Vols' coaches on the challenge at hand as UT seeks its third all-time win over the No. 1 team in land -- and first since 1985.
Mike Bajakian, Offensive Coordinator: "They don't make a lot of errors and they make you earn every yard you're going to get. You don't see a lot of explosive plays against them. You don't see a lot of MAs (missed assignments) on their part. It's a good challenge and our guys are excited about the opportunity to go out and execute.
John Jancek, Defensive Coordinator: "They pose a lot of issues. They are a complete offense. They have big, physical offensive line, they have great running backs, a great quarterback and then guys on the outside where they can take you deep at any point. They are outstanding and we have a big, big challenge."
Robert Gillespie, Running Backs Coach: "This is just another week where we are going to face a stout defense. They don't give up a lot of rushing yards. They don't give up a lot of yards anywhere. It is going to be a big challenge for us but you know hopefully we come out and start fast and play a complete football game."
Willie Martinez, Defensive Backs Coach: "We're going to be challenged in all areas from the running game and also the passing game. Like I say every week, whenever you've got a great quarterback, a great running back corps and a great receiver that becomes a stressful situation for the defense."
Steve Stripling, Defensive Line Coach: "I think (Tennessee's defensive linemen) have really improved and obviously challenges ahead are big time so we have to really improve."
Tommy Thigpen, Linebackers Coach: "They have the best running back corps in America. (T.J.) Yeldon kid and (Kenyan) Drake, they present some problems. They are going to keep those guys fresh. We need to make sure we are fresh as well. They are the best running football team in America, they have the best backs. It is going to be a challenge for us on defense."
LET'S GET LOUD
The Vols have had their home crowd behind them the past two games but going into Bryant Denny Stadium against the Crimson Tide will bring a whole new atmosphere that Tennessee hasn't witnessed in a few weeks.
As a result, the Tennessee Volunteers brought practice inside today for many different reasons- one of the main reasons being to practice communication in a hostile environment.
"We talked to our team about taking the next step in the evolution of becoming a championship program, becoming a winning team, winning with consistency and to do that you have to be able to win on the road in all the elements that you'll face," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian.
Bajakian believes that practicing inside challenged the team to work harder on their nonverbal communication and with "Sweet Home Alabama" and crowd noises blaring inside four walls, communication doesn't come easy.
One thing that is becoming easier for the Tennessee offense is the connection between quarterback Justin Worley and his receivers. Each week, Bajakian is seeing progression in each offensive player and he credits a lot of that to the snap and clear mentality the players have been implementing.
"He's [Worley] playing with more confidence," Bajakian said. "He's making great decisions, but more than anything, he's protecting the football. When you protect the football, you're going to give your team a chance to win. He's managing the football game. He's done a good job of understanding the game plan and taking that approach to the field."
Bajakian notices Worley and the receivers' improvements each and every day.
"He's developing a rapport with all the receivers on where he needs to put that the ball, what they do well, maybe what their deficiencies are, and that's helped his decision making process as well," Bajakian said.
"I've always had a lot of confidence in them [the receivers]," said Bajakian. "Now that we're going out and executing, we're able to sustain drives a little bit more. We're getting more first downs on first and second downs and that's what's helped us have some of those scoring drives."
PUSHING IT TO THE LIMIT
Heading into fall camp, Steve Stripling was worried about his depth on the defensive line during the 2013 season.
Couple that with injuries to Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen and Stripling thought he might have had a five man rotation this season.
Last week the defensive line rotated in 10 guys against South Carolina.
"You look at the development of people, talking about the [Danny] O'Brien's the Greg Clarks, and those guys that I wasn't sure could provide rotation work," said Stripling. "They do. They are able to play in games. That is what you hope for. You are always hoping to get 8-12 guys to play in games."
Unlike the back seven, Stripling is constantly rotating in players throughout the games.
"I think by the nature of the position, I have respect for our linebackers and secondary because they are taking lots of reps," said Stripling. "But as a D Lineman you are leaning on 2-300 pound guys that are trying to run the ball, the rotation is very healthy for them."
Knowing that they will have someone coming in for them within a few plays has helped the front four go all out against their opponents. Especially last weekend when they nabbed SC starting quarterback for a season-high four sacks.
