After the final day of fall camp the Vols' still have their biggest question mark still hovering in the air. Who will be under center when the Tennessee offense takes the field against Austin Peay?
After an open competition for the spot for the past several weeks, a quarterback has still yet to be named.
"They've all been very attentive, very astute," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian when asked on if he was comfortable with all of their options. "They have a firm grasp of what we're doing offensively so yes."
Heading into camp, it was assumed that junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshmen Nathan Peterman were the front runners to win the spot but Bajakian has been impressed with the group as a whole, including freshmen newcomers Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson.
"We always talk to our guys about preparing as if you're the starter," he said. "It's not a big deal from their mentality and their standpoint. The thing you have to balance is the reps and how you break those up. But again we've been able to distribute reps relatively evenly anyway and even in the course of a game week prep we do get a lot of work for the first and second unit so it's a decision again that Coach Jones will make in due time, when he's ready to do so."
While there may still not be a clear starter, Bajakian said that as a staff they've experienced position battles like this one and that he feels he could trot any one of the quarterback candidates out there on a Saturday.
Even in Jones and Co.'s last year at the University of Cincinnati they took a quarterback competition all the way to the week leading up to the first game, finally naming Munchie Legaux their week one starter against Pittsburgh.
Bajakian stood firm that the choice will be made in due time.
"Again, the decision on the depth chart is Coach Jones'," said Bajakian. "I think he's better suited to comment on that but we'll play the guy that gives us the best chance of winning."
And the play caller isn't at all surprised that the battle has been so close. He applauded the blue collar effort from each of his quarterbacks.
"No, I expected the guys to compete and they are," he said. "Every day they come to work with their lunch pail in hand and their hard hat on. They go about their business. They're not looking over their shoulder with who's behind them, where they should be or about how the reps are getting divided. They've been great in that regard. They just come to work and try to take advantage of their opportunities."
FBI, NO NOT THAT FBI
One thing defensive line coach Steve Stripling preaches is FBI.
Stripling is not a huge fan of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Instead he wants his players to have a lot of FootBall Intelligence.
"For a defensive lineman, he needs to go up there on first and 10 and know if it is run or pass," explained Stripling. "We are just not to that point yet. A good defensive lineman goes up there, he knows it is run and he can prepare himself, if he knows it is pass or play action. Right now it is a little bit of a mystery so we need to increase our football intelligence and increase our reps to become better."
Stripling was referring to the team not accomplishing the goal they have set forth for themselves this season in trying to hold the run to four yards or less on first down at least 65 percent of the time.
It comes down to FBI.
Though the goal was not accomplished Saturday, Stripling has seen huge amount of improvement from the D-Line throughout camp.
"The entire camp what I continue to see and I have pointed it out to the D-Line, that was the first time I saw [them recognize rush or pass on first down]," said Stripling. It is something we have talked about and something we have actually drilled, all of a sudden boom it shows up in the scrimmage. That is the first time I have seen it."
"Almost every day there is one of those firsts," continued Stripling. "It might be a pass rush technique. It might be identifying a back set. I will say hey, guys that is the first time we have done that. It is a journey, we are still going down that path with them as we go."
THE FIFTH DB
Arguably the toughest position in the secondary, the nickelback must be a player capable of filling many roles. For the Vols, that man is Mr. Consistency, JaRon Toney.
The former tailback made the jump to the defensive side of the ball last season, appearing in 11 games while starting the final four.
Assistant head coach and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez stressed the difficulty of playing the position after Monday night's practice.
"You've got to have a combination of a lot of things," said Martinez. "No. 1, you have to be physical because you're closer to the ball and you're involved in more of the run game than you would be if you were at corner. You have to be able to cover, you have to be able to blitz, and you have to be able to make checks.
"In our defense, you're kind of like a safety/linebacker. The tight ends will do both the run and the pass, and you have to communicate really well."
Standing at 5-feet-10 and weighing in at 184-pounds, Toney proved he has the physicality to handle the spot last season, and is leaving a lasting impression on the new coaching staff so far this fall.
"He's a very consistent kid; he's a very consistent player," Martinez said. "He's on all of our special teams. The coaching staff is always fighting to put him on their teams. You can't play defense unless you're really wanted on special teams. He's a guy that has been very consistent."
Defensive coordinator John Jancek has also taken notice of the Alcoa product.
"JaRon is going to help us win," said Jancek. "He is a guy that knows what to do and is in a position that he just has to make plays when the time presents itself. The last scrimmage he had a couple pass break ups and a couple tackles, so we are happy with him and he's got to keep getting better."
WATCH OUT FOR WILLIAMS
The defensive coaches were singing the praises of Jordan Williams Monday night.
The 6-5, 260 pound defensive lineman finished 2012 as one of just three defensive linemen with multiple sacks on the season.
Williams entered 2013 fall camp, however with something to prove.
