KNOXVILLE -- The first steps aren't always the biggest, but they are as important as any other and the Vols took a step forward on Tuesday.
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones walked off the practice field pleased with his team's effort but was quick to note the need to continue to build on what it has accomplished so far.
"I thought today was probably our best overall practice of the spring," Jones said. "Obviously it is very early, but I really like the mental effort, the mental intensity, the focus of our team. I was really waiting to see how we would respond on a Tuesday after a long Saturday practice. There is still a lot of work to do, but for the first time I could see some things coming together in terms of swarming to the football. You know, I like the overall physicality of practice. We have a long way to go, but I think the big thing as we continue to progress is focusing on what it takes to play winning football. There's so much that goes in to it and we have a lot of work to do in that regard.
"I am starting to see small steps. We're taking those incremental small steps, but you start to see individuals doing what we're coaching in terms of bodying a body down the field. Again, we have to generate more turnovers on defense and then our quarterbacks have to do a better job of taking care of the football. Saturday we had the costly turnover that was six points the other way. That's again playing winning football. So I see it happening in small dosages, but it's there. It's encouraging to see that."
PLAYER LED VOLS
As head coach Butch Jones mentioned after Saturday's practice, Friday night at the complex had the air of a team meeting as everywhere Jones turned, there was a player trying to better themselves.
"It has been amazing," said Jones. "I walked through our building last night, and you would have thought that we were having a team meeting, with the number of players that were coming around to talk with our coaches. They want to come to the building and be involved, and that is encouraging to us as a coaching staff."
The players on Team 117 are all trying to step up, and that means upperclassmen taking the initiative and leading on their own.
A player-led team if you will.
"We are just trying to make this a player led team," said redshirt senior Byron Moore. "We can't leave it up to the coaches and come in when they call meetings, we have to take it upon ourselves to come in on our own time and get in groups."
There is a new face in the defensive back corps who is already making a name for himself in Riyahd Jones. A JuCo transfer, Jones has already found himself in a leadership role just a couple months after arriving on Rocky Top.
"They tell me every day that I have to step up and be a leader," said Jones. "I'm not a freshman, I'm a junior. They drill that into me every single day."
"It's not hard, but to be a leader you have to know exactly what you're doing," continued Jones. "You can't lead if you're doing it wrong. I have to make sure I'm doing everything right and running to the ball and being a leader by example."
Being a leader doesn't just happen on the field as Moore knows. That is why he has taken it upon himself to bring the DBs closer together in the form of food, and film.
"I had the whole DB group at my house last weekend and we were just hanging out and bonding" said Moore. "We were also watching film and eating pizza. We are just trying to make it a player led team as much as possible."
"The coaches are all for it because it will bring us a lot closer."
QUICKENING THE PACE
Tennessee will employ a new offense this season under Coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian-- a spread-out and uptempo attack. The junior and senior-laden offensive line is making the adjustment relatively `quickly,' thanks in part to the group's collective experience and the uptempo scheme ran last season.
"I feel like its been a smooth transition because a lot of the concepts we were already familiar with we just had to put new terminology with it and we were able to go straight into what coach Mahoney wanted us to do technique wise," senior James Stone said.
The quick tempo is won't just be for games. Coach Jones has employed a pace in practice that has the team moving with purpose. The key word here? Fast.
"This is faster, the tempo of practice is definitely faster and the offense," senior Ja'Wuan James said. "Last year, we tried to control the tempo of the game. Now I feel like were actually going fast. Last year we could have slowed down and stuff like that but they want us going fast."
In order to effectively move at this quickened pace, several of the linemen dropped some pounds, becoming quicker and faster in the process.
"Yeah I lost weight. I lost about 15 pounds," Stone said. "Oh yeah. I can tell (a difference).
"Before I left for break I was 336, I'm 320 now," senior Zach Fulton said. "I went down to like 316 last week. Then I started eating good again."
With the quicker pace, and a collectively slimmer figure, James feels the line has the potential to be one of the best offensive lines around.
"You've got to work to be the best," James said. "I feel like we definitely have the talent and the capability to have the best offensive line in the country I feel like."
PRESSURE A POSITIVE FOR PALARDY
Pressure is a word that placekickers now all too well. How that one player handles pressure can oftentimes be the difference between a win or a loss for the entire team.
To that end, the Vols have created situations all spring to test the abilities of their kickers in the clutch, with the entire team surrounding them, both cheering and jeering them on.