"I think it is one of those lessons that our team is learning, leave it all out there," said Stripling. "As a D Line, we talked about cross training, we talked about substituting. I told them to go play as hard as you can, there is a guy coming in soon. We are rolling guys."
"They know and now understand that they can go out there and play as hard as they can and if they need to come off the field, they can come off," continued Stripling. "We are teaching them the mentality that no matter what it takes I am going to get it done."
Entering the first season under Butch Jones it was a big question mark. Through seven games of the 2013 campaign the Vols' secondary is no longer a question mark, it's undoubtedly been one of the Big Orange's bright spots.
However, coaches are never satisfied and while Willie Martinez recognizes the progress his young group has made, he insists there is work to be done.
"We've improved in some areas," said Martinez. "Obviously, there are some areas that we've still got to get better. Anytime you're dealing with youth, there are mistakes being made and we've got to get those corrected. By no means have we arrived from a fundamentals standpoint.
"Obviously understanding our defense is still a work in progress in terms of understanding what we want. For things to come really naturally and quick - that's not happening - but most of the time the kids are on-point and come to work. That's the exciting thing - these guys want to get better and that's been the mindset from the beginning."
One player that's shown skill and experience far beyond his years has been freshman corner Cameron Sutton. The Jonesboro, Ga., native has started all seven games, leads the team with seven passes defended, is tied for first on the squad with five break ups and has two picks on the season.
Despite the rookie's success, Martinez is not concerned with Sutton losing his edge.
"Cam has a pretty steady Eddie kind of personality," said Martinez. "There's not much of an up and down and that's the way he practices - very businesslike - and that's what we like about him. It's important to him. But again, he knows he has a long way to go as far as being the player he wants to be. He's a young player that's made an impact on our defense."
Coach Jones is also proud of Sutton's every day demeanor.
"He is playing with a very high level of consistency," said Jones. "He is challenged each and every week. This week will be another great challenge for him. I like the way he manages his business. He comes every day with a mentality to get better. He works exceptionally hard and he is very mature."
Sutton and his fellow defensive backs are also helping out the Vols' defensive front.
"A lot of the success last week was because we were covering some people too. That really helps," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "Our back end did an outstanding job last week and that helps us out up front."
The young defensive backfield will have to continue that consistency this week, as the No. 1 Crimson Tide have a two-time national champ and one of the nation's best under center in AJ McCarron.
"He has the understanding of what a defense does," Martinez said about McCarron. "He's got a great grasp of knowledge; you can see that on film. He knows what to do with the ball. Whenever he's in trouble he gets rid of it, and doesn't really press, push or force it.
"He makes good decisions, has a great arm and you can see how confident he is. He presents a major challenge for us because he's not one of those guys that make a lot of mistakes. We've got to do a really good job of tackling, lining up properly, executing and making plays."
IMPROVEMENT VS. EXECUTION
Throughout the 2013 season it is apparent that the Vols defense has come together and improved.
Just over halfway through the year, the Vols have matched the 2012 season turnover total (17) and interception total (12). And are nearing in on the sack total, (17-2012, 12-2013).
"We have improved, there is no question about that," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "We have grown, we have moved on. I do see us improving each and every week."
The Vols best game this season came in a walk-off win over the Gamecocks.
"I think the guys played a hell of a game," said Jancek on the South Carolina game. "They were at their best when their best was needed. I was real proud of them, that has been our M.O. all year, they have just been very resilient and just consistent and have a great attitude every time they take the field. It is an opportunity for us to do something great for Tennessee. We just have to keep that and keep pushing forward."
The Vols have a tough test this weekend against another improving team, Alabama.
Alabama's front line on offense, which gave up seven sacks through the first four games, has yet to let up a sack in their last three.
"You have seen them get better and better every week," said Jancek. "They had some new offensive line that started the season for them but they seem like they are clicking now and they have a good chemistry up front. They are working well together, they move well together. They have gotten better."
"They execute," continued Jancek. "That is the thing that you see with them. AJ is really good with the ball, he will throw it away, he doesn't try to force things, he makes really good decisions with the football."
The Vols defense has been executing as well.
"I think when you look at the statistics of the game, we held South Carolina to 12 yards in the fourth quarter," said Jancek. "Obviously, when you are doing that you are in pretty good shape."
