Freshman Marquez North made a name for himself for one of the most clutch catches that any of the Vol coaches had seen in their careers.
North, who has a habit of reeling in one-handed catches for big yardage, outmuscled Ahmad Christian for a 39-yard gain to put the Vols in field goal position and set up the victory.
"Up there, right there, especially where we are a program, just everything that catch meant," said wide receiver coach Zach Azzanni.
"But I tell you what, there were a lot of plays that led up to that catch to help that out. Justin Worley made an unbelievable throw as he got hit and we got a piece of the defense end with the back and the line held up we just get out small part with making the catch."
North's name was trending worldwide for 15 minutes after his one-handed, game-changing grab and nationally for 25 minutes.
But the play would never have been made if there wasn't a mindset change to attack.
"Attacking the ball in the air and going to get it," said Azzanni of North's mindset. "He wasn't going that early on in camp and early on in the season. There were a couple that he could have done that earlier in the season and he didn't. We have really focused on that. He came up big and used all the things that we did and worked on and came down with a couple."
Azzanni isn't surprised in North's ability. The freshman finished the game with just three catches, but for 102 yards.
"The first two [catches]I know how they happened," said Azzanni. "He went and he did what we had been working on."
The final grab ...
"Now that last one was just him being him," said Azzanni. "He made a heck of a play. You don't teach that one. He was confident because he made those first two. It was really neat for him to come down with that, just to give him some confidence and give everyone confidence."
North's on-field confidence hasn't changed who he is off the field.
"He is the same kid," said Azzanni. "He is pretty even keeled that is what I like about him. He is pretty simple and pretty even keeled and he comes to work which is why he is improving."
Speaking for the first time since senior kicker Michael Palardy drilled a 19-yard field goal to snap the Vols' 19-game losing streak to ranked teams, special teams coach Mark Elder said Palardy's success on Saturdays starts at Haslam Field.
"It comes down to he is consistent in practice," said Elder. "That is the biggest thing. You are going to play on Saturday how you practice during the week. He comes out here and he performs well in practice and he takes that confidence of doing well Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to the field on Saturday and does well."
Not only is Palardy shining as a place-kicker in 2013, but the Florida native is getting it done on the punt and kickoff units, where he's sent 16 deep for touchbacks.
"Being able to get the ball deep in the end zone is huge," said Elder. "Being able to place the ball in the proper spot, if it is not in the end zone is also equally important because everyone is sending their coverage unit a certain direction, whether it is middle, right or left.
"It is critical that if it's not deep in the end zone where they are taking a knee that you get it in the right spot. He has done a really nice job as far as the depth of his kicks, here and there he can improve slightly on his accuracy with that. But by in large he is doing a nice job as far as punting, placing, kicking and kicking off."
On the other side of the ball this week, Elder believes special teams have played a huge role in the Crimson Tide's No. 1 ranking and 7-0 record.
"Absolutely ... their punting, I think they are 10th in the country; they are averaging something like 47 yards a punt. He (Cody Mandell) is outstanding. Kicking off, they are difficult to get the ball past the 20-yard line. I am certain that the kicker can put the ball deep in the end zone, but they just put it inside the five and force you to return the ball. They do a remarkable job in their coverage unit.
"Obviously, a couple big returns for touchdowns, they blocked a punt and they are extremely dynamic in the return game. Their special teams, just as much as their defense or offense, it is one-third of the reason why they are winning their ball games there is no doubt."
FLIPPING A SWITCH
Forty-four consecutive games.
Senior offensive lineman Ja'Wuan James has started every game of his Tennessee career at right tackle. Staying at the top of your game for that long is tough, not to mention staying healthy in the trenches.
UT offensive line coach Don Mahoney thinks the way James' presents himself off the field and his ability to flip the switch is what's gotten him here.
"He has to be in a mindset - there's a time to be serious and there's a time that he is who he really is and like you said, he's kind-hearted, gets along with the guys in the manner which he's himself.
"Then, when it's time to be business, whether it's in the weight room, meetings, on the field, it's like coach said, you cross those lines, you flip a switch, and that's exactly what he does."
It's hasn't been a calendar year, but Mahoney knows he's going to miss James when his senior campaign is over.
"He's definitely one that I'm going to miss being around, because even on gamed ay, he knows how to keep us all in check with his personality and the things he'll say and see. Extremely intelligent - he sees the things we're both discussing on the sideline and when I watch the film on Sunday. He's right on with everything that he's said.
"There's not seeing things that aren't there. There are not things that are happening that aren't there. It's exactly what it is. He's a very intelligent, extremely smart and very trustworthy."
FACING A FAMILIAR FOE
The Iron Bowl, the annual clash between Auburn and Alabama, is undoubtedly one of the top rivalries in football.
Having spent the past four seasons with the Tigers - winning the 2010 season BCS national championship - Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is very familiar with the Crimson Tide.
But in just a short time on Rocky Top, he now has a firm hold on the importance of the Third Saturday in October, which is actually being played on the fourth Saturday in October this season.
"It is just as big," Thigpen said on the Tennessee-Alabama rivalry. "Our guys are really into it this week. They know it is one of the biggest games of the year with them being the No. 1 team in America. You have to get up for that team and I think our guys have accepted the challenge."
Thigpen's experience at Auburn has also made him very familiar with the atmosphere at Bryant-Denny Stadium
"That is probably one of the most electric stadiums in the country," said Thigpen. "It is probably one of the better ones in the country. It is going to be loud. Their fans are all into it. This is the best of the best. This is what you play for in the SEC. If you match up with those guys it says a lot about you.