"Jordan has had a great camp," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "Out of the D-Lineman, he has been the most impressive, he has shown the most improvement. Again, we are looking for pass rush. You have to be able to generate some form of pressure, have to be able to disrupt the quarterback without blitz every single time. That is out challenge. That is where Jordan has really improved and shown that he has made great strides in that area."
His defensive line coach Steve Stripling agrees. He believes there is something about Jordan that has helped him to keep making strides throughout August.
"Jordan is a young man that continues to progress," said Stripling. "He has athletic ability. What he brings is a little more effort."
"He has that juice, the stamina and conditioning, maybe more so than a lot of the guys."
SMITH EARNS TIME, TRUST
Although the No. 1 running back will be dependent on the first running play called in a game, Volunteers running back coach Robert Gillespie is confident in all of his players and believes each of them are worthy of playing time.
Tom Smith is one of those running backs rising to the occasion, or as Team 117 likes to say, rising to the top.
"He's actually probably one of the more vocal guys in the running back room," said Gillespie. "He's just really just trying to work on the fine details of becoming a better pass protector, but from the effort standpoint, from the leadership standpoint, he's been a vocal guy to help me coach on the field. He's done a really good job. I think this is the first time he's really getting meaningful reps, so he's shown a lot of improvement."
After redshirting last season and only playing in three games in the 2011 season, Smith is eager to get out on the playing field and staying healthy is one of the biggest factors in running back play.
"That's the main thing for a running back," Gillespie said. "Just the longer you stay healthy, you're going to get those opportunities and right now he's done a good job. This spring he was a little banged up and he wasn't able to get those reps, but so far this fall camp, he's been healthy. He's showing us that we can give him the football."
While Gillespie won't name specifics because all running backs show him great potential, the Big Orange is bound to see Smith contribute in Neyland Stadium this fall.
"He's earned my trust as a position coach," said Gillespie. "I think he's earned the trust from the offensive coordinator and also the head coach."
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has been pleased with Smith's emergence.
"Tom has been pretty consistent," said Bajakian. "He's worked hard, he's been a leader in that meeting room. He's a high energy guy that demands a lot of the people around him so he's done a good job of being durable and being a consistent guy."
ONLY 12 MORE DAYS UNTIL...
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.
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On the install)
"We have a lot in right now for our guys and where we are at. I feel comfortable with the scheme. There will be a couple things we will continue to look at and possibly add. We are at where we need to be. We are on schedule. We are working down our checklist of things that we need to get accomplished. We are on schedule and ready to hopefully peak here in the first week."
»(On Curt Maggitt)
"I am not counting on Curt in the first game. He is getting more and more reps but nowhere near full speed. I am not planning on him." We rotated him in there in the nickel package. What we do is we drill him, give him reps, and then get feedback from Jason [McVeigh] our trainer. He responded well, there was no swelling, things like that. That is how we will progressively go."
»(On Jacques Smith)
"He is not going to do anything until he gets the pin out in his thumb which I am not sure when that is. The x-ray came back and it looked good. They were very positive and didn't give us a time when the pin is coming out. I am not counting on him either in the opener. I am going in it with guys out. Right now he is out and we have to get it done with the players that are out there practicing."
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
"There's guys that, you used the key word: consistent, it's always interesting - the open practice we had the other night is a great opportunity for us to evaluate which guys will step up when the lights are on, when there is a crowd in front of them, when there is a little extra pressure so it's something that will constantly be evaluated through the course of the season, something that guys can and do improve on over the course of the season. We have some target playmakers that we'll obviously focus on for the Austin Peay game plan but as the season goes on there are guys that obviously mature and develop and that could change."
»(On Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal)
"They've both been very productive. I feel good that both could go into a game setting and again I think they're similar backs so they could both execute our offense - everything in our offense, you know I've been in systems where we had specialty backs who were only third down backs or who weren't good at pass protection. Those guys have similar skill sets and can do everything we ask them."
»(On challenging freshmen quarterbacks)
"It has multiple purposes. Again, number one is again to add a little more pressure to them, to put them more in a game like situation. Frankly another part is for the benefit of our defense. We want our defensive front and our defensive blitzing secondary members and linebackers to get a feel for finishing the pressure and finishing the blitz so I think it's not just to add the pressure to our quarterback but to help our defensive guys."
ASST. HEAD COACH/DBs COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On the biggest challenge of starting freshmen)
"They're going to be challenged right off the get-go, but if you're a player, you'll thrive in the moment. Some of the young guys that have been playing for us through camp have done a nice job. This past Saturday in front of our fans was really good with how they handled it. I thought they did a pretty good job."
»(On if Byron Moore and LaDarrell McNeil are interchangeable)
"There are strengths and weaknesses to both of them. They both do the same things. Especially when you play so many offenses that are uptempo; not to pigeon hole the guy as a run guy or a pass guy. There are so many motions and shifts so they basically know both. I like doing that because it helps you prepare. It helps you be able to make the adjustments as the game comes. You're not just one dimensional. It's worked in the past."