Senior Michael Palardy has enjoyed working under those circumstances and believes it will pay dividends in the long run.
"I've never experienced a practice or any kind of situation like that ever before," Palardy said. "I think it is good. I think it is going to benefit us a lot in the kicking game. A lot of pressure is put on us, a lot of pressure is put on me and I put a lot of pressure on myself. I think that Coach Jones has done a pretty good job of keeping us focused and make sure that we execute like we are supposed to."
Staying focused and executing in times of high stress is key to the success of placekickers and the Vols have certainly made sure to do everything they can to simulate those situations and create distractions this spring.
"They are tight, they are in there spraying water on me, coaches are throwing hats me, Coach Jones was sticking his finger in the earhole of my helmet today, but it is fun," Palardy said. "He is basically trying to keep me concentrated. We were just doing field-goal period and he wants me to stay focused. He is trying to distract me.
"He'll go and he'll slap my helmet, he'll call me different names. It is fun, it is good. It keeps me really focused. He'll call me Brodus, he'll call me George, he'll say he forgot my name. I've kicked the best since I've been here and I feel really confident. I guess maybe that comes with age and experience, but Coach Jones has really helped me with eliminating distractions."
SWARM TO THE BALL
One thing Butch Jones believes in is rewarding good plays.
Today at practice, Jones rewarded the defense, which swarmed to a wide receiver stopping him at the line of scrimmage by making the quarterback live for a few plays.
"That was the very first time for me, since I've been here, that something like that happened," said redshirt senior Marlon Walls. "He called it a reward for us running to the ball."
The quarterbacks don a red jersey at practice to signify no contact.
Jones, as he is known to do, changed things up.
"I think the quarterbacks got a little shocked," said Walls. "It energized practice a little bit. I knew that (Justin) Worley was going to give it up so I could go ahead and chase the running back."
TECH SAVVY DBs
Backpedalling, jamming a receiver, reading the quarterback and tackling are just a few of the many important techniques needed to play in the defensive secondary. With the spring slate just five practices in, the UT coaching staff is running a technique-heavy practice for the Vol DBs.
"I go in every day and watch my technique to see what I'm doing," said junior transfer Riyahd Jones. "The thing I have got to work on most is my press technique, but it's getting better each and every day.
"I feel confident in a lot of things such as my thought process as I'm backpedaling, my backpedal as a whole and just playing DB," said Jones. "I think I'm doing pretty well, especially with the mind part. That's probably my best aspect right now."
As the last line of defense, the secondary also needs to be solid in the tackling game.
"To line up and play defense you have to be great tacklers," said redshirt senior Byron Moore. "It doesn't matter what skills you put in, or what play we call, we have to get the man to the ground.
"Coach Jones wants us to be a physical team so we do that every day in practice. Tackling drills have been a big emphasis every day in practice."
SECONDARY MISSING TWO
A pair of Vols defensive backs did not participate in practice on Tuesday. Senior Eric Gordon and sophomore Daniel Gray missed the session.
According to Jones, "Eric's on campus. He's taking classes, but Eric's taking care of some things off the field that occurred. So we're working through that, and he has some things that he has to do in order to get back practicing."
Gray's issue was medical according to Jones, "He has asthma and this morning he woke up with an asthma attack. So obviously we are going to err on the precautionary side with our players."
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
(On if any wide receivers have started to stand out yet)
No, not yet. Again there's no secret about it, it's a very very young position. Not very many of these individuals have played. We have positional changes there. It's a process by which the style and manner that we want to play, but I do see strides; I do see progress being made. Again, this is a football team that we have to continue, overall, to get better. We keep talking about it as one day at a time.
(On if the style of practice is the same as the beginning of his career at Central Michigan)
To play an up-tempo style you have to live it every day and I don't like walking on the field. So it is a mindset, you have to condition the mind to play the way we play and it all starts at practice. We want to be physical, make no mistake about it. For us to take strides this year with this football we have to be a much more physical football team, both mentally and physically, and you have to live that way every day. We aren't anywhere we need to be to compete in the SEC but we are making strides. Obviously you grow. You start off at Central Michigan, to Cincinnati , to here, but philosophically it is the same details. It is the tempo, I have just always believed that.
(On how the team has responded to the up-tempo)
They have responded exceptionally well. These are the times that now when you are going into practice four and five and now you are getting into the pads, your legs become weary and your mind becomes weary. So we talk about that mental conditioning and there is where your overall discipline comes it. This is where you need to grind it. This is really where your team starts to be born. I am kind of disappointed we have to break it up with spring break coming up. We will be one-third of the way and now we can come back and now finish. I like what I see in terms of our players, their effort, today was a great illustration of that.
