KNOXVILLE -- There is a lot at stake for Tennessee on Saturday as the Vols host in-state rival Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 at Neyland Stadium in the home finale.
But the Vols are looking at Senior Day the way they have looked at every game this season, as the next game.
"It is a big game, it is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule," said coach Butch Jones. "We are working to get to win number five. That is the way we approach it.
It is big because it is the next game."
NOT QUITE DONE
Rajion Neal will be the first one to tell you that running backs coach Robert Gillespie is not one to handout compliments.
This whole season Neal has felt the need to push harder week-in and week-out to earn the respect of Gillespie.
Exactly what Gillespie wanted, and what Neal needed in his final go around on Rocky Top.
After Neal's touchdown run vs. Auburn, Gillespie is ready to handout those compliments. Because that run encompassed everything Neal has worked on in practice this season.
"Putting your hand down, throwing your head back and your hips will follow," said Gillespie describing the run. "Stiff arming guys, picking up your legs on the free safety trying to make a tackle at the end. There are a lot of good things; he was wanting to make a play."
The run was what the Vols needed, and what Neal needed.
"It was a toughness run. It was a statement run," said Gillespie. "It was one of those runs where he was just determined to make a play and it was at a point in the game where we really needed one. I was excited for him. I am always excited for any kid that makes a play, but obviously one of the guys that has come as far as he has come, it is an exciting run."
Neal will run through the T one final time this Saturday at Neyland Stadium after a career that has seen 1,934 rushing yards, 621 receiving yards, and 22 touchdowns, with more to come.
Gillespie knows there is still a lot more football left in Neal's career.
"He is not done yet," said Gillespie. "I think it has been a work in progress and he has done a really good job of changing the perception of him and the legacy that he will leave here at Tennessee. That was our ultimate goal when he and I first met and talked."
"We still have a couple chapters to go in this book but so far he has done a good job of just trying to become a Tennessee tailback and try and do things the right way," continued Gillespie. "I am a fan of his right now and hopefully he finishes strong, we need him to finish strong as a team."
REEVES-MAYBIN TO GET MORE BURN
As the Vols continue preparation for Saturday's must-win matchup with in-state foe Vanderbilt, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is focusing on the Commodores' run game.
Known to run out of multiple sets, Vandy's offensive attack presents challenges for any defense.
"They give you a lot of different formations," said Thigpen. "They run the ball out of a lot of formations - they have the wildcat, they've got an empty [backfield set] and a plethora of plays.
"Out of one personnel group they can run five different formations and five different schemes at you. They do a good job with the personnel they have. Our challenge this week is to make sure we can stop the run."
Thigpen plans on digging deeper into his linebacking corps to do that this weekend, and mentioned freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin as the likely beneficiary.
Reeves-Maybin has made his presence felt in his rookie season, racking up a team-leading nine special teams tackles. He also saw a great deal of defensive action last time out, posting three tackles - all on defense - against Auburn.
Thigpen believes it to be Reeves-Maybin's makeup off the field that has translated into success on the gridiron.
"He's a smart kid - he really is," said Thigpen. "He takes a lot of pride in what he does and is probably one of the most cerebral kids we have on our football team. He's never on the list - never late for anything and always shows up for his appointments. That will always tell you - if he's on time for everything he's supposed to do as a young freshman - that will carry right over to the field.
"He doesn't miss many assignments. He talks in the room with a bunch of older guys and feels really comfortable in the room. So I'm looking forward to watching him grow as a young player."
COMPETITION INCREASES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
After giving up a pair of special teams' touchdowns two weeks ago against Auburn, assistant coach Mark Elder and his specialists are looking to rebound in a big way.
Echoing what Coach Jones said on Monday - the possibility of placing defensive starters on special teams - Elder has been looking at other personnel options over the past two weeks.
The biggest benefit of doing this has been an increased level of competition at practice.
"There has been a lot of competition," said Elder. "There are still a couple days to go before we decide who is going to be out there. But we have amped up the competition in some of the spots."
Obviously disappointed with the performance against Auburn, Elder said the open week came at a good time to increase the competition and get things corrected.
"It gives you an opportunity - if you are going to create some competition for some spots - it gives you a little bit bigger snapshot of which guys should be playing based upon more than just two days of reps," said Elder. "We had a couple more days of reps where we amped up the competition and guys had to fight for the spots."
Personnel aside, special teams always comes down to the fundamentals.
