KNOXVILLE -- As intense as coaches and players have described practices leading up to Tuesday, a lot was to be learned when the Vols took Haslam Field in full pads late at night.
Tennessee assistant coaches responded that there was still a lot to be learned afterwards.
"I think we got better," said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen whose position thrives on contact. "We got a lot better with our hands. I think guys did a lot better with their eyes and hands and that's what we've been emphasizing and then just knowing the schemes. Put in a little bit more defense today and I thought we were going to have more busts but it seemed like they got a good grasp of what we were doing today."
Offensively however, there was an evident learning curve with having everything on.
"Today, we didn't execute very well," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "I felt like we took a step back. Putting on the pads for the first time may have been a contributing factor, but we will come out tomorrow and get after it again."
PUTTING THE BEST FOUR FORWARD
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has made it clear to his players, the best four playmakers will see the most playing time on the field.
Five practices in, Azzanni has somewhat of an idea of where his receivers will play on Saturdays but the job is still up for grabs.
"Whoever [the best four] might be, if that means its Jason Croom in the slot, it's him in the slot," said Azzanni. "If it's Pig Howard outside, it's him outside. Whatever it might be I am going to get the best four guys out there to give us a chance to win. I am going to develop that as we practice and find out who the playmakers are. And the playmakers are going to go play and I will teach them the position."
Azzanni would ideally like to travel and play nine receivers in every game.
Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian wants fresh legs. And trust in his receivers.
"When you are moving as fast as you can you want to stay fresh," said Bajakian. "The guys that can contribute and make plays, they will find the field. Let's put it this way. Trust is a big factor when it comes to play calling. Can I trust them to be in the right spot and make the play. If you earn our trust you will find your way on the field."
The clean slate mentality runs through Team 117. Whether you are a redshirt senior, or a freshman that arrive to Rocky Top for the spring semester, if you are the best player on the field, you will get the playing time.
"I am comfortable with giving the best players playing time and if those happen to be guys with black stripes, they happen to be guys with black stripes," said Azzanni. "There will be some peaks and valleys for sure and a lot of growing pains but they're willing and it will be a lot of fun to coach these young guys."
Azzanni plans to weed out the best players by throwing everyone into the fire. And today at practice that mean Marquez North and Josh Smith running with the ones.
"[Josh Smith and Marquez North] are both really good athletes, they bring a lot to the table as far as competition," said Azzanni. "There is no depth chart right now. I know what the other guys can do because they had 15 practices to show me. I have 25 days to find out if anyone else can do it. Rather than waste time I am throwing them into the grease and seeing what we got."
UNDERSTANDING THE EXPECTATIONS
Dec. 7, 2012 - Day 1 on the job for head coach Butch Jones. From that point forward, the expectations were set. They were high then and they remain high eight months later, just five days into fall camp.
According to running backs coach Robert Gillespie, the same holds true for his troops.
"They understand the expectations of this offense, Coach Jones, Coach (Mike) Bajakian and me as their positional coach," said Gillespie. "It's just more of a comfort level. They understand why we're so intense as coaches, and they understand what we want. Fast and furious is the way we play so we demand a lot out of them."
Gillespie went on to say that Coach Jones has laid the foundation - brick by brick - but the goal is to understand it and build upon it every single day.
"Standards have been set," Gillespie said. "Coach Jones has laid the foundation of what he wants, and the key is understanding that. They understand every day that they have to go out and try to reach that level, and they probably never will. But that's the standard we want those guys to have every day, where they go out and compete and understand they're probably not going to reach it, but they'll continue to work hard.
"So far they're doing good. They don't hang their heads when we get on them, and that's the part that's encouraging to the coaching staff. These are good kids; they're working hard every day and buying into whatever we tell them to do."
Off the field, Coach Gillespie and his backs have all established a comfort level.
"We have a really good atmosphere in the running back room," Gillespie said. "I know them and they know me. I've got a better feel of what I think each one of those guys can do, and I think they have a great feel for my expectations of them. Now it's getting to be where they can finish my sentences.
"The guys compete on the field, but they really help each other off the field. So far five days in, the guys are working hard and steadily competing. There is no depth chart and I think that's what's making them hungry to compete."
A RELENTLESS D-LINE
Relentless is a main theme of this year's fall camp and with day five of training camp and day one in football pads complete, Tennessee Volunteers defensive line coach Steve Stripling seems satisfied with what he has seen.
