KNOXVILLE -- The Vols held their first scrimmage of training camp the same day of their first two-a-day practice.
"I thought the first day of 2-a-days was very productive," said head coach Butch Jones. "I'm looking forward to watching film and seeing the players we can win with."
Jones was much more impressed with today's practice after believing that the players did not live up to their standard of practice last night.
"I thought our players showed resiliency today," Jones said. "They came out here and had a purpose to them. We took strides today."
In today's two practices, the offense showed a great level of consistency. All four quarterbacks took advantage of each rep they got and showed leadership by coaching and leading each other.
The ground game looked strong as tailback Rajion Neal ripped off a 98-yard dash down the left sideline in a situational drive started at the 2-yard line. The Vols also pounded the rock with a 14-play -- all on the runs -- drive finished by an Alden Hill burst from two yards out.
On defense, senior linebacker John Propst forced a fumble late in the scrimmage that was recovered by Kenny Bynum. That was the lone turnover of the day. On the defensive front, several sacks were recorded and passes batted down.
In the coming week, Jones is hoping to see a higher level of consistency.
"We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but these individuals are resilient and prideful," Jones said. "They embrace getting better. We have to overachieve in every aspect of the game. We have to hold each other accountable and get better each and every day."
A BURST OF ENERGY
The star of Saturday night's closed scrimmage was running back Rajion Neal who broke outside from the 2-yard line and raced 98 yards down the field breaking tackles for the touchdown.
It was all his teammates could talk about. He even got some praise from Coach Jones.
Rajion Neal really ran with a purpose tonight," said Jones. "I liked his pad level; I thought he showed some bursts in acceleration."
Neal, a selfless player that is never one to hog the spotlight, credits the offensive line for his run, specifically one Antonio Richardson.
"It was coming out, man," said Neal. "The O-Line gave me a great start, great push up front, leaving me with one block and one cut to make, so I saw it. I took it."
"I had a safety," said Neal. "Everybody pretty much squeezed and it was, maybe an end, who squeezed. Tiny [Richardson] pushed him out. I just hit it. I had a safety. He had a crazy angle. I almost didn't think I was going to make it. All I said was, I cannot get caught."
Neal has been a consistent force for the Vols during his career on Rocky Top. The senior has played wherever needed switching to wide receiver for a season, and was on his way to a 1,000-yard season last year before suffering a brief injury during the middle of the season.
"When you look at [Rajion] last year, he was like the second leading rusher in the SEC before he got hurt," said Antonio Richardson. "This year all we need for him is to be consistent, stay in the training room and make sure he is taking care of his body."
Neal feels as though he is bringing more power to the table this season.
"I felt from last year, I had a good start and I had my ups and downs," said Neal. "After the season, I was a lot more consistent at the finish, and I think with the new staff, as long as I'll be able to finish and break tackles, I think a lot of good things will happen. I mean, up front they're getting me started and that's really all you can ask for from a tailback."
The camp has had some ups and downs for the senior who has been doing what he has been asked, but maybe not making plays as much as he should during practice.
That changed today.
"I feel coach put some fire up under us," said Neal. "He told us today that we are going to find out who everyone is, and I knew today that if I didn't show up, next week I would be on the scout team. He gave us all a little fire because no one wants to be on the scout team."
Transformation is everywhere within Tennessee football--new coaching staff, new players, new leaders.
A.J. Johnson is one of those transformers on and off the field this season.
Johnson claims he often stood in the shadows of former linebacker, Herman Lathers, who last year, was very vocal in leading the Vols. Now, Johnson sees his opportunity to step into those shoes, or rather, cleats.
"Herman was a great leader while he was here," Johnson said. "It was just a role that I've just fallen into. I wasn't that vocal my first two years, but I've got to be vocal now just to help the team and be a better leader."
Johnson hopes that his vocal leadership is motivating his teammates and coaches, especially in long days like today.
"It's just about going out there every day and giving 100 percent and talking to your teammates and inspiring people," Johnson said, "And making sure you're not lacking. If you see someone lacking you pick them up and get them going."