Here are sound bites from Coach Stripling, Coach Jancek, Coach Bajakian and Coach Martinez:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On how much the line has improved)
"I think it has been a gradual improvement. That is what we have talked about as a football team. The grind of the season, that each week you are preparing to win and what we try and do each week as the D-Line is we have a little sheet that we fill out of an individual weakness that we want to focus on that week. Each day we will come in and write a note down, did I get better at it, focus at it. It is all encompassing."
»(On Marlon Walls being a surprise)
"Yeah it is a big spike. I will go back to the first thing that I ever said about these seniors was that they are a great group of kids. They have great attitudes. You take Marlon, Corey Miller and Dan Hood, those guys they come to practice every day with a smile on their face and when you do that you have the opportunity to really get better. I am just proud of them and it is great to see them having some success."
»(On reps in the weight room helping on the field)
"No question. We are talking about the program will prepare you, you just have to buy in and these kids have. The overall conditioning, Coach Jones does an excellent job of managing the team as far as their energy and the practice reps and all of those things. I think it is showing. Everybody else is talking about being banged up and we are actually fairly healthy and going strong."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On going into Alabama with confidence)
"It's part of the snap and clear mentality. When we stumble and fall we have to put that snap behind us and when we have success, we have to put that snap behind us. Again, it's just the next step in the evolution of winning and that is making sure we can handle success and continue to grow and improve each and every day."
»(On Alabama defense)
"Their scheme has remained pretty consistent and they always have their wrinkles each week in their game plans, but they do what they do and they do it well."
»(On Justin Worley)
"Part of the process of improving on a daily basis - he's playing with more confidence. He's making great decisions, but more than anything, he's protecting the football. When you protect the football, you're going to give your team a chance to win. He's managing the football game. He's done a good job of understanding the game plan and taking that approach to the field."
»(On Marquez North)
"Wow. You know all three catches frankly that Marquez had were unbelievable. Every single one of them were just, I don't know if I can describe it. Obviously being able to do it in a critical situation at the end of a game like that is impressive, especially for a freshman.
"Sure there's a natural skill that goes into it and he's worked hard. He's worked hard about being aggressive to the football. Make no mistake about it- I don't think it was luck. What he was able to execute on that particular play is a testament to the work that he's put in. We've stressed all along about attacking the football when it's in the air and high point to the ball and he was able to do that on his plays."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On AJ McCarron)
"Great poise in the pocket, knows where to go with the football, doesn't panic, very patient, knows how to manage the game. Obviously, he is a guy who has won a lot of football games, national championships. He is very poised back there. It looks like he has a really good pulse of the offense, leading their offense. I have a lot of respect for him. He is a great player."
»(On the defense gaining confidence)
"I don't think our guys lacked confidence. We have been the same and that is what my message has been the whole time. Let's just keep doing what we have been doing. We don't need to change from week to week. We don't have to have a different philosophy for this ball game versus the last ball game. We have to go out and execute.
It is about what we do and focusing on us and getting better every single practice and each and every opportunity to play football. I think I see that even demeanor with our defense. Not too up and not too down, staying business like."
»(On Alabama's weaknesses)
"They don't have many, let's put it that way. I would have to go back and really study the film to try and find some. I think they are a really complete offense. Offensive line is really good. Quarterback is obviously outstanding, proven leader, proven winner. The receivers can really run and they have great route concepts, they throw the ball down the field. And the backs are outstanding."
ASSISTANT HEAD COACH/DBs COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On tackling being an emphasis)
"It's like that every week and it's always going to be the main emphasis. Our goal this week is to do a really good job on first down - they do a great job of staying out of third down. So we have to do a really good job on first and second down and get them in a long-yardage situation. You've got to be able to tackle. These guys do a great job of making guys miss from a physicality standpoint and also from their athleticism as far as changing direction. Our work is cut out for us."
»(On if they're getting better at tackling)
"It wasn't good last game. We've got to improve, that's the emphasis this week. We've got to do better."
»(On what sticks out about this Alabama team)
"It's very consistent with all the other championship teams from a standpoint of how businesslike they are, fundamentally sound, how they execute and they have a lot of playmakers."
»(On holding opposing QBs under 200 yards passing)
"We really don't look at [yards] as much as we look at how well we're stopping the run. That dictates how your pass defense is. We've got to do a lot better job of defending the run as a defense. Yards isn't really the important thing - obviously it's points and not giving up explosive plays."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)