"We've been emphasizing the issues that we had as far as making sure we are keeping the ball inside and in front of us and making sure that we are emphasizing tackling," said Elder. "We just have to get those issues corrected because for the most part we've been decent on those teams. We're working hard on those teams, making sure we have the right personnel in there and making sure we are correcting the issues."
A STRONG SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
The NFL's league leader in receptions is none other than a source of inspiration for the Vols' receiving corps.
No it isn't anyone with a flashy, transformer inspired nickname, or someone from one of the "elite football conferences."
It is actually a familiar face for wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, in Pittsburgh Steeler and former Central Michigan Chippewa, Antonio Brown.
"Antonio Brown is such a great example [for our team]," said Azzanni. "He leads the NFL in receptions, he played that exact position, that exact terminology, got coached by the exact same guy."
"Yes we are going to compare our slots to Antonio Brown and that is what we expect," continued Azzanni. "He is one of the best players in the NFL, we expect that."
Brown didn't just show up and see success. His success is based on hard work and dedication to the game. The same thing Azzanni expects of the Vol wide receivers.
"That didn't happen overnight either," explained Azzanni. "That was a process. We are trying to teach Pig [Howard] and the rest of these guys that it is a process to becoming that. We aren't going to let you not do the things to try and become that."
"We are never going to let these guys get complacent at anything they do."
GETTING THEM WHAT THEY DESERVE
Saturday's senior game will largely affect the offensive line, one of the more experienced groups on Team 117. Senior starters Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James will all be playing under the lights of Neyland Stadium for the last time.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney sung the praises of his position group and commented on what he'd like to achieve as a group while they've still got a chance.
Mahoney equated parts of this season to when one light bulb on a Christmas tree is out.
"There's one light out and well it doesn't look so good," said Mahoney. "That's been on different occasions this year where we've had that happen where couple guys on a given play and it's not executed the way it should and it's not the physicality that we want to play with but the guys have responded in coming back and working to correct things and stuff so the mindset has been what it needs to be. The execution hasn't been there like we need it to."
Mahoney said that even though he's only been in Knoxville since December, he knows what his group of seniors has been through and wants to send them out on a high note.
"I think it's without a doubt deserving for a group of guys who from December to now I've had the chance to be around," he said about getting a bowl berth. "They're special in a number of ways from how they play the game to the character, for the families, for what they've been through."
It will undoubtedly be an everlasting moment for the seniors who, together have combined for 145 starts on Rocky Top.
"I've had the chance to coach for quite a while now and to really have a chance to step back and see what they've had to go through, through the course of time and change and all that, it's something for them - knowing them and their character and their work ethic and all that I think rewarding them for their efforts is something I'd love to see happen," Mahoney said. "I think it's deserving for them."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On Marquez North's growth)
"Most improved guy for sure, as far as on the field. He is light years ahead of where he was when he came in. He is still learning. This will be a great next two weeks for him, a great hopefully bowl, a great offseason. He should be a different player again when we jog out in the spring and then a different player when we jog out in the fall. I can't say enough about him, I love coaching him. He is a great kid to coach, he is a kid you want to coach, he will do anything you ask him to."
»(On Pig Howard's growth)
"Yeah, I just don't think Pig really knew and I still think he is trying to find his way a little bit on how to be a big time player at this level. He didn't really have any one last year to kind of show him the ropes that way, to be a consistent guy all the time. He just kind of got thrown in there as a freshman, he just kind of ran around. He didn't really know off the field how to take care of himself, how to study the game. He didn't really understand how to be a big time guy in meetings and be a trusted guy. He is slowly but surely starting to become that. He should be a different guy when we jog out here in the next couple weeks to offseason to spring and summer."
»(On Vanderbilt's secondary)
"I think that their experience and I can speak on the backend, their experience in the secondary is a tremendous advantage for them. Those four guys have played a lot of football. Then they have a young guy, Paris Head, number 21, who is becoming a pretty good little player himself. So their experienced as opposed to our inexperience certainly is an advantage for them. We are going to have to play our best ball to match up to a group of guys that have played a lot of football together."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
»(On playing in-state rival Vanderbilt)
"Just another game for us as far as it is the next game, it is the one we are excited about because it is the next game that we are playing. They are a very good opponent. You watch their film and they are a great team, a very cohesive unit. They play hard, they play well, they are well coached, disciplined, smart guys. It is a big challenge for us. It means a lot for us because it is the next game and we are trying to become bowl eligible and win our fifth game."