Numerous Volunteers of all ages are beginning to stand out amongst the coaches and prove that they are willing to step on the field August 31. The seniors, especially, have shown that they want Team 117 to be successful this season.
"It's positive, because we're getting a great leadership," Stripling said. "The freshmen are freshmen. So, they come and tomorrow's day six or seven, whatever day it is, and we're up at 7 a.m. again, so it's the seniors that are walking in with energy and juice in the morning and a positive attitude, so leadership really helps."
The seniors are working to create a positive environment for the freshmen and some of them are already on board.
One particular freshman that has been relentless this summer is defensive lineman, Corey Vereen. The Winter Garden, Fla., native has been on campus longer than most of his freshmen teammates and has used that time to get adjusted to what the new coaching staff will expect.
"He's separated himself, not only because he's been here longer, but because of his work habits and maturity," Stripling said. "His personality. 9:30 at night in the summer, he would be in here by himself working on skills. He's one of the highest motivated young men I've ever seen."
THE TOP... IS AT ROCKY TOP
Tommy Thigpen has played and coached at a high level his entire career.
With his SEC experience, Thigpen knows there are no off weeks in the conference. And believes it is the closest thing to the NFL.
"Each week it is a battle," said Thigpen. "You go and line up against Alabama, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia. Every week is a challenge. It is your biggest game every week. That is the greatest thing about this game because every week you get to strap it on and play against some of the best football players in all of America."
But coaching at Tennessee was always the goal.
"I was at the University of North Carolina and I will tell you when they would come in the state and recruit you knew you had a battle," said Thigpen. "Tennessee had a great reputation and they have always had great players and everybody knew that. This is the place to be."
"I always knew that I wanted to be here," continued Thigpen. "I always thought Tennessee was one of the best college football jobs in all of America. And It is. I work for a great man and have a great head coach in Butch and I am appreciative of the opportunity that he gave me to come here. My impression of Tennessee is that it is only a matter of time before Tennessee is back on top."
LBs STRIVE FOR BRAINS AND BRAWN
When the greatest linebackers are mentioned in conversation there is a common theme amongst them. Even Vol legends like Al Wilson and Leonard Little would probably agree that physicality is a Tennessee linebacker tradition.
Vol Linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen echoed the teams need for physical linebackers and was overall pleased with the first day of full padded practice. He added that if his linebackers were characterized as something he'd want it to be as "smart and tough".
"That's the one thing that we pride ourselves on our board," said Thigpen. "You don't have to be 4.4, 4.3 linebackers to be great linebackers and great defensive players. We say smart and tough and that's what we're going on every day. Alignment and excitement football and knowing what all 11 guys are doing on the football field."
Junior A.J. Johnson, the undisputed leader in the Volunteer linebacker corps, received praise from Thigpen in his physicality and the way he has begun to command the defense.
"He holds a lot of pride and he wants to be the lion of that pride; he wants to be that alpha guy and you know guys respect him," said Thigpen. "Our players really respect A.J. He's tough, he's physical, he brings a blue collar attitude to work every single day and a great attitude.
"Loves contact; the kid really loves contact. He's strong and he's a smart kid on the field so I think his game has improved each day."
Thigpen reiterated that an instrumental part of being a smart linebacker is communicating well with the other defensive players saying that switching from safety to linebacker has helped guys like Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp in relaying the secondary's information.
"The more communication we do on the field the better we are and I think the kids feel good about the communication," he said. "And part about that is the more you know, the more confident you get in the communication."
COHESION. THE KEY TO SUCCESS.
Because the majority of the Vol staff has worked together previously, their transition at Tennessee has been simple.
"That makes life a lot easier," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "We can anticipate what is going to happen, problems that may arise, the questions they may have. We have a very good staff chemistry and a lot of faith in the rest of the guys on the coaching staff, the rest of the guys on the offensive coaching staff and we are happy with where we are going."
The staff strives to keep things simple and cohesive.
"Coach Jake does a great job of working with each group and group coaching so that we are all on the same page," said tight ends and special teams coordinator Mark Elder. "To be a great offense you have to be a unit and that is difficult to do with 11 different guys, because there is 11 different guys being pulled in 11 different directions."
" It all has to be together, it is like an orchestra. You have to have one guy in front making sure it is going as it should."
