KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Coming off the near upset of then sixth-ranked Georgia on Saturday, one thing is evident among the Vols: their confidence is up. Some of the Volunteers' playmakers have taken a major leap forward in the category, which has led to more success on offense.
With 153 yards per game over his last two contests, tailback Rajion Neal is playing the best football of his college career. His 148 yards vs. Georgia were the most by a Vols' back vs. an SEC opponent in four years.
Why is Neal playing at a higher level?
"Confidence," according to his position coach Robert Gillespie. "I think he is starting to really understand what is going on in the play. He has confidence in the guys around him. He is starting to see that his teammates trust him a little bit more and he is starting to see that the coaching staff trusts him more. It is just maturity."
Alton Howard continues to make major strides as he showed on Saturday with a career-high 116 all-purpose yards. His position coach points to an increase on confidence for Howard, which leads to success.
"Confidence comes with preparation," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said of Howard. "Confidence comes with training a little bit harder and when I'm a little bit hard on them. Hopefully that came out and helped us the other night."
Can you practice confidence? You can have confidence while you practice. That is where offensive coordinator sees Tennessee's players taking steps in building their habits to form a winning attitude.
"It is a process of becoming champions," said Bajakian. "Every day and every week we have improved. We need to continue to improve. There are a lot of details and a lot of habits that we need to continue to work on that could have made the difference in that ball game.
"We are getting better and we will continue to improve. We have said that since day one that it is a process and we are embracing the process."
REEVES-MAYBIN MAKING A STATEMENT
At the halfway point of the 2013 campaign, 14 true freshmen have seen the field for the Vols. Included in that is linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
With a team-high six tackles on special teams and a punt block that led to a Devaun Swafford touchdown last week, Reeves-Maybin is leaving a lasting impression on the Tennessee coaching staff.
"He's made some plays; he is really coming on," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "He's done a great job in special teams in the games. He's made a bunch of tackles. He covers a kick or the punt and he is making the play. He is really starting to improve."
Assistant coach Mark Elder believes the simplicity of special teams to be a great place for young guys to start and really prove themselves.
"He's a good football player; he's got a knack for playing the game," said Elder. "That's where I think you see guys that have a good feel for the game. They'll make their plays out there on special teams, where there's a little less thought process than maybe on offense or defense, where there's a lot of ins-and-outs to it.
"There's really not much thought to running down the field. So a guy like him - great knack for the game and a special player - he can run down the field on kickoff and make some plays or he can be on the field on punt and tackle a guy or block the punt. He's been remarkable as far as what he's done for us the last handful of weeks. His role has been huge on special teams."
While Reeves-Maybin continues to step up in the third phase of the game, Jancek may look his way when it comes to establishing depth at linebacker.
"We are looking for some guys that can provide us with some depth and pull some weight on defense," said Jancek. "He is certainly guy that we are going to consider and get him more in-tune with what we are doing and bring him along as quickly as possible."
NEAL STEPS IT UP IN HIS SENIOR SEASON
Against his home state of Georgia, senior running back Rajion Neal was on the field for 70 snaps, getting 33 touches during the game.
For Neal, 28 of those touches came on the ground as he churned for 148 yards and two touchdowns, while he also made five catches for 19 yards.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie is proud of Neal for his effort but stresses that 70 snaps is too many for any back.
"We probably should have gotten Tom Smith in a little bit," said Gillespie. "I don't like for a guy to play 70-some odd snaps. But, the fact that he was able to carry that load and play that many snaps definitely says a lot about him and how he is maturing as a football player."
Neal is coming into his own in his senior season running for back-to-back 100-yard games against South Alabama and Georgia. Gillespie attributes that to his mental approach to the game.
"The hitting yards, creating yards for yourself, is what great backs do," said Gillespie. "You always have to fall forward. [Rajion] has always had the strength and the size, but it's just the mental approach. Getting into his psyche a little bit more."
Gillespie is not a coach afraid to get in the faces of his players, and it seems to be working this year.
"Challenging him one-on-one on a man-to-man level, I think he is trying to respond to that and really change the perception of himself," said Gillespie "So far, midway through the year he is doing that."