The Gainesville, Ga., native believes the Vols have become more focused throughout training camp and that both the offense and defense are making great strides.
"We're right on track," said Johnson. "We're doing the right stuff. Everybody on defense is making plays and stuff. And the offense is making plays as well."
While the team is progressing, so is Johnson, who has transformed himself personally this season in the weight room.
"My body transformed a lot," Johnson said. "I slimmed up five pounds and gained a lot of muscle. One time I did the bodpod and it was 240 (pounds) with three percent body fat. That was a good improvement ... I know I'm way faster than I was last year. I've got a faster step. I just know the game better, so I'm going to be faster."
With kickoff just three weeks ago, Johnson hopes that he has spent his time wisely, knowing that he has worked and will continue to work to reach the standard of excellence expected by his teammates and coaches.
"I always say football is football," Johnson said. "It is just time management. Football is football, but I am going to go out there and bust my tail and go fight."
JUST GOTTA EXECUTE
Tiny Richardson said after the scrimmage that all the offense needed to do was execute to be successful.
Based on the results, executing was all they did on Saturday night. Of the offensive highlights, Richardson and others kept coming back to the 98-yard run by Rajion Neal that led the night.
"Rajion [Neal] did well, Marlin Lane [did] well. Rajion had the 98-yarder," Richardson said. "All of our backs did a good job today, they were reading the blocks, coming off of our hips and doing a really good job."
Neal credited the previous offensive series, a 13-play drive that also covered 98 yards, with sparking his big run.
"I mean, it was honestly another coming out, actual before mine that I think sparked it off," Neal said. "They had a 13-play drive, all runs, and you had runs from Alden Hill, Tom Smith and Justus Pickett. It was kind of unreal to see because literally every three plays, those guys were breaking. I want to say Alden got them from the minus two to about the 15. I want to say Tom came in and broke his first play for about 20 or 30. Then you had another great cut, Alden came in and finished it. I mean it was crazy, but Coach was just calling you keep running it, keep running it, and it was a 14-play drive, 98 yards, all runs."
Richardson said the offensive line paved the way for the big runs by playing tough up front.
"It is just attitude," Richardson said. "When you are on the goal line or wherever you may be it is all about having an attitude. When you have the talent that we have on the O-Line you have to perform and that is what we did."
Fellow lineman James Stone spread the praise around on all of the running backs. "I feel like all the backs had some good moments out there," he said. Tom Smith showed up today and he was able to make a lot of runs and continuously stay in the game and continue to go run after run after getting hit. I applaud him for that."
D-LINE PRESSURE STANDS OUT
The Vols' defensive line had a strong showing in the scrimmage with numerous pass break-ups and several sacks.
"The pass rush went pretty good," said senior linebacker Brent Brewer. "I think we had four or five sacks. So that's a good day. I think John Propst got a sack and like three from the defensive linemen."
The linebackers made their presence known throughout much of the action and came away with the only turnover of the evening.
"We didn't have any interceptions, but we had a couple of pass break ups," said sophomore defensive back Brian Randolph. "We forced a fumble during the last situation. It was the second team. The situation was that we had to get the ball back with a minute to go. I think it was John Propst who caused the fumble, and Kenny Bynum was the guy who recovered it."
The leader of the defense is pleased with the defense's progress.
"We're right on track," said All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson. "We're doing the right stuff. Everybody on defense is making plays.
We're all one team, and we're working toward one goal, and that's to win each day. We're progressing all together as one unit."
THE UNSUNG HEROES
Everyone knows about Tennessee's offensive line.
Last season the front allowed just four sacks on the year. After losing Dallas Thomas to the NFL, the line comes in ranked second in the country by Lindy's and Athlon Sports.
But on a football team, every player needs a backup. And the Vols' second team O-Line is doing quite well according to its head coach.
"I thought our second team offensive line is really coming around," said Butch Jones. "The one individual I am really excited about right now is [freshman] Dylan Wiesman, he is physical, he is very intelligent and he is playing himself right now into a rotation in our offensive line. We have asked a lot of him as a true freshman for playing center and playing guard and he is playing with a high level of consistency right now."