Bajakian is that guy out in front. Though he spends time with the quarterbacks every practice, as the offensive coordinator he sees the entire field clearly and helps it all blend together.
"He has his hands in everything," said Elder. "I love being with him during those individual periods because I see it, it is an important part that I am saying the exact same thing as he is saying. That is what is also important in having been together for a long period of time, he can start a sentence and I can finish it for him a lot of times. What I am saying in my meeting rooms is what he would want to be said. Because it is one clear message to the whole time."
"We may emphasize different personnel groups depending on our strengths that year, but we know what we are doing and we have a set system and everybody is working in unison to get there."
Here are sound bites from the coaching staff on players after the fifth day of practice:
DEF. COORDINATOR JOHN JANCEK
»(On Justin Coleman and Riyahd Jones)
"Well, Coleman is the most consistent boy. He's really, I think, playing at a high-level right now. Then there's Riyahd Jones he was with in the spring, he's just...Riyahd's just got to mature, he's got to become more physical, those things.
»(On Cameron Sutton)
"You know, he's very athletic, he's got good size for a corner, he's very intelligent, he picks up things quickly, he's very focused, he seems to be really mature, so all those things, I think, are the positives."
OFF. COORDINATOR MIKE BAJAKIAN
»(On Josh Smith and Marquez North)
Marquez North was out there making plays. Josh Smith has been doing a good job of making plays and catching balls. Both have been doing a good job of doing more than what we ask and what i mean by that is again, any receiver can go out and catch a ball that is thrown perfectly at their facemask. Those two guys in particular have done a good job of making the difficult catches. "
»(On Marlin Lane)
"He has done a good job. He has a lot of talent. He and Rajion are both battling and competing, but I am happy with what they are bringing to the field."
»(On Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs)
"The game is moving a little fast for Riley and Josh Dobbs right now, but they are picking it up. With more reps, the game will slow down for them."
»(On Johnathon Johnson)
Johnathon Johnson has come in and he is an intelligent player that has learned the offense quickly."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane)
"Obviously, the older two guys - Rajion (Neal) and Marlin (Lane) - both of those guys are really competing right now. We have a really good atmosphere in the running back room. The guys compete on the field, but they really help each other off the field. So far five days in, the guys are working hard and steadily competing. There is no depth chart and I think that's what's making the guys hungry right now to compete."
»(More On Marlin Lane)
"We have to realize that he only practiced five times in the spring. This is really his 10th practice, whereas for other guys it's the 18th or 19th practice. He's still learning, getting everything going and knocking the rust off, but so far he's doing ok."
»(On Justus Pickett)
"Really good job... It's almost like having a junior college player coming in. He's hungry, has a lot to prove, really good kid, smart, was able to pick up on everything as far as adjustments and protections, and was able to relate them to him to his last school. You're talking about a guy that's played two years as a true freshman and a true sophomore, so it's really good to have that kind of maturity in the group. He came in and fit in really good from a mentality standpoint and hit it off well with the players. So far he's doing really well."
SECONDARY COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
»(On Brian Randolph)
"He obviously looks a lot better than he did in the spring as far as moving around. He is doing a great job. He is a smart player. He is a great leader. The guys respect him. He is a playmaker, he makes a lot of plays when he is in there. He does a great job of communicating, that is what we need, the quarterback of our defense. He is doing a good job."
»(On JaRon Toney)
"He is picking up stuff. He has a lot of retention from the spring. You can see that in these first five practices which is good to see. He is very comfortable in our scheme. JaRon is a guy that goes hard at everything he does."
»(On Jalen Reeves-Maybin)
"Smart. Jalen, in the spring time he didn't get a chance to practice, but he was in the meeting rooms and he participated. He really understands our defense for someone who didn't go through spring ball. He has also retained a lot, even though he didn't go through spring ball, he goes out there and knows what to do."
»(On Devaun Swafford)
"Right now we have him at nickel, he is an athletic kid that plays with a lot of energy and he is picking up stuff well. He is doing a good job. The coaching staff is liking him on special teams so he is getting an opportunity to do that. Again, it is early, only the fifth practice."
»(On Michael Williams)
"Michael is from Maryland and he is on the track team. He was a walk-on in our program in the spring. He is pretty fast. I would say he is the fastest. He has been working in there. He is a guy who has tremendous amounts of explosiveness. He is trying to learn