Gillespie also believes that the improvement of the offensive line in conjunction with the running backs has made a difference.
"The offensive line is really good," said Gillespie. "Those guys keep getting better and the better they get, the better we get behind them. There is not a magic pill or light switch. When you watch the film and we look back at the early runs in the year, those linemen were doing the same things, it is what we are getting to those holes."
The ability of Neal to get to those holes and hit them for big gains has given his coaches the confidence to call out his number when big plays are needed.
"We stress all the time that you have to give us confidence as a position coach and as a play caller during practice," said Gillespie. "Obviously those are things that we ran over and over again in practice and they worked and we gained confidence in him. The guys knew the plays and they were calling for them."
"That is always a confidence booster when you know your team is focused into the game plan."
Defensive Coordinator is pleased with the way that the Tennessee defense has improved through the first half of the football season, though he knows there are still areas of improvement.
"I think we are a work in progress," said Jancek. "I think we are a group that has a great attitude and seems to be very focused. I like the attitude and mentality of our older players and as it is starting to transpire down to our younger players. We are just working hard every day, getting better every day."
The Tennessee secondary might be one of the most improved areas of the team holding Georgia QB Aaron Murray to under 200 passing yards on Saturday.
"They have just been very consistent," said Jancek. "There is a learning of the ins-and-outs. The thing that is amazing is that there are so many variables on defense, from the tempo of the offense, to the formation, to the personnel. It takes a while to get acclimated to everything, but they are being really consistent and doing a good job."
Jancek is pleased with the leadership of safety Brian Randolph, but freshman Cameron Sutton's performance has stood out to Jancek.
"I am really pleased with Cam's demeanor," said Jancek. "I have said every week he is just a guy that is really steady, he understands the defense as well as I could expect for a freshman."
"He does a great job, is very smart and doesn't make the same mistake over and over," continued Jancek. "If he does something during the game, makes a mistake or isn't using the proper technique, he corrects it."
IT'S A PROCESS
Tennessee will use the off week to get back to the basics on all sides of the ball.
For offensive coordinator, it is just one step in the process of the 2013 season.
"It is a process," said Bajakian. "It is a process of becoming champions. Every day and every week we have improved. We need to continue to improve. There are a lot of details and a lot of habits that we need to continue to work on that could have made the difference in that ball game."
"We are getting better and we will continue to improve," continued Bajakian. "We have said that since day one that it is a process and we are embracing the process."
Like any coach, Bajakian can pin point areas of the offense that need to improve upon and the Vols are taking the steps to do so during their free week.
"The important thing is that we continue to build on [the win]," said Bajakian. "We can't take one step forward and two steps back. We have to continue to progress each week and maybe some of the things that we didn't execute we need to execute, we were still only 7-of-17 on third downs. There is definitely room for improvement in a lot of areas and we will just continue to get better."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On Danny O'Brien)
"I like his toughness, effort and he is jumping at the bit. I am in charge of kick off too and I like those guys that are wearing me out to get on the kick off team. That is O'Brien, he is wearing me out and I like that. He wants to go. He has great toughness and attitude. He needs to improve his athleticism which he is working on and with that comes technique. If you improve your technique then you improve your athleticism."
»(On the energy coming from the upperclassmen)
"It starts with Corey Miller. Every day I walk into the meeting room and he is in a good mood ready to go. Same thing goes for Marlon Walls. It is just great to have the older guys in there because the younger guys feed off of them."
»(On Gregory Clark)
"He is a young man that had some technical issues but I love his attitude. He is working hard and playing more. It is fun to see those young men who have worked themselves and now they are getting on the field a little bit and they appreciate it. They are striving to get better."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On the freshman quarterbacks)
"They have been game ready for a while. The question is, you don't know how well they will execute in those pressure situations until they are put in those situations. From a skill standpoint, from a knowledge standpoint they have a firm grasp. Now will it all trigger when the lights go on? That is the question."
