KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – With just two days remaining until Tennessee opens the 2013 football season, the Vols are making their final preparations to face Austin Peay at Neyland Stadium.
Tasked with living up to the name ‘Wide Receiver U,’ assistant coach Zach Azzanni knows it’s all about preparation and has put his nine guys through the gauntlet this preseason.
“Every kid is different; I think I have an idea of how they will respond,” Azzanni said after Wednesday’s practice. “A lot of it is how they prepare, how they practice. I am a firm believer that it’s the week of preparation that usually dictates how they will play. I have a pretty good idea of how each of them will respond.
“I’m looking forward to watching them play and seeing what they can do. We have prepared them; coach (Butch) Jones has prepared them. We will find out Saturday.”
With youth at the position, Azzanni says it’s still a wide open competition. The group competing for starting spots includes the likes of true freshmen Marquez North and Josh Smith, redshirt freshman Jason Croom and sophomore Pig Howard.
“I have nine guys,” Azzanni said. “We’re going to take them and we’re going to roll with them. We’ve got to go. They’ve all got to play.
“Who jogs out there at the first snap; I don’t even know what it says on that depth chart. They’re all going to play. They have to. Whoever jogs out there snap one might be completely different than snap two. They all responded and no one went and grabbed any spots.”
In addition to starters and playmakers, Azzanni is also still looking for leaders. And right now, he’s leading by example.
“You’re looking at him. I am the alpha male,” said Azzanni. “We need so much more experience. We need them to grow up a little. They need to have a little clout on the field and I think once that happens you will see some leaders emerge and it may be some freshmen.
“I understand what it is right now. I am that guy, I am the senior, I am the captain, I am the alpha male. The problem is with coaches sometimes, we become white noise, so you need a player to police the group and right now it’s a work in progress.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie is a no-nonsense coach.
He knows his job is to get the players prepared to play and to not be their father.
"My job is to coach, critique, and correct,” said Gillespie. “None of that is fun. My job is to find one thing for you to get better at and once you get better at it, I find the next thing that you've got to get better at. My job is to always find ways to make them better and when I do that, they'll respect me more and more. So, it's not about trying to gain friendships, it's about making those guys be the best football players they can be."
Gillespie, since joining the staff right before spring practice, has had over 30 practices to develop the 2013 running back corps and on Saturday night is ready to see them perform.
"You get nervous just like a player,” said Gillespie. “As a coach, we really just play through the kids. So the same jitters, excitement, and anxiety that you have as a player, you have it for your kids because you want those kids to go out and be successful. They've worked, they've done all the things behind the scenes. We're excited and nervous just like the kids are."
The depth chart shows the senior Rajion Neal will be the starter with junior Marlin Lane and redshirt sophomore Tom Smith backing him up.
But just because they might be listed as such, doesn’t mean that they are the only guys to play.
"Whenever the next guy's ready to go, he's ready to go,” said Gillespie. “We don't have a depth chart. It sounds like some cool stuff to say, but who goes out first, Rajion may go out first and next play Marlin may be in and the next play Tom (Smith) may be in. So, it's just going to be by committee until we get a nice feel for who the guys are, to be honest with you."
Gillespie will look to the experience of Neal and Lane to help lead the rest of the running backs on Saturday, however.
"These guys are mature guys,” said Gillespie. “They understand that they do have some of the most experience. They're two of the most experienced guys on this offense other than the offensive line. We have to do a great job of helping the line protect the quarterback, and also helping the guys on the perimeter and you do that by being able to run the ball.”
“That's something they always have in the back of their minds,” said Gillespie. “They've done a good job working. On Saturday night we'll see if they buy into it and they really go out and make plays."
DUAL ROLE FOR ELDER AND PALARDY
The place kicker and punter is the same person. The special teams and tight ends coach is also the same person, but the dual-role for Michael Palardy and tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder hasn’t hindered them in either role.
The senior has proven his importance to special teams, which is apparent to his coach. As his coach, Elder is taking extra precautions to make sure his all-in-one player stays healthy.
“(Keeping Michael healthy) is a big concern and it’s something we talk about every single day since he’s doing so much for us,” Elder said. “We make sure we’re counting his reps from kickoffs to punts, making sure that he’s not doing too much.
“We want him to be not only good for game one, but game two, three and all the way through.”
With this much riding on one player, Elder says even though Palardy is splitting up reps between positions, he earned his spot.
“There’s always things that guys can work on,” Elder said. “It may be the placement on kickoffs, or making sure we’re hitting where we want on the field on his punts. If it’s not exactly on-point, then that’s where we’ll rep him. That’s with every position; no one is perfect, but we’re striving to be. You always try to get better where you’re lacking at.”
