KNOXVILLE - There is one thing to be said about the Tennessee coaching staff and that is they are a cohesive group from top to bottom.
“This is probably the most detailed staff that I’ve been a part of,” said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. “It all starts with the head guy, Coach Jones. It literally flows from the top to the bottom. I’m fortunate to be in a room full of such bright guys.”
This week during practice Jones’ emphasis was on developing habits.
“It is like we told them, ‘you are either developing good habits or bad habits,” said Jones. “We are still in that infant stage of developing our mentality and our football team. We have to get a lot better in a hurry. It is our mental conditioning, it is being able to play through fatigue, it is being able to execute.”
With the addition of the pads at Thursday’s practice, assoc. head coach and defensive line coach Steve Stripling was looking for his players to really start getting better and that started with developing a standard.
"We are talking about the development of standard,” said Stripling. “The ability to be mentally tough and play hard to compete on every down, to be a smart player and know the down distance. It is an all comprehensive approach but you know the mental toughness, physicalness and using our hands is the key emphasis."
Stripling looks to his seniors to guide the defense and is thankful for their role on the line.
"It is a big advantage. You take Marlon [Walls], Dan Hood and some of the other guys who have been around,” said Stripling. “We are talking about outward focus in our group which means when times get tough don't think about yourself, think about what we call our warrior to our right and left. Encourage them and in doing so you really help yourself and that helps them."
“That is where your mental toughness is born, pushing through,” echoed Jones. “We have to learn to push past that point. We haven’t learned that yet. Every day we have to get a little better and a little better.”
THE ROAD TO TENNESSEE
Three of the five early enrollees to the football team can be found in the defensive backfield.
Listed as athletes in high school, Lemond Johnson and Jalen Reeves-Maybin have found a home, at the beginning of spring practice, learning the defensive back position.
JuCo transfer defensive back Riyahd Jones is just happy with his new home.
“It has been a long journey from JuCo recruiting and being dropped by schools, picked back up by other schools and without Coach Martinez I don’t know if I would be here,” said Jones. “He’s been a big impact on me being here with him being at Auburn and recruiting me there. He called me a week after he got hired here and told me he wanted me to play here.”
Martinez believes that Jones’ transition to Tennessee has been a smooth one.
"Like everyone else there is the willingness to learn there and to do things the right way,” said Martinez. “I would like to look at the film first. He is a focused individual that is trying to get better."
Jones credits that smooth transition to Martinez’ abilities and is happy that Martinez has helped make one of his dreams come true.
“He’s a fiery coach, but he’s also a great teacher,” said Jones. “On the field, he’s loud, but in the meeting rooms he’s teaching like a professor in class. He’s drawing it up, running the film, and running it back, taking us to the field and walking us through it and it has been great. I’m glad to be here.”
“My dream has been to play in the SEC my whole entire life. It’s a blessing and so glad to be here. I’m ecstatic.”
THE PERFECT FIT
An SEC guy at heart, the Vols new running backs coach Robert Gillespie has been on the job just over two weeks. Despite his brief time on Rocky Top, the Hattiesburg, Miss., native and his colleagues are already seeing eye-to-eye.
“He gets it, there’s no question about it,” said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “He was a perfect fit in terms of an immediate gel and all those things. He understands how things time-in because of the offense in which he came from.”
Mahoney believes it’s not just how Gillespie understands the system, but the speed at which he’s grasping it that makes him perfect for the position.
“The way we’ve worked now watching film for the run game, I love working with him,” Mahoney said. “He gets it and he gets it fast.”
Gillespie, a late addition and one of the only coaches to not have previous experience with head coach Butch Jones, feels honored to be a part of the staff.
“I understand these guys have won a lot of games together. These guys have been together for a long time,” said Gillespie. “For them to see something in me and say ‘You know what, this guy can fit in with us, and he’ll be a good fit,’ because in coaching that’s what it’s all about. You have to make sure you put guys in the room that are going to be able to be in there and grind.”
