KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s Southeastern Conference game against Vanderbilt on Saturday has plenty of implications – it’s senior night, the last home game of the season at Neyland Stadium and could determine whether the Vols will play in a bowl game.
The game, according to Vol coaches, also means a lot for the state of Tennessee.
Tennessee assistant coaches spoke on Wednesday about what the state rivalry game means to Vols, the University of Tennessee, and the state as a whole.
"I think it's tremendous, you know we - both Vanderbilt and Tennessee - we're both great representatives of the state of Tennessee," said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. "When it comes to this Saturday we're on opposite sides and we're battling for that state pride for sure."
The Vols will also wear the popular gray uniforms which were last worn in the thrilling overtime loss to Georgia, 34-31 on Oct. 5. The senior Volunteers voted to wear them in their last home game.
One of the highlights of the jersey is a patch in the shape of the state of Tennessee on the back collar of the uniform.
Steve Stripling, the defensive line coach touched on the jerseys and how important this game is to the graduating players.
"Well we talked about how the state of Tennessee is on our jerseys and that it's extremely important," he said. "It's extremely important because its senior night and these seniors will remember this game for the rest of their lives."
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney said that he's been proud of his senior linemen especially those from Nashville who have excelled in their consistent approach. Mahoney said once they get to the hotel Friday and get to gather as a group, he feels they'll really be able to focus on what this game means to each one of them.
"Make no mistake about it, this is of the utmost importance this coming Saturday," Mahoney said.
HOME SWEET HOME TO ME
Although he hasn't even been on Rocky Top for a full year, Steve Stripling took no time to create a close-knit relationship with his defensive unit and on Saturday, Stripling will wish five players good luck as they participate in senior day activities.
"From day one, they've been outstanding," said Stripling. "They come to work every day and I have no issues with their attitudes, work habits - those types of things."
Being their last home game in Neyland Stadium, Stripling hopes that each individual appreciates the opportunity they have had to wear the Orange and White and that they come out in the end with a victory over in-state rival Vanderbilt.
"For those seniors - it's the last home game for them," Stripling said. "They understand, I think we're 27-1 in senior days around here, so I would hope that they truly understand how important. This will be a lasting memory."
When former Volunteers come back to the University of Tennessee, Stripling wants them to be able to reminisce on all the positive and successful things they contributed to the Volunteer football program.
"You want to have a great memory the rest of your life when you come back as an alumni - whether it's next year or five years down the line - you want to have great memories of that last game," said Stripling.
YOUNG VOLS MAKING STRIDES
Though Senior Day is on Saturday, let's focus on some of the younger members of the Vols and the steps that they have taken this season in improving themselves.
First off, quarterback Josh Dobbs, who was thrown into action at Alabama became just the eighth true freshman quarterback to start at the University of Tennessee.
Dobbs, who was splitting time as one of four quarterbacks on the team fighting for the starting spot this summer, has seen the majority of the reps as the first team quarterback lately.
"I think decision-making has sped up for him," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "His vision has improved with the increased reps that he has had in practice. Mechanically he is doing a better job with ball location, and has a little bit more zip on the ball with what he has been able to do particularly with his lower body."
Ever the student, Dobbs' eye discipline and ability to read the defenses has continued to improve week-in and week-out.
"He has done a good job all year with his eyes and knowing what the coverage is," said Bajakian. When he comes off of the field and I ask him what he saw he can give me a very detailed description of what the coverage was and he knows the indicators and is able to use his eyes to his advantage."
Over to wide receivers, true freshmaen Marquez North has doubled his production from his first five games of the season in the Vols' last five games.
"Marquez is one of those individuals who has really made great strides throughout the course of the season," said Bajakian. "It is visible from little things like his breaking points. It starts with him and his desire to be the best he can be. He is very driven and very hard on himself when he makes a mistake. He is hard on himself when he doesn't perform a technique to his standard. It is good to see. He is a very conscientious guy and I think in the long run that is going to pay off for him."
Another player, who some might forget is young but is only a sophomore, Pig Howard has also improved in 2013.
"Alton Howard is a different player than what he was back in the spring and back in training camp," said Bajakian. "A lot of it is physical, but some of it is mental."
No matter the player, the age, or the position, Bajakian's expectations are the same.
"They understand the expectation on the field, the expectation off the field when it comes to meetings, watching video and the level of knowledge that we are requiring them to have."
"I don't think any competitor is ever happy with their performance," continued Bajkian. "If you make one mistake that is enough to leave a sour taste in your mouth. Those guys have done a good job and they just want to be perfect. That is our goal as football players and coaches."
DEFENDING THE COMMODORES
Like many teams the Tennessee Volunteers have faced this season, the Vanderbilt Commodores are not lacking in an explosive offense. The `Dores will come to Knoxville with a two-quarterback system and multiple options in the wide receiver and running back position.
With the Vols having an open date this past week, the defense has had time to refocus in all aspects of their game to prepare for the Commodore offense.
"Vanderbilt will do a lot of different things with unbalanced sets, giving you a four-man surface, a lot of things where their quarterback will be a running back and they will snap him the ball and run," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "Those are the things that are challenging with Vanderbilt's offense."
Jancek knows that they must know where Vanderbilt's players are at all times, in particular wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
"They do a great job of moving him around," said Jancek. "They motion him, they play him outside, they play him inside. That has been a big emphasis for us, knowing where he is at."
When Matthews isn't catching the football, Tennessee expects Jerron Seymour to be running it.
