KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Tennessee held its penultimate practice on Thanksgiving eve with one goal in mind: winning on Saturday at Kentucky in the season-finale for both long-time rivals.
"We always want to win - that's the goal," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "I don't know if it's as much as ending the season [with a win] as it is just winning this ballgame. Obviously sending the seniors out on a high note and having some momentum into the offseason."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek knows how much the senior class has meant to Tennessee and would like nothing better than to send the 27 Vols playing their final game for the Vols out with the victory at Commonwealth Stadium.
"(It’s) a group that has tried to do everything that we have asked of them," said Jancek. "They are very coachable and had a great attitude and mentality throughout the course of the season, whether it has been good or bad.
"The thing that I think these guys are going to be remember for is that they were the brick that changed the culture. That is really going to be their legacy. They are the group that bought into what it is we were asking them to do on a day-to-day basis. I know that our record and some of the things on the field don't indicate that change but believe me there is a marked difference in the way these kids are working, the way we are doing things on a day-to-day basis. That is really what this class will be remembered for."
WITH OR WITHOUT NORTH, VOLS READY
Freshman receiver Marquez North did not go through practice on Wedneday as he is still nursing an injury suffered in the game vs. Vanderbilt. Whether North is available or not will not impact how Bajakian calls the offensive plays on Saturday at Kentucky.
"We teach conceptually so all of the guys know all of the positions," said Bajakian. "It shouldn't be a hard transition for anybody."
Receivers coach Zach Azzanni echoed Bajakian.
"I don't know if it effects the play calling," said Azzanni. "I just have to be able to adjust, the twos have to step up, we have to move guys around. We will manage. He is still day-to-day, so we will see, he may still play."
Coach Butch Jones called North 'day-to-day' on Wednesday.
Bajakian did say the Vols were impacted on offense by not having North.
"We always think players, not plays, and with him being one of our playmakers that does affect play calling a bit," said Bajakian. "But you adjust and accentuate other guys."
The Vols stable of receivers will be counted to take up the slack for North, who is among the national leader in catches and yards by freshmen (37 catches for 496 yards).
"Jason Croom brings a lot to the table," said Bajakian. "Alton Howard brings a lot to the table and obviously Josh Smith continues to develop. There are options there."
"Other guys have to step up, you have to move guys around," said Azzanni. "Use Jason [Croom] differently, use Pig [Howard] differently, use [Johnathan] Johnson differently, we just have to move those guys around, be creative. And Marquez [North] still might play, he is day-to-day. That is definitely not counted out."
DEFENSIVE LINE STEVE STRIPLING
(On Danny O'Brien)
"He's a young man you love to coach because he's tough, comes every day to work. There was one day he was throwing up out there and he just kept practicing. He's got that football mentality. He needs to improve his athletic ability. He has to improve his technique. But he's really just a freshman - a redshirt freshman. He's a rough and tumble guy that I think will definitely be a player."
(On identifying who the quarterback is)
"It's on [the players.] That's something that is easily identifiable and something that they're really locked into. Then it gets into the FBI - the football intelligence - of knowing where the back at is and those types of things. The quarterback is the easy one then it's identifying the back, the depth of the back, the splits of the offensive line, the eye contact and all those things."
(On Corey Vereen)
"He needs to become an every-down player. Right now he's a pass-rush down player. Again, he's a true freshman. As is the case with all those guys, he's played a ton, but it's now a matter of getting in the weight room, getting the strength level and technique down to where he can play over a 325-pound man on first down."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
(On how Dobbs has responded)
"Josh is a competitor and he comes to work every day. We have a snap-and-clear mentality and we're putting that game behind us and moving on to the next one."
(On assessing the offensive line)
"Our offensive line is still the strength of our offense. It's a veteran group and they've done a good job leading. I'm grateful to the leadership they've provided and we want to go out and make sure that we win this game for them."
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
(On creating turnovers vs. Vanderbilt)
"I thought we played physical. It was a physical ball game. The one that Randolph forced down in the red zone there, he really put his pads on him, ran and slowed down and separated the receiver from the ball. The one that Swafford forced, it was just an intelligent play, we call it starting the mower, he found the tip of the ball, gave it one good swift yank and got the ball out. Those two were really exceptional.
"Brian did a really nice job on the pick and the other one our defensive end came through on the line stunt andlooked like he startled the ball carrier, disrupted the mesh point with thequarterback and the running back and A.J. was able to recover that fumble. Things that we work on, things that we talk about really came to fruition this game."