"Mack Crowder continues to progress. Wiesman has done a great job. I tell you, Marques Pair has done an unbelievable job, I think he is one of the most improved players that we have in our football program. So you are starting to see some confidence come in that second group, which is great to see but we still have a long way to go. But I am very encouraged by what I see."
LEARNING FROM A LEGEND
Al Wilson was back on the Tennessee campus this week and current linebacker A.J. Johnson couldn't have been happier.
It's not every day that you get advice from one of the best linebackers in school history.
"I have spoken with him some," said Johnson. "It's a blessing for him to be around. He's one of the best. When people say Ray Lewis; people say Al Wilson just like that. He's just as good. He's one of the best out there, so it's a blessing to have him around to see how great he is."
What advice did the Vols' past middle linebacker give to its current middle linebacker?
"Just to keep playing hard and keep leading."
Senior linebacker Channing Fugate was not with the team on Saturday. Following the scrimmage, Butch Jones addressed the media on the possibility of him leaving the program after three seasons.
"Right now Channing is weighing his options," said Jones. "He wants to continue, he wants to have more a role of playing football. We are helping him. We have met a few times and he is weighing his options right now, possibly transferring to another school."
ONLY 21 MORE DAYS...
The Vols will open the 2013 campaign against Austin Peay on Aug. 31. To purchase season tickets, go to UTTix.com.
For more information about Tennessee football, visit UTSports.com/football, follow @Vol_Football on Twitter or like the Vols at Facebook.com/VolFootball.
Here are sound bites from Coach Jones and players after Saturday's practices:
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
»(On where the team is right now)
"We have a long way to go. We have a lot of work to do. These individuals are resilient and they are prideful. We challenged them with their performance last night and they came back with a mentality. That is difficult because obviously I think sometimes there is a negative connotation when you hear two-a-days. They embrace two-a-days, they embrace getting better, and they help each other to a high standard of accountability."
»(On if camp has been successful up to now)
"It has been. I still would like a higher level of consistency day in and day out. I still would like a little more physicality, especially from our defensive line. We have to do a much better job of using our hands from the linebacker position, from the defensive line position, really understanding how it is to separate from blocks and using our hands at the junction point. That is going to be a great point of emphasis this coming week."
»(On A.J. Johnson)
"I saw some growth today. I saw some excitement, I saw him trying to bring some other players along with him. As a middle linebacker, from a leadership standpoint, it is the equivalent to the quarterback on the offense. You see Al Wilson, you see him and he spoke to A.J., we have challenged A.J. That is one of the skillsets that he has to improve on, I have seen him make some progress in that area."
JUNIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN ANOTNIO RICHARDSON
»(On being ahead of the curve from this point last year)
"From the technique standpoint yes. The thing is, we do a lot of film study. And when you do a lot of film study like that, and you are getting reps, then it is going to start to play in."
»(On having no turnovers during the scrimmage)
"No turnovers was a good thing. When you don't turn the ball over, whether you are converting on third downs or not, if your defense is converting well, you are going to have a chance to win the game. So not having any turnovers is a big element of the game."
»(On the quarterbacks)
"It is, but that is what you practice for. Our quarterbacks came out today and did a good job, they were very vocal in the huddle, executing the plays and getting the calls out there. I think all of them are doing pretty well right now."
SENIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JAMES STONE
"I feel like the focus was execution and we were just executing the offense at the pace that we needed to execute it at."
"We did some gas in the earlier periods when it was just flat out scrimmaging and then we did some situations that were kind of based on the situations we did hurry-up or not."
JUNIOR LINEBACKER A.J. JOHNSON
»(On if defense is "ahead" of the offense)
"I wouldn't say we're ahead of them or not. We're all one team, and we're working toward one goal, and that's to win each day. We're progressing all together as one unit."
»(On expected tackle numbers in the next season)
"I know tackle numbers are going to come here and there. My main thing is just winning and everybody getting their assignments done. Tackles are going to come."