IN THE SLOT
In recent seasons, the slot wide receiver has burst onto the football scene all the way from high school to the professional level. New positional Coach Zach Azzanni hopes the speedy Devrin Young can be that guy for the Vols.
“I do see something with Devrin,” said Azzanni. “In our style of offense we use our slots a lot. I saw a great stat last night and I actually tweeted it. Peyton Manning threw to slot receivers 71 percent of the time last year. That is seven out of 10 passes he threw to slots. We use our slots a lot here and Devrin is that type of body for us.”
According to Azzanni, Young – who’s making the move from running back – wants to be on the field and is willing to put in the work. Azzanni, who helped develop 5-foot-10 Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has taken it upon himself to see that Young progresses.
“He wants to get better. He wants a role on this team,” Azzanni said. “He is a little guy that has 10-5 speed and we have to use that. That is my job. I can’t just say he can’t learn and he can’t play. I have to find a way; that is my job.”
As Saturday’s scrimmage approaches, Azzanni pointed out a few key items he’d be looking for.
“We want to see how our pace goes,” said Azzanni. “That is what we are built on. We are going to out-effort and out-technique people. That is what we do.”
HUNGRY TIGHT ENDS
Sophomore Justin King is one of many Vols learning the ropes of a new position this spring, and according to his positional Coach Mark Elder, the fullback turned tight end has what it takes off the field to succeed in his new role.
“I love his attitude as far as he is in the office all the time,” said Elder. “I'll be coming back here going to set up my meeting for the next day… It'll be 9:30 at night and he's in there watching film. So as far as that's concerned, he wants to be great and he's working hard at it.”
Elder also pointed out that it wasn’t just King, but the entire tight end corps is constantly striving to get better.
"I'm excited about the group. The group is very hungry. They want to be great,” Elder said. “They're coming in, they're studying film, they're asking questions and they're studying the playbook at night. We just have to simply keep on getting better on a day-by-day basis.”
For Elder and the tight ends, the quest to continue to get better each day continues on Saturday at Neyland Stadium with the first scrimmage under the new staff.
STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Don Mahoney inherited one of the most veteran units after arriving at Tennessee.
His unit was ranked near, if not at the top, of the country for the majority of the 2012 season.
His unit also lost just one, although significant, player to graduation while returning four starters and multiple other players who got many snaps last season.
This doesn’t mean much to Mahoney as he is pushing the offensive line as hard as ever to give Tennessee one of the most well-rounded offensive lines in the country.
“We have a lot of work to do still,” said Mahoney. “The thing about offensive line is that it’s a task that once the pads come on, it’s been a long time since we’ve been in them. The position is never-ending, in terms of pad level, constant improvement of fundamentals, or footwork. The guys’ attention to detail was good. We need to improve our overall effort and strength, but I like the way they have gone about it.”
Mahoney is pushing for his offensive linemen to know every position on the line from A-Z.
“As I prepare them, they have to know positions from (left) tackle to (right) tackle,” said Mahoney. “On a test taken they must understand the philosophy of a given play: a run, pass, or screen. (We’ll change them around) as we progress through spring. As a whole, I expect them to know from A to Z.”
“We are a little bit ahead,” said Mahoney, “because from the standpoint of up front, there’s a group of guys that have played quite a bit of ball and their understanding of the game is further ahead than I’ve been used to. The experience part of it is more than I’ve ever had in the past.”
ASSOC. HEAD COACH & DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
(On the first practice in pads)
"It was fun. I think everyone was looking forward to it. Obviously we have a long ways to go but it is really hard especially for the defensive front to really improve if you don't have pads. This was our first chance to get better."
(On style of coaching)
"I think my style depends on what message I am trying to get though. Other than that I think I am going to be a teacher and that is the way young people learn. If you are consistent, confident and can get your message across but if you need to emphasize it then you can get excited."