ASSOC. HEAD COACH/DEFENSIVE LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On Dan McCullers)
"He can be successful, he can be an impact player. He can hold the point on a double team. On pass rushing, getting his big old hand up he can interfere with pass rush lanes. He is in a position where he can have a big impact on the defense. Our offense is up tempo so we are training him to play that many so when we don't it will be a break."
»(On Corey Miller)
"Corey has always been a great kid and a great leader. What Corey brings to the table is versatility. He can play different spots; he is involved in special teams. He is always energetic, high energy. That is what he is bringing to the table on top of being a good player. We are fighting through these dog days and we are talking about playing tempo offenses where it is extended reps and extended drives, he is one of the few that can continue to show some spark, energy and outward focus."
TIGHT ENDS COACH/SPECIAL TEAMS COORDINATOR MARK ELDER
»(On Michael Palardy starting at all three spots)
"He's still competing. Coach Jones will deal with the depth chart stuff with who's going to be our starters and who's not going to be. Mike is doing a solid job. It comes down to consistency. Unfortunately at that position if you miss one field goal at the wrong time and you're a goat.
"The other day he goes out and has a great day, and then gets called out to make the winner and doesn't. It's a consistency thing. Making the right kick at the right time can make all the difference in the world."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On Brent Brewer)
"Yeah it takes a little bit of time to get backed up off the ball ten or twelve yards. Everything happens a little bit slower in the run part of it; then all of a sudden you're five yards off the ball and sometimes going off the ball depending on what front you're in. The world acts a lot faster and your eyes have to be disciplined. So he's still learning the game with his hands and his eyes, but I tell you he comes to work every day with a great attitude and asks all the right questions."
»(On veteran leadership)
"I got a great room as far as maturity. Even with AJ and Curt being younger guys, they're juniors. Then guys like (John) Propst, Greg (Grieco), and Christian (Harris); they're young guys but then you got older guys in the room. I got six or seven seniors, three or four juniors, then I got two redshirt freshman so it makes it to a point where young guys make sure they try to follow the older guys. Like I said it's a really mature group that's really into football; they know when to play and when to turn it off and start to get serious."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On seniors embracing the freshmen)
"[The helmet stripes] have put the seniors in the position of, `hey, we have to look after these guys.' It is still a work in progress; there are guys who are doing a better job of leading but we can't assume it and we have to keep continuing to encourage it and they are the guys that need to do it. They are the ones that see a guy in a helmet with a stripe on and say, `I have to help him.' Whether it is getting after this guy in our group, his foot work, his pad level, his toughness, or if a guy just got beat up on a play, pick him up and all that. It is healthy; It is good. We started it years ago and we will keep it as long as we are together. I think it is special."
»(On the O-Line improvement with the pace)
"The last two days we have really picked up on that, really the emphasis from Coach Jones in the team meetings to the positional offensive meetings. We refer to the center as being the gas pedal as far as getting things lined. The last two days we have been the fastest we have ever been. It has been an emphasis that we are stressing a lot from finishing the physical, covering down to pick our teammate up. It is all those things that we are really starting to focus in on now, the play is done, we are finished - let's get lined up faster. I hate to use the term buy in but the players are bought in, the players are working their tails off. It is just adapting to what we want and just coming through more and more with what we want. That has been good.
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On if anyone has locked down a WR spot yet)
"It's still in the air. We're going to make a decision here close to game week next week. With young receivers it will be an ongoing process. I think Pig Howard's asserted himself as a guy that you'll see out there quite a bit. Devrin Young's had a great camp, so you'll see him in there quite a bit. You know, we've had some injuries here and there, so some guys haven't got as many reps as they wanted to and some freshmen, I had to throw them in there and see what they've got. So, they'll figure into the mix."
»(On where Jason Croom will make the biggest impact)
"That's a great question. I don't know, I don't know. I'm playing Jason both inside and outside right now. He's kind of a hybrid for us with Jonathon Johnson out practicing and just Pig (Howard) and Devrin (Young) really being in the slot. I've put him back in the slot a little bit and I bounced him around a lot to see what he can do, where he can help us, which has actually helped his game because it's made him learn the concepts more. It's actually helped him. It's helped us that he can be a little versatile."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On explosive players)
"All those guys are showing different things they do well. Obviously, Rajion (Neal) is probably the guy that has the most explosive ability--a guy that can catch. We've seen in some scrimmages him break off some long runs, so they're definitely there. We just have to make sure we're in great shape, that when those opportunities come, he's able to see those creases and create those big plays. I think there are a few guys."
»(On how many RBs he has used in a game)
"Me, I always want to try to get about three guys ready. I do. Obviously, I loved for Coach Jake (Mike Bajakian) to figure out an offense where all of those guys can play at one time, but it's not going to happen. We're going to get three guys ready. The one and two are going to be the guys that get the most reps, but that three has to be ready to be that two at any moment. In my opinion, probably about three guys and hopefully we play well enough where we get some guys in some games, in some make situations."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at firstname.lastname@example.org)