KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Last off week of the season for Tennessee means time to focus on the little things and get them corrected heading into the Vols’ last two games of the regular season against long-time rivals Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
SPECIAL TEAMS CORRECTIONS
Special teams' plays are game-changers. Through nine games, the Vols' special teams' units hadn't given up the `big one,' but just one mistake in this area can often lead to points.
Unfortunately, the Vols experienced that twice against then-No.
7/10 Auburn and are now using their second open week to get things corrected.
"Obviously, it was not a very good day for us on special teams," said assistant coach Mark Elder. "In both instances we had opportunities to get the guy on the ground, we had guys that were in position and lost leverage on the football. That is defensive football in coverage units; anytime you lose leverage on the football big plays can occur."
Elder has stressed fundamentals, such as leverage, containment and tackling to his groups this week.
"When you put the game into more green grass, when there is more space, things like lost leverage become even more critical," said Elder. "When you have a missed tackle, that is more critical because it is a lane; it is a lane of about five yards. If you miss a tackle in that lane there isn't someone for another handful of yards.
"Special teams really emphasize that if you have a mistake it gets blown up even bigger because you are in big spaces."
Obviously disappointed after the loss, the Vols have come out strong so far this week.
"We gave up 14 points and countless yards in field position that were critical to the game going the wrong way," said Elder. "We are working hard to get it corrected. It was extremely disappointing with as much as we've put into special teams.
"They have had a great sense of urgency these two days. When special teams are called, these guys have been fired up and competing as much as they have since they got here."
A BUSINESS-LIKE APPROACH
For the Tennessee offensive line, every day is a work day.
Instead of business suits, they wear uniforms.
"I have said it all year, they have been very businesslike in their approach, very mature in their approach in what we have done, whether it has been after a win or a loss," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "This is the second open date that we have come out to work and guys like Zach Fulton, James Stone and Ja'Wuan [James] have been as business like as ever."
The front five approach every practice, meeting, and game the same way week in and week out as four of the five don't have much more time left on Rocky Top.
"There has been no drop off in terms of their approach, which is good," said Mahoney. "I think it is more behind the scenes of what they are doing with the group of offensive guys. As a team that is going to be really important but I think as next week gets closer, by each day going by, where the seniors on the line realize that this is one step closer to being their last game in Neyland."
"I sense that some things are going to grow as the week goes on next week with things becoming an even higher sense of urgency."
WIDEOUTS WELCOME OPEN WEEK
Coming off consecutive games against three top-10 opponents, including two road trips, Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni says his guys needed this open week.
"It's great and mentally we needed it," said Azzanni. "It has been a long four weeks and we know that. These are some young players we are dealing with that we're trying to stay positive with and get them through this."
While he welcomes the break, Azzanni doesn't want the wideouts to forget the feeling of losing three straight, but rather channel it and use it as ammunition.
"At the same time, don't forget this and use this, use this for these next two weeks, use it for the winter and use it for the spring," said Azzanni. "Don't forget this feeling; losing is never going to be acceptable in our program and it is not something that is going to get easier to deal with. We are going to get out here and get after it."
It's obviously beneficial in terms of getting back to full strength, but the open week is also a good time to regroup mentally.
"Mental is a big deal; mental is a big part of the game," said Azzanni. "Get these kids back and feeling good about themselves."
A couple of the young receivers - Marquez North and Josh Smith - are taking advantage of the free time by working on chemistry with rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
"I definitely think that it's still a work in progress," said Azzanni. "These guys are staying after and throwing every day, they are working at it. Especially, Josh and Marquez - the young guys - they know they are going to be around a while with Josh (Dobbs) and that is exciting for them. They are working at it hard; they want to be good."
North also took in extra film this week, looking at clips of former Central Michigan receivers such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown.
"Marquez just asked me to go watch some cutups from the Central Michigan days and things like that," said Azzanni. "They are working hard."
LIKE PIECES TO A PUZZLE
A defense is set up to where all 11 people on the field have a responsibility and area they have to take care of.
With all 11 players working together, the puzzle is complete. If a piece is missing or broken, big plays happen.
Last week against Auburn, there were some missing pieces to Team 117.
"We always say it is a big jigsaw puzzle, each guy has a piece and each piece has to fit properly, all it takes is one guy," said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. Last week was a great lesson, every time they busted a play it was one guy."
A busted play could mean leaving your gap, or in many cases last week, missed tackles.
Thigpen and head coach Butch Jones have addressed that problem all week during practice.