(On Dan McCullers)
"Right now he is playing our three technique which puts him on the outside shade of a guard. I think that is a good spot for him. He is obviously a big body that can control the B gap which is when you play a 4-3 right in the middle of a defense which is a really key spot for us. He is the biggest man I have coached. He has lost a lot of weight. I think maybe down 20 pounds right now and we have goals for him to get down further. He understands that for him to truly be a great player and be successful he has to continue down that path."
(On the biggest change for the guys)
"We are talking about controlling gaps and everything but we are also talking about being play makers. We are talking about I am going to control my gap, but if the ball goes in the next gap then I am going to be able to help that guy. So we are not just eating up space. We are going to make plays and I think that is the biggest difference"
(On expectations from the first scrimmage)
"Expectations we have as a unit are talking about communications and playing together. We talk defensive chemistry like if one person doesn't do their job today it is 3rd and 12 and one person is not where they are supposed to be it is a first down. So we talk about accountability. As a unit that is what we are preaching accountability, communications and chemistry getting together as a unit."
ASST. HEAD COACH-DEFENSE & D-BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On Brian Randolph)
"He is a smart player. He is a really good active player before his injury. He is someone that those kids look up to and he leads by example. It is always good to have somebody in the back end in that position. We are trying to get him more vocal because he has some great qualities about him, his work ethics, personality and the kids look up to him."
(On the defensive backs)
"I think we got some kids that athletically can play. Obviously we are only on the third practice and this will take some time to find out the strengths and weaknesses of each guy. Then obviously put them in the best position to succeed."
(On Byron Moore)
"He has good leadership and leadership by example. He has done a good job both in the meeting rooms and out here when we have been at practice."
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
"I love his demeanor and the way he is focused. He really comes to work every day. His willingness to learn, be the best he can be and to help us as a team has been outstanding."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On the uptempo pace)
“Not only are they learning new terminology but they are also learning again the pace. So they are flipping terminology, they are getting brand new signals and brand new calls, reading the defense, and going as fast as we can. So it isn’t a habit yet, it isn’t like brushing their teeth for them yet.”
(On the young receiving corps route running)
“I would put their route running as well below average. There was no foundation there because they are all young and they didn’t play. So they had no idea what they were doing. To be honest Cody Blanc was a safety in high school so he has never played the position. Devrin Young, we moved, he has never played the position. Paul Harris, a true freshman, has never been coached to play receiver at this level. There is a lot of raw guys out there that couldn’t run a route and day one we are teaching them how to run routes.”
(On being demanding)
“I think even with old guys you have to be demanding. You can’t give them an inch. They are 18 and 22 year old kids, they will take what you give them. You have to be on them all day, you have to be demanding and you can’t compromise. We say with the most committed guy and the least committed guy, we aren’t coming down.”
(On how the team has responded)
“I am really happy with how they responded. They is no resistance going on. They aren’t like, ‘this is dumb.’ They are all in. They might not know what they are doing, they might not know the pace of practice is going yet but they are coming back for me. They are living in my office, they are living in the meeting rooms, they are trying to get better. I really appreciate that.”
(On Jason Croom)
“We will keep him at wide receiver for the spring. We just don’t have numbers. I have six guys on scholarship which is a little scary. We want 12 and we have six. He can’t go anywhere. And Devrin Young wasn’t even there and we moved him over there and we still only have six. So if you can kind of get a gauge there on the numbers. I have as many walk-ons as I have scholarship guys.”
(On Paul Harris as an early enrollee)
“It is very tough but it is going to pay off crazy. He is going to be laughing during the summer at the other freshmen. Every freshman is like, ‘I am going to play’ and then they come in and they are in this offense and they are looking at us like what is happening right now. Paul will have already gone through that process. He will be looking at them kind of smiling like, ‘yup, I went through that too.’ It is definitely an advantage when they come in early.”
TIGHT ENDS & SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On a difference in Brendan Downs’ stature)
"I have. I think that he has gotten bigger while still leaning up. I think he's put on some muscle and probably trimmed a little fat. That's what we are trying to do. We want to have guys that are big and lean so they can play fast and play at the tempo we are trying to play."