(On the returners)
"All of them really do. We have a lot of good young players that have been in the wings and it will be a chance for us this offseason to start to work with them and watch them develop and grow. We got some young D Linemen that it is going to take a lot for them to catch up and get up to speed. I am excited about all of the guys. We do have some guys coming in mid-year in January on the defensive side of the ball which will add some immediate competition. When that happens, guys have the tendency to improve and get better when they know that there are some new guys in town. That is certainly exciting to the coaching staff as well."
(On AJ Johnson's performance against Vanderbilt)
"I don't know statistically where he was at but he was all over the field. I was really excited. He played with a great deal of energy and passion. He was from sideline to sideline."
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On Cam Sutton)
"You know how tough it is to play, for a young man that is a true freshman in the amount of football that he has played and him being calm and focused each and every day it is important to him. It has been neat. Hereally has played a lot more than we expected him to play and that is because of the depth that we have had. The inexperience that we have had. You can't get that by sitting on the sidelines. The things that he has been able to get the experience in will springboard him to next year and he will be way ahead."
(On Michael Williams)
"He also had the injury that set him back. That would be the upper extremity. He will be somebody that will be competing for a job this spring. He has great speed, he is a hard worker, it is important to him. You can see the strides that he has made since he came here because obviously he is a walk-on and he came here for track. You can see him grasp the defense a little bit better than he did when he first got here."
(On Malik Foreman)
"He has obviously been playing a little bit on defense and on special teams and he has made tremendous strides this season. He is feeling a lot more comfortable. Understanding what we are supposed to do on defense and he has had a little bit of success with some plays on special teams. He just feels more comfortable, you can see that. Things are coming to him more naturally, his reactions are not robotic. They are natural.
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On the wide receiving corps)
"They are progressing. We have made progress. Everyone points to the other night, well there is a lot of things the other night than throwing the football is hard on a night like that. There are a lot of things we can point to. They are progressing. The other thing, you get to this point in the season, we are thin, we are young. The grind of the season has got in. Would I like to continue to work on certain things this year? I would, but I have to be smart and I have to get into the games as well. This is a big week, one last week for us to go out and keep pointing one step forward into the offseason."
(On not throwing the deep ball against Vanderbilt)
"It was just the flow of the game. It was a field position game, it was windy, there was a lot of things that added into that, with the quarterback and the weather. We were running the ball really well and I think we were sticking with that game plan with field position and it worked all the way until we pulled our victory team off the field and then it didn't work anymore."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On the run game)
"I think staying simple in what we do. The consistent reads for the backs over and over. The combinations of the guards and centers andguards and tackles and just like anything else repeated work over and over and it has really paid off. You could really see that last weekend with some of the runs that we had where it was simple in what we did but it was productive in terms of the yardage gained and all that. I credit the backs in terms of trusting the reads, a lot of times there was credit given where, yeah things were done up front but the backs had taken the reads, especially against a defensive front that moves like Vandy did, the backs did a nice job of trusting their eyes."
(On Tiny Richardson)
"Where he has really made the biggest strides is he is playing a lot faster. I said this way back and in fairness to Tiny he missed an entire spring and quite a bit of the summer in getting himself rehabbed andback with his injury and some of the time missed. He is a guy that puts a lot on himself to play perfect football and I kept telling him all year long, `Tiny you aren't going to play perfect and you have to understand that.' I think he took a deep breath, understood that, and did a good job as far as understanding our terminology of things and playing faster and more importantly snapping and clearing when a mistake occurs.
"I think that is probably the biggest thing,that is Coach Jones and what we preach all of the time as far as snap and clear mentality as far as when something goes wrong or something goes well, snap and clear. He has done a much better job of that and I have been really proud of that and he has been consistent as of late of things that he has been doing. His stance, his splits, and like I said playing faster."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
"He's getting better every week. We had an idea to put him in the game last week - a tight game - we had him going in at the third or fourth series. We didn't get to it. This week, he's doing a good job and doing everything that we've asked him to do. He's a really cerebral kid that does everything he's asked."
(On the challenge of not knowing who the QB for Kentucky will be)
"They've got one mobile quarterback and the other is more of a pocket-passer so you have to prepare for two different types, almost like two different teams you're facing. Again, their offense is their offense. A lot of the things they do on offense we do a lot of the same things. There's a little bit of carry over."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)