»(On Josh Dobbs and Brendan Downs chemistry)
"I think it is just a matter of sometimes it hits right and sometimes it doesn't. I don't think there has been any chemistry issues in any regard. I think the two have a good chemistry. Sometimes it is where you are in the progression, when you are the first read in a progression and you are covered then he is moving on or sometimes you are the third read but if the first or second read in the progression was open you are not getting the football.
"It is a combination of some of those things. I don't think it has anything to do with the chemistry between them not being good. I think they have great chemistry."
»(On Woody Quinn)
"He is competing. He is better now than he was week two and week three. He is coming along, especially the last three weeks I am seeing improvement. But he is not at the level that he needs to be at to be playing meaningful reps at this point in time for us. Now he is striving to get there but he just isn't quite there yet."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On hurting himself celebrating)
"Whenever guys make good plays you are always excited for them and you let loose. Old dog doesn't worry about what kind of car passes his front yard. He just chases it right? It is just in him. He just gets excited when a car passes. Same thing for us coaches. We get excited when the kids make plays."
»(On Neal approaching 1,000 yards rushing)
"Not so much a goal for him but more so for the offensive line. I think that is something that those guys deserve, those guys don't get the recognition but every offensive lineman wants to say that they had a 1,000 yard running back. We understand that he is close, but it is not so much something for him, more so for those guys up front. To get those guys something they can always tell their family about."
»(On Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal splitting time)
"Marlin had a good week of practice. As the position coach you want to reward those guys when they work hard and also I think the more he plays and the more he can take some pressure off of Rajion, the better a back he can be. The better running backs in the country are the guys that have a one-two punch. If you are really good you have a third guy you can get in the mix. I think those guys always play better, when the other guy goes and makes a play I think it makes them hungry to go in and make a play the next time they get a chance to."
» (On Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee)
"Coach talked earlier, this is what this program is built on. The games between Vanderbilt and Kentucky, you go back, back, back, those are the games from a location standpoint that were always important to this university and has to become important again. We have to do a great job of becoming a team of this state first and foremost. We are the school of Tennessee. Our guys have to understand they have to protect their home first before they become a respected team outside of your state. This is a huge game for us and we are going to go out there and try and play our best."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On Vanderbilt upfront)
"They're a solid team that we're obviously aware of from the bowl game a few years ago. I think it's a lot like, when I talk in terms of Mizzouri, they're a team that in the system of what's been asked of them, the defensive system, the program and expectations are, they're a product of doing it over and over and over and the demands of what's being expected from them as a staff and all that in which they're getting the results and they are which are positive. They play good team defense together, they understand the scheme well. They don't make mistakes and hurt themselves so they present problems that way."
»(On continuity in the staff)
"That's the thing and that's what we're building for to have here is the continuity and it's been brought up over the past year about our staff and being together for the time period we've been. Now we've been some different places but the continuity of us together and we know what Coach Jones expects and demands of us and the players and the strength staff and the whole program and that's something that's going to happen over time. In this day and age the time frame is short and that's just the way it is but it's something we're building towards and that's what we want to accomplish."
»(On the open week)
"Just mentally getting a chance - you know at this point in the year there's obviously a physical part that's taxing on your body. But I think there's also the mental part for us as coaches and also the players it's more of a mental refresher just to catch your breath, get a chance to get a start on the opponent you're playing and so to speak recharge your batteries."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On stopping Vanderbilt's run)
"Their runs are what they're going to be doing. They're not going to change that much. They run the ball as good as anybody - they have a couple really good backs. (Jerron) Seymour is really good, (Wesley) Tate played a lot for them last season and No. 25 (Brian Kimbrow) has really come on. They have three really good backs. They get in the wildcat, which presents a lot of problems with gaps.
"Their whole deal is they have a really good wide receiver - probably one of the best in the conference in (Jordan) Matthews. So if you load the box they'll throw it over your head. Our job this week is to make sure we can line up right then it's just tempo, linemen and assignment football."
»(On depth on defense)
"We have to get more depth and get more guys reps. I have to do the same thing at linebacker as well, because I've got a guy like (Dontavis) Sapp that with special teams is playing over 80-90 plays in the game. That's too much for all your kids' legs. I have to do a better job as a coach of getting other guys ready and getting to play. We'll see a lot more rotation with the guys just so we can get guys breathers and so they can stay fresh the whole game"
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)