Another position the special teams coach isn’t lacking at is the kick returner position, which Elder says junior Devrin Young has made sure he got the starting spot.
“He is the most consistent performer at (the returning) position from spring to fall if you look at what he’s done,” Elder said. “With the returner, you can’t be good five out of six because that’s a turnover.”
Not only has Young gained consistency, Elder also says that since he arrived in the spring, Young has gained confidence with the ball on the field.
“It’s a combination of the fact that he has been the most consistent guy along with the fact that he’s a threat with the ball in his hands.”
Heading into Saturday’s game, the dual-role coach knows what to expect and isn’t shying away from the madness to occur at Neyland Stadium.
“I’m looking forward to experiencing it firsthand,” Elder said. “You see videos of it, you’ve watched it, read about it, heard about it and I’m excited to get the opportunity to do those things. I’ve played (at Neyland Stadium) before, so I know what it’s like. I was on the other side of it, but I know that the atmosphere here is second to none.”
BE THE BEST TENNESSEE
In just two days, the Volunteers will run through the ‘T’ to begin a new era of Tennessee football and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez plans to watch from above in the press box to see what Team 117’s defense has to show Big Orange Nation.
Martinez hopes that the defense has learned that it doesn’t matter if it’s the first game of the season or the last, an SEC or non-conference opponent, you must expect the unexpected. The Tennessee defense will do just that.
“The thing that we say to our players all the time, you’ve been working since January, so regardless of who you play, let’s be the best Tennessee football team we can be ourselves and worry about things we can control,” Martinez said.
Most likely, Martinez plans to have many defensive players see time under the lights Saturday night. From veterans to walk-ons, Martinez and staff have watched players continuously develop and further understand the defensive playbook.
This year’s defense, which contains multiple freshmen and walk-on players, has impressed Martinez as of late.
“I like them,” said Martinez. “I like their attitude. Obviously, we have to see how they play. We have to see how they respond to playing in front of our fans and that environment, in an unbelievable atmosphere. So, it will be a true test how they go through it and will they produce and be effective.”
Attitude reflects leadership.
‘The good thing is we’ve got that leadership, the experience of Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman, Byron Moore, LaDarrell McNeil who went through it last year as a freshman,” said Martinez. “You can see his communication with them. I know Jaron Toney has played nickel before, but it’s really a new position for him from the standpoint of he’s the No. 1 guy right now and Devaun Swafford backing him up.
“Obviously at the corner position you’ve got Cam (Sutton), and Malik Foreman and Reggie Juin, so they’ll see playing time, and they’ve worked really hard. They’ve grown a lot in the last month, so to speak. I’m looking forward to seeing them play. I’m excited about it, so Saturday couldn’t get here any quicker.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On players being nervous Saturday)
"I think people devalue coaches, fans, jogging out in front of 102,000 people for the first time playing. There's going to be some butterflies, there's going to be a `whoa' kind of factor. No matter what can do, what we do, nothing can get them ready for that - prepare them for that. There's going to be some nerves, there's going to be some butterflies in the stomach. We've just got to play through it."
(On his first impressions of Tennessee)
"My first impressions were we were driving up on the bus on the visitor's side and seeing all those fans and how nasty they were towards us. I remember it was my very first SEC game and I remember I called my wife right when I got in the locker room and I said, `Honey, we aren't in the MAC anymore.' It was quite the atmosphere. We got in and I heard Rocky Top about 405 thousand times and it was a neat atmosphere. Once you get dialed in and start looking through straws you kind of block it all out. It you would have told me two years later I would have been on the other sideline I would have said you are lying. So it has been really cool to be on this side."
(On what's keeping Jacob Carter and Cody Blanc off the depth chart)
"Both real good kids, probably just overall talent right now. Some of the other guys show a little bit more with the ball in their hands and things like that. Both those guys have value but we also need some playmakers. They're solid receivers but they haven't shown they can make plays yet. We need playmakers."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On Tom Smith)
"Tom's been here for a long time and it's our job as coaches to find a role for him. We have to play with who we have, we can't go create someone else. So, I think Tom bought into the role of helping on special teams, which to me is something that running backs have to be those guys. So, he has done a good job of finding a way to get on those and the more you contribute on special teams, I think the more opportunities you'll get as an offensive player. We'll definitely find a role for him, it's a long season. I have to always prepare him like he's a starter because at any moment he may have to play."