(On special teams)
"We're still installing as far as our special teams are concerned. We're going to be very technically in it as far as our special teams. It's going to be a lot more technique and effort than it is having a million different schemes. So right now we are still in the install process as far as special teams is concerned. We'll be getting to so more of getting the platoon together later on in the Spring, but right now we are trying to really establish our identity as far as the technique is concerned with the special teams."
(On George Bullock)
"He's doing everything right now. Things are going really well for him. He's just getting right back in to it now, but he's doing well so far. He has no restrictions at this point."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On what he saw in the first chance to evaluate his guys in a true setting)
“Guys are still trying to get the hang of it, but it was good to see guys go out there and just show their toughness. The x’s and o’s part of it they’ll figure out as we go, but the main thing was you were able to see guys show some toughness. Guys do the things that really not about the scheme of it. I thought, most importantly, they did a good job of protecting the quarterback in some blitz settings and they also protected the football. We got a lot of film to coach off of. I told my guys a few minutes ago that the only way you learn is from making mistakes, so we definitely made enough mistakes to get better from tomorrow.”
(On if the offense is a big difference for him)
“It’s a big difference, just attention to detail. Both offenses are high tempo, but I haven’t been a part of an offense that goes this fast. Everything about us is fast, fast and furious. So the guys are understanding that. We have to do a great job of taking what we understand and learn in walk-through settings and in the meeting rooms and apply it when the pads and the lights come on. That’s one thing we have to focus on doing a better job of.”
(On Coach Bajakian’s attention to detail)
“It’s very meticulous. Everything has a rhyme and reason to it. We do a great job watching film, looking at proper steps, looking at where his eyes are, and hand placement. He is probably one of the most detailed and smart guys.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On conditioning and tackling Improving)
“We need more violence. We’re not nearly as violent as we need to be. Every time you put the pads on, it’s a new deal for both sides of the ball, but over time with the length of the practice and the consistency, the violence of the practice (will get better). We want to hear the practice and that’s one thing that needs to improve. The players will learn as spring ball ends, the shape we expect them to be in and play in has got to be even higher. It’s a good learning experience, one we experience as coaches that we just keep building on. Every day it’s a teaching tool. Like Coach Jones, we keep giving them nuggets of gold. This is a nugget of gold and we have to be in better shape. The better conditioned (we are), the more physical we are and that’s the end result that we want – physicality.”
(On Antonio Richardson being injured)
“He can do it enough, but I look at it like, here’s a chance for Marques Pair, or some other guys to really step up their play. There’s progress being made by Tiny, but these other guys have to have the mindset that they’re always going to be a starter. That’s the hardest thing with offensive line is that you know there are five guys that will line up, unlike defensive line where you rotate them. Those second-team guys have to have that sense of urgency that they are first-team guys. I look at an injury as a positive, because I put the emphasis on the next guy and say, ‘It’s your time,’ and you have to approach it that way. Whether it’s Mack Crowder at center or Kyler Kerbyson at tackle – their sense of urgency has to be great.”
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On practice Thursday)
“A lot of misalignments, with the fast tempo we would like the communication to be a lot better. But they will get better as we keep getting more reps. The guys weren’t used to the fast tempo and we are trying to get out the calls. Some guys were getting it and a lot of guys weren’t. So we have to do a better job of the communication part with the fast tempo offense.”
(On how the linebackers processing information)
“I think it goes back to guys not playing fast and guys not knowing what their responsibilities are. All of a sudden you are out of position. Most guys when they came to make plays they weren’t in position to make plays because they weren’t lined up right and they were still trying to process. Once they know their jobs you are in a better position to make plays.”
(On linebackers who have stood out)
“Brent Brewer is going to be able to help us. [Dontavis] Sapp will be able us. With all these guys it is a new system, it is a new defense. They have been in 3-4 and now all of a sudden they are in the 4-3. This is their first day and they will get better as time goes on.
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)