"That program, year in and year out is going to be top five in the country. This year they are No. 1, two national championships in a row. What better game to make a statement for Tennessee Football?"
Two national championships in two years, but Thigpen believes this Crimson Tide team to be even stronger.
"It seems like they have gotten stronger," said Thigpen. "They're younger than years in the past; they've been an older football team. This year they have a lot of young talent, you look at (Kenyan) Drake and T.J. Yeldon both of those guys are young. Christion Jones has really stepped up and been their main target at wide receiver. It just looks like everyone has gotten better and better and more confident. They are playing really well together now."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On the leadership at wide receiver)
"They are getting tighter as a group. Pig [Howard] is being a good leader for us, really trying to keep the group together. He has done a heck of a job. Relationships are built for good and bad. Good teams and good positions are built for good and bad. It is not always rosy and we have fought through the adversity and up and down and that is what is making us tighter as a unit."
»(On Pig Howard's improvements)
"He has taken a bunch of steps forward. The catalyst? That is a great question. I don't know. Like I said, I think the light goes on at different times. I think he probably finally started understanding that there is a method to our madness here. Coach Z maybe doesn't have horns coming out of his head, maybe he understands what he is doing. I think he is starting to by in and you can see it. He is starting to do the things that I coach, the things that coach Jones' coaches. And it is working. He pops up and says, `wow, that really works.' Being a great student of the game, coming in and meeting, sitting up and taking notes, and just being a big time player. That is what he is starting to do and it is working for him. Just like anything, if it is working, he wants more. It is starting to climb on itself."
»(On finding a weakness in Alabama)
"It is difficult. They have been coaching and recruiting to their system for eight, nine years now, I am not even sure, it is a long time, a lot longer than the eight months we have been. It is very hard. They are very well coached. You can tell they are very well coached in a system when one guy comes out and the next guy goes in and there is no drop off. They know exactly what they are doing, they know how they are doing it. It is hard. That is why I said that we can't worry as much about what they do, being so young and inexperienced. We have to really come out and have blinder focus and just focus on what we are doing. I think a lot of times people see the `A' there and then all of a sudden they are `oh my gosh.' We just have to go play football and line up and relax. We are improving every week and hopefully we can keep that up."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
"They have a lot of good football players. That is the reality of it. They are recruiting well. They are not making very many mistakes in the recruiting category. So there is a lot of competition. When you have a No. 2 that is competing every single day because he is biting on the heels of No. 1 and that No. 1 leaves, he is ready to go. When they are recruiting well then they have the next guy in line.
"I think it stems from recruiting, that is the life blood of your program. So when they are recruiting well and recruiting very good football players it is just kind of that one guy leaves the next guy steps in. At least that what it seems like to me having an outsiders perspective."
»(On Alabama's Christion Jones)
"Their return unit is outstanding, both punt return and kick return. He is dangerous with the ball in his hands, there is no question about it. It is obvious, he has a touchdown in each of those areas. Some of it he has created for himself and some of it they blocked really well for him. He is someone we have to be aware of and do a great job of tackling and that is going to be big."
»(On Devrin Young taking the ball out of the end zone)
"I think he was excited to make a play. The big thing is as a player you have to know the times that a play is going to be made. The play is going to happen because everything aligns right, not because you go out and you become superman and you do something that you shouldn't do. Big plays occur when everybody does their job very well and you give great effort. That is when big plays occur not because some superman effort."
»(On Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
"He has done a nice job. On our coverage units he is leading on tackles. He is going a nice job. Obviously that was a big one because, we still had someone outside of him, Greg King was outside of him to contain the football, but that thing was going to get into some open green grass if he didn't make the play so we were excited about that."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Marlin Lane being back)
"In this league you've to have depth and it is a tough league. When you dedicate to the run like we do you have to have guys that can step in and play at any moment. We are very confident in Marlin and obviously very glad to have him around to play meaningful snaps."
»(On the improvement of the running game)
"I think we are a more confident offense all around. Quarterback, guys on the perimeter blocking, especially the guys up front and us running behind them. We have confidence we can run on anybody. As a play caller Coach (Mike) Bajakian is definitely confident in calling run plays. I think as a running back and a running back coach that sticks our chest out a little bit that we can carry the load of the offense."
»(On competition between Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane)
"I hope there is a rivalry. There should be. I want those guys to be friends off the field but when we close the door to our meeting room it is business. We step on the field and they talk, I want them to talk, communicate and help each other but there should always be a friendly rivalry. That kind of competition breeds success. We talk about that all the time. Obviously they are really good friends off the field but on the football field it is the best man who wants to get out there on the field."
»(On any weaknesses in Alabama)
"No. It is the reason they have won so many championships in the past four years. They are a good football team. We don't focus on what their weaknesses are, we just have to focus on what we can get better at. That is all that matters in the end."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On practicing tackling drills)
"I would say every day, that is one of our daily drills. Every day you start with a tackling drill. We missed about 14 tackles as a group on defense last week."
»(On recruiting in the state of Alabama)
"It is tough. You are talking about two programs, one is No. 1 in the country and one is No. 11 in the country. The last four years of national championships have been in that state. Those kids grow up fans of one or the other. It is a challenge to get in there and recruit that state.
"We have had some good ones. Tee Martin is the greatest one we have ever come out of there. With the up rise of our program we are going to try to go in there and at least take up a couple players every year."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)