»(On Justin Worley's improvement)
"Justin is a lot of the focus. That catch by Marquez in the end zone was an unbelievable catch. Alton Howard had a number of great catches. Justin play definitely improved. Make no mistake about it, as one player play improves so does everyone elses. It works both ways. As guys on the perimeter are making those difficult catches, as the offensive line is protecting a hair of a second longer, it results in the quarterback being able to find those open receivers and make those connections."
»(On Alton Howard)
"I have always said we are going to figure out who our playmakers are and find ways to get them the ball. Alton Howard is definitely one of the play makers who we need to accentuate in this offense. When Alton Howard is not around that is a big loss. Other guys are stepping up. Everybody is improving and we will continue to improve."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On the bye week)
"We go back and get back to the fundamentals. The body position, the pursuit angles, the tackling, those are the things we go back and reteach. Obviously we review the things that are very problematic for us as a defense. Different concepts, alignments, receiver splits, things like that. Go back and reteach that. Nothing new to install. Just doing what we are doing, and do it better."
»(On Corey Vereen's penalty)
"I don't think it was anything malicious on Corey's part. He was just whipping the guy around and the guys' helmet popped off. From what I could see, on the copy of the coaches film, he was just trying to play hard. Those things happen. I got no problems with Corey Vereen. He is a guy that comes to work every day. He has a tremendous diligence in the weight room and also in the film room so it happened and we will keep moving forward."
»(On moving past the penalty)
"That is Corey. He is a guy that understands things happen and you have to move on."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On moving forward)
"We've taken some steps every game, there's a lot more in our tank. We made a lot of mistakes the other night, but we made some plays when we had to. So that was good to see. We've got a long ways to go. We're still young, we're still inexperienced, but every game you see flashes of our habits coming out. I'm pleased."
»(On Alton Howard's preparation)
"He had a great week of practice [last week]. That was the first time the whole season he's put together three quality days of practice with energy and focus. He was different and he played different so hopefully I don't have to tell him that it's going to prove dividends for him. We'll see... I'm not going to give him too much sugar. We came out and still made some mistakes and lost the game so we're going to come out here and keep grinding and put that one behind us."
»(On Jason Croom making big plays)
"He's made a couple plays these last couple weeks when it's counted. Those were big third-down plays. I'm starting to learn these guys better - who can play this amount of plays and who can play that amount of plays. I didn't know that at the beginning of the season.
"Now I think I have a decent rotation going to where I know I can get the most out of a guy at a certain play limit. His catches came at a big time and hopefully that's because I'm kind of understanding when he's the best."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Rajion's off the field work ethic)
"He does a good job. He could do better. But that is something that he has really made a lot of strides in this year. I don't know how much was required out of him before. But us as a coaching staff, we really want these guys to walk away from here more than just a guy that just ran exactly what we told him to. We want you to understand the game of football.
If he is the guy that wants to play on the next level, I try to do a good job of having him get on the board, having him watch film, getting him on the clicker, just the small things about being an all-around football player. I think he is taking strides in that area and I think that is carrying over to him on the football field."
»(On where he stands on rotation in the backfield)
"I want more depth. You look at the better running back groups in the league, in this league they have depth. The rotate guys. Look at the Georgia's, look at the LSU's, look at those schools. When they have had great running games they have been able to rotate, they have great depth. It is a long season in this league. 71 snaps in a game is way too many. Like I said, they got 33 touches, 70 plays.
That is good, we pat him on the back, but that is way too many. Here at Tennessee, we are going to get to where Tennessee was, when they were great and they were rotating three or four guys and every year a guy was going to the NFL and that comes with depth. We are not there yet, but we will be."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On managing depth)
"Last week we got (John) Propst in on the third series and I'll tell you what happened... We were going to keep rotating, but the offense kept the ball for a while and they kept driving. So [A.J. Johnson and Dontavis Sapp] were rested. It's when they go 1-2-3 out or drives get shortened that you don't want to put that much volume on your starters.
"We've got to get a rotation when we get some guys developed - that being Propst or getting (Brent) Brewer in some more snaps - just to make sure those guys aren't playing anywhere from 90-100 plays in a game."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)