"We call it the daily bread," said Thigpen. "Every day we warm up it is tackling drills. That is part of our makeup. You have to tackle in this game, tackling, getting off blocks, is the name of the game. You hear Coach say it all the time, you have to win your one-on-one. That is our number one daily bread, just go out in the first five or ten minutes of practice playing in space."
The Tennessee back seven has used their off week to really focus on making plays in space. Too much area, leads to problems on the grid iron.
"The biggest thing is space," said Thigpen. "We are always talking about how space is the biggest enemy. We have to keep working on playing in space. Just the pursuit of the ball. We saw early where a guy missed a tackle, how many yards did the guy get after he missed the tackle."
"Early in the part of the game it was only one or two yards, but then as the game kept going on a progressing the missed tackles added up and the big plays came along," continued Thigpen. "We have to keep focusing on guys swarming to the ball, all 11 hats. If a guy misses it, he brothers are there to make up for it."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On the receivers work ethics)
"It is great. We have been preaching that since day one. The good thing about having young players, you can kind of mold them the way you want and they don't know any different now. There are not bad habits that we have to break, a guy is just not doing that, that is what we do. They are starting to get better because of it and they have to learn the game.
"The only pure receiver that has played the position for a while is Josh Smith. Pig [Howard] was really a wildcat guy, Marquez [North] was a wildcat running back, quarterback type. You can go right down the list, Devrin [Young] was a running back, Johnathon Johnson was a running back. So those guys are all excited about learning the position."
»(On focusing on fundamentals this week)
"The good thing is now they will go up there and watch practice. They will watch one-on-ones, they will watch routes on air as opposed to maybe going and watching the third down plays. We have a little time for that. They are not a bunch of old guys that have everything down pat. They are still working on themselves. It is neat for them to be able to go up there and do that and watch old cutups and watch what it is supposed to look like and try to do it."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
»(On the returns for TD)
"We lost leverage on the football in both. In every instance, there was another big return as well, we lost leverage on the football. That is the big thing. On your coverage units, those are defensive plays essentially. One thing we always talk about with defense is lost leverage, that is when big plays occur. Missed tackles, that is when big plays occur.
"Both of those touchdowns we had those things occur. We lost leverage on the football so you are susceptible to a big play, we missed tackles which makes you susceptible to a big play. We are working hard to get those things corrected and that way it won't be a problem these last couple of games here."
»(On the coverage team on the punt return TD)
"There might have been one guy that hesitated a little bit. We always say that any time the ball hits the ground, we should be accelerating as opposed to slowing down and trying to see how things work out. You should be accelerating to the football. That made it even more disappointing, that the ball hit the ground and they were able to turn it into a big play. They had a miscue and we didn't take advantage."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On the false starts)
"The penalty thing is simply this - you can yell about things that are mistakes - to me a personal foul penalty and making a bad decision and really where discipline falls in is a bad choice. The false start stuff is more of a timing deal and as we did yesterday and we did today and we will continue throughout, it is the timing of the voice of the quarterback and all those things."
"We have to be dialed in better. It was a matter of, as much as it is maybe James Stone or Alex Bullard or maybe it was Tiny, it was really James Stone who was late on a couple times. It is the hearing of the voice and timing that up and that type of thing. We have to continue to keep working at it and we can't have it."
»(On building off the positives into the off season)
"It has to happen. We have to build off of some of the success and some of the things we did Saturday and continue to grow with that. Without a doubt being able to carry it into the offseason and the guys understand full and well what we expect and what the mentality of the offense as a whole, the execution, the communication, all those things. That is why more time is critical. The fact of how much more we can work with them is key and that is what we are working towards. That is more time. It is important, it really is."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On keeping players fresh)
"Coach brought him some guys from sports science to talk to our guys about that. Some guys are in great shape, like A.J. Johnson, he is in great physical shape, he can play a lot of plays, then guys like [Brent] Brewer and [Dontavis] Sapp probably can't endure an 80 play game plus special teams. I have to have confidence in some other guys to be able to put them in there and have fresh guys instead of tired guys. This week we are really concentrating on making sure I pay attention to those guys, the reps and what their bodies are saying."
»(On missing tackles recently)
"The type of athletes that we are seeing are getting better, especially in the quarterback position. We saw a really exceptional quarterback last week that you probably aren't going to see much of, you aren't going to see guys with that type of ability with the ball in space, we really struggled with him. You are not going to see week in and week out guys with that kind of ability. What we are focusing on is that guys have to get their one-on-one, you just have to win your battle. When you get a chance to make a play, you have to make a play."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)