"You have to wrap up, he has a strong lower body, he has good agility," Jancek said. "He has good quickness."
While Vanderbilt is sure to bring offensive pressure, because of the players' attitude and mentality, Jancek has a positive outlook going into Saturday's game.
"I do see our guys improving," said Jancek. "I see their knowledge of our defense improving every single week. Our guys, their attitude and the way they work and their consistency in terms of just showing up every day has made it really enjoyable for us as coaches. We get an opportunity this week to see really how much we have improved."
TALL TASK FOR VOLS' SECONDARY
One of 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award - given annually to the nation's top receiver - Vanderbilt wideout Jordan Matthews is a big time playmaker.
The senior enters Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium just four receptions shy of becoming the SEC's career receptions leader with 234 and already holds league records for career receiving yards (3,358), career 100-yard games (16) and is the SEC leader in consecutive games with a catch, a streak currently at 31.
This season the Madison, Ala., native has a league-leading 83 receptions - 20 more than the SEC's No. 2 wideout - for 1,076 yards (2nd in the SEC) and five touchdowns (5th).
On Wednesday, Vols' defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was asked how you slow down a guy so explosive.
"The thing you have to be aware of is where he's at because he's a big playmaker," said Martinez. "Even when you see that defenses are trying to defend him, he still makes the plays.
"You have to understand the situation, understand that he's one of their big playmakers. And obviously, making the plays when you get the opportunity and are in position.
Matthews isn't the only playmaker on the Vandy roster, redshirt sophomore running back Jerron Seymour - standing just 5-foot-7 - leads the team with 12 touchdowns and has been solid after contact this season.
Regardless of Seymour's size and how difficult that makes him to bring down, Martinez wants the UT secondary to simply focus on the fundamentals when it comes to tackling.
"You always have the difficulty of tackling kids that are really good in space," said Martinez. "He's a very athletic kid - regardless of his size - he's extremely quick laterally.
"You're talking about the same things you always have to do to be successful - that's closing space, wrapping up, taking proper angles and all the things we talk about and practice every day."
Here are sound bites from Coach Stripling, Coach Bajakian, Coach Jancek and Coach Martinez:
ASSOCIATE HEAD COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On Vanderbilt's offensive line)
They're probably a little bit better known for their gap schemes - the counter we call it and the power, especially out of the wildcat package, they do a really good job. They're a veteran line that's very physical. They play real hard, so that's our challenge is to be able to hold up the run game and be in our gaps where we're supposed to be to. It's a good challenge."
»(On quarterback pressure)
"Yes you do [need pressure], but I'll go back - if you don't stop the run, it's not going to be in that situation. When I watch their film, I think they've done an outstanding job of extending drives, running the ball when they had to finish the game or in the red zone, those are all examples where they've been very effective in the run game."
»(On Corey Vereen)
"He just has to mature. He has all the tools. We're playing ineffective downs, but this offseason is going to be critical for him - get a little bigger, get a little stronger, those type things. He's going to be outstanding. You have to be big enough to hold off a 325 pound tackle- that's what you have to do.
"Yes, you have to have technique. You have to have explosion. You have to have violent hands. You have to play with leverage. You'll never have a 325 pound defensive end, but you have to utilize those weapons to be able to be to be functional.
"Corey Vereen is doing everything. He's the hardest working man I've ever been around. He's doing it all. It just takes time and maturation."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On Vanderbilt forcing turnovers)
"They are a high effort group. Particularly, they force a lot of fumbles and I know the last game especially they had a bunch of interception, but they force a lot of fumbles and that is usually a factor of teams that pursue to the ball well and play a physical style of football. And I give them credit, they play very hard."
»(On Josh Dobbs vs. the Vanderbilt senior secondary)
"They are an experienced group and they do a good job of keeping their eyes on the quarterback and playing off of the quarterback's eyes. We have to do a good job of manipulating defenders and taking care of the football."
»(On losing the quarterback in the season)
"Timing is an issue. Sure it is two steps forward, one step back, but by no means is it two steps forward, three steps back. You are still making progress. You are able to gain that timing pretty quickly. It wasn't a huge impediment. Obviously there was some ground to be made up, but those guys have done a pretty good job of making it up quickly."
»(On the run game vs. Auburn)
"I don't know if it was towards the end, or if it was throughout the course of the game. It is a factor of just our guys playing a physical style of football and to be able to keep as we say `pounding the rock' and just keep making hay. Eventually as you keep grinding and keep grinding a couple will squirt through there."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On Vanderbilt's Jerron Seymour)
"Jerron has the ability to kind of get lost in the blocking scheme and then all of a sudden he comes squirting out of there. He is real low to the goru7nd so you have to do a great job of bending your knees and getting down. He is a challenge because he has really good challenge and he is a little bit shorter but has a real good positive lower body. He has a good stride to him."
»(On improvements during the open week)
"I have seen those guys really improve fundamentally. I think having a couple days off with the bye week, they really came back refreshed and energized. We are working towards our goal of getting better every day."
»(On his feeling of the defense)
"I feel really good because of our kids' attitude and mentality. We have worked on the tackling component in the bye week. They have responded and that is all we can ask."
»(On tackling drills)
"Obviously those things at times can suffer. You just have to continue to drill it without actually taking people to the ground, you don't want to get anybody hurt. I have really been impressed with our guys and their attitude and the way they have worked. I am excited to see them go play Saturday."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)