»(On potential to make big plays at linebacker)
"It's pretty much about putting myself in the situation. I'm going to be blitzing more this season, so I'm putting myself in better situations. The defense as a whole is doing good, and everything will fall into place."
SENIOR RUNNING BACK RAJION NEAL
»(On being a leader)
"I feel that's big. It feels great to know you can take some of that pressure off him, leaving his mind clear to kind of think through his progressions and know that stuff hit the fan, he can turn around and hand it off and the o-line and myself can help get him out of that whole and kind of build a little bit of comfort around him."
»(On the offensive line)
"Yes, because I think as a running back, you kind of go in and look at the cuts that you missed--the holes, you know your reads. Unless you go in there and actually hear at exactly what they're seeing, what they're trying to reach up to, how they're pulling and snatching the double team, it's crazy because a lot of times, a running back will miss a cut and is like ah man, there wasn't anything there. You go in there, get inside the offensive linemen's heads and that view. You'll see, they blew something up and gave you a small crease and we just missed it."
»(On running backs showing leadership)
"Definitely. We have a great RB coach and O-Line coach. That really tries to put confidence and fire behind us. One thing we haven't heard lately is that we are reflections of our coach. Our coaches want to see us do great. When we do it, they are out there. That is the difference maker for us going out here playing hard."
JUNIOR QUARTERBACK JUSTIN WORLEY
»(On the offensive line's performance)
"I think they did great out there with pass protections and they opened up some big holes for our running backs, I mean, we had a 98-yard touchdown run and that doesn't come very easily if you don't have a good offensive line. They stepped up big for us today."
»(On individuals that stood out)
"All of our running backs, they really showed up today. Tom Smith and Justus Pickett really came out of nowhere. Tom just came back off of a small injury and first day back he had a good day. That was exciting to see."
»(On competition motivating players)
"Yeah, this was our first scrimmage and everybody was jumping around. There was a lot more excitement and passion and intensity going into it because everybody knew that it was more of a game situation and a chance to prove yourself."
»(On the emergence of the running game)
"It's good to see, I know we haven't had a great running game the last couple of years, but it's great to see us just grind through a 14-play drive and their (defensive) line was dog tired. Just seeing our running backs, I think we had two or three guys rotate through, and each one of them ran the ball hard and had great vision, so it was great to see."
RS FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK NATHAN PETERMAN
»(On the difference between the practices)
"I just try to do the same thing in both. Just do what the coaches are telling me, know what the situation is, know what we need to get, be careful with the football and lead the team down the field."
»(On splitting QB reps in the scrimmage)
"Some of us got the 1s and some of us got the 2s. We kind of just rotated. I got some of both. They just wanted to see what we could do."
»(On noticing a difference between 1s and 2s)
"I think everybody is doing a really good job. There's maybe a little bit of a difference, but I think everybody is doing a really good job and playing with great effort. I think that's all you can ask for."
SENIOR LINEBACKER BRENT BREWER
»(On how the pass defense is progressing)
"It is coming along pretty good. Our corners are pretty good, our linebackers are making their drops, and our defensive line is rushing the passer so we're all getting better as a team."
»(On building stamina from practice)
"It is especially important when it is game day. It will help a lot. Your adrenaline is pumping and you're going to get tired. But our team is going to be in better shape than the other team."
»(On today's practice helping confidence)
"It really helped. We all came out and did our thing on defense. The offense did good in the run game. Overall, I think the defense is coming along pretty good."
RS SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK BRIAN RANDOLPH
»(On how the defense did during the scrimmage)
"We got them off the field with a lot of three and outs. We could have done better with the big play. We stopped them on most of the plays, but we just kept giving them the big ones so we have to get back to correcting."
»(On turnovers during scrimmage)
"We didn't have any interceptions, but we had a couple of pass break ups. We forced a fumble during the last situation. It was the second team. The situation was that we had to get the ball back with a minute to go. I think it was John Propst who caused the fumble, and Kenny Bynum was the guy who recovered it."
»(On young defensive backs)
"I feel like we are getting a lot more depth. We had a couple of corners that we put in, and it wasn't too much of a difference. I think having depth in the secondary is a lot better."