KICKER MICHAEL PALARDY
(On getting more height on his kicks)
I think a lot of that has come from Coach Lawson's program and strength. We really focused on stretching which has been the big emphasis for me this offseason. Not only maintaining flexibility, but building strength. Coach Lawson has really done a good job of maintaining that, so I can definitely see improvements.
(On changes to his technique)
I've changed up a couple of things on field goals, but nothing major. I don't want to mess with anything. Technique work in the offseason has definitely impacted that. I'm a little shorter to the ball. It gives me a little less room for error. I feel like I've made a lot better contact with the ball and contact is what makes the ball go far and high. That's been my main focus, to keep everything impacted and tight so I'm not all over the place. That was something that I played around with this whole offseason and kind of toyed with. I found myself to be really consistent with it and it has really helped. I've made big strides in terms of technique this offseason.
DEFENSIVE BACK RIYAHD JONES
(On learning from Saturday's scrimmage)
I learned a lot. I learned more about what the offense is trying to do to me and to the defense. With the scrimmages, it helps me become a better game-player because we don't do a lot of them so it helps the defense get better as a unit.
(On what he has shown the coaches)
I've shown the coaches I can be physical. In the past, we didn't have physicality in the past so just being more physical and working on my technique. I was always a good technique guy, but when spring actually started and I got pads on, my technique kind of went away. So I've got to work on maintaining that and getting it back.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN MARLON WALLS
(On today's practice)
I think it was better for us. Our main focus right now is effort. They're trying to preach to us that we could be a better defense by running to the ball and getting enough hats to the ball. At the last few practices, we haven't been getting that done so today was a little bit better and a step forward. We're not where we're supposed to be, but we'll get there. Today was a positive note.
(On the learning process under this staff)
They're teachers... They know it's going to be chaotic out here with the uptempo offense, but that's what it's meant for. This defense is meant to make you tough in chaotic situations. When we're in the meeting room, they're more teachers than anyone I've ever had.
DEFENSIVE BACK BYRON MOORE
(On the pace of practice)
It is fast, it makes you uncomfortable. When you get to the game it won't be the first time you see that type of tempo. You have seen it every day in practice. They aren't slowing it down in between so they are making us think. You just have to clear your mind and go on to the next rep.
(On improving the defense)
We have a big chip on our shoulder trying to come from the bottom of the defensive statistics and raise it up to the top this year. We are coming out here with the mindset that the defense is going to carry the team this year and that is what we are trying to emphasize. It is a new team like coach said and we are just going to move forward and make a new identity for the defense at Tennessee this year.
RUNNING BACK RAJION NEAL
(On the offense)
I feel like we are still gelling well, but as far as learning the new steps, the terminology and the block and scheme of it, we may be just a little bit behind. At the end of the day we are running hard, coming in and seeing film, staying with the O-lineman and listening to what they have to say. They set up periods where we do come together and talk and walk through things a very slow pace so we can see where our fits are and where we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to expect from them. We can kind of play off of each other.
(On the changes for the running backs)
We are doing a lot of things from the gun. Last year it was a lot of downhill-type of running with the fullback. This year it is long with the tailback in the gun with Worley and Peterman, but I like it. It is different, it is giving us a different kind of feel. I hear we are still going to get back to the downhill running. It is fun, I am having fun. I think everyone is enjoying it.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JAMES STONE
(On Coach Mahoney)
He just challenges us to come out here and give all our effort every day. He's a real positive coach he's showing us how enthusiastic he is, his passion for the game and his passion for the position.
(On having Ja'Wuan James and Antonio Richardson by his side)
It feels really good having those two guys bookending you. You know they're guys you can be confident in to relay and communicate with me and they will be able to handle themselves on an island.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JA'WUAN JAMES
(On the importance of the offensive line playing at a high level with inexperience at other positions)
I feel like it's very important, just for ourselves. This is our last year, we've been working for a long time towards this to see it perfected and also just to help our offense. A lot of guys left last year so we have to pick up the slack for our offense.
(On what the line learned from watching film from the first scrimmage)
Really just correcting the little things. They waited to install some stuff because they wanted us to perfect what we have now. Just being more consistent and keep finishing on every play.
(E-mail Stan Crawley at firstname.lastname@example.org)