(On the veteran offensive line helping the running backs)
"We've had almost thirty practices now. We don't want these guys to buy into the whole "It's a new offense" deal. It is what it is. The fact that those guys have played a lot of games together, those are the things that you hope in the first quarter after they break a sweat, they look around and say, "Hey guys, we've been here before. I recognize the guy in the huddle." It's not just the plays, it's football. A lot of things we call the plays, they called them last year. So, hopefully once they get into the game and into the huddle, they'll snap into it and it just become football again."
(On practicing in full pads)
"We have some physical practices, that's one thing about Coach Jones. He wants us to get banged up a little bit. Obviously we have to be smart but you won't really tell anything about your football team until you put the pads on everybody, every position. I think for the most part they've done the things that we've asked them to do. They've showed some toughness, done a really good job of protecting the quarterback, protecting the football, and like I said, the real test will come on Saturday. It doesn't matter the opponent. It doesn't matter, Austin Peay or whoever we're playing. It's about us, it's not about our opponent. We just want to go out and dominate for sixty minutes, whoever we're playing."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On being a position coach heading into the first game)
"I'm excited for the first game to go out and see the guys perform. I'm ready to take what we've been doing all spring, summer and fall and put it out on the field. It's their game and I'm excited to see them go out there and play."
(On coaching kick returns)
"I think a lot of it is instinct. It also goes with experience. The more times you're in a situation, you're going to learn from the mistakes you've made in the past. With experience, (Young) will get better, but we think he's already good."
(On when the team bought into Special Teams)
"I think they've seen it and it's been important since day one of spring practice. We gave them some reps that they weren't used to, to show them that special teams are important. When they started realizing it wasn't a one-day deal and that special teams can win ball games for us, we put that much more emphasis on them. In practice, it started catching on that it's how you win ball games."
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On the nickel package)
"You like to match up the personnel with their personnel and a lot of times it's five defensive backs because you see so many offenses now with three wide receivers or four wide receivers, so you have to match up the personnel with it. But that's not to say that they're not going to line up in a base offense and we're prepared for that too. You see more and more of it, because more offenses are running that three-wide, four-wide offense."
(On his location during the game)
"The booth. I see a lot more. The only thing you obviously remove yourself from is the emotion, the eyes of the players, feeling the body language, but again, we have an outstanding staff that evaluates that and is always on top of it. But from a secondary standpoint, you can see so much. You can anticipate what's about to happen, so I like it."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On how hungry the offensive linemen are)
"We're going to find out. That point has been known and made to them, throughout this spring and fall camp, of exactly what has gone on in the past and exactly what we need to do to take the next step in the right direction as on offense, and just the overall mentality about what we do and what we want to do offensively but it's time to step up and play physical."
(On chemistry with the running backs)
"It's good. Obviously they know each other like they do. There are some different things that we're doing running the football that they learned. I guess the health part of it was key in the spring with the repetition of the run game over and over. I think as we went through this fall with the backs being on the same page as the linemen with the run reads and all of those things, just everything clicking that way, but the experience that some of the veteran backs have is valuable."
(On the value of a good relationship between the QB and OL)
"It's really his command presence. It's him having that voice inflection of the play, the cadence call and whatever the case may be, it's the look in the eyes, it's the trust factor that they've known this guy over time and they believe in him and they believe in the work that he's put in to what he's done so it's healthy."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On Curt Maggitt)
"The part I love about Curt is he's a coach's dream. During meetings he asks all the right questions, he's all-in the football, and then when he goes out to practice he's trying to do every drill, and the time that he's not, he's over rehabbing with the trainers. We need that leadership from the young man and he brings a positive attitude and a positive leadership that is recognized, especially by our coaches."
(On Brent Brewer)
"It's the same thing as talking about Curt. The thing you like about Brent is the fact that every day he's coming out there with a positive attitude. Now, he's starting to really enjoy the position and we're doing a lot more things with him in different packages, so he's in a lot of our defensive packages. What he's doing now is he's coming in at night time and watching tape, he's coming back in the day time to watch tape, and he takes notes so he's starting to become a student of the game. The part that we enjoy most is he knows where he's supposed to be so he's playing with a different kind of speed now."
(On the rotation at linebacker)
"We're going to have to have a rotation. We need to be two-deep with the kind of energy that we want to play with and the passion and enthusiasm that we want to have. We want guys to push and have a great time, have fun while they're out there playing and that's going to take a two-man rotation, sometimes three-man rotation, so yes, we're going to play a lot of guys and the objective of that is to make sure we play guys but also to keep guys fresh."
(E-mail Larry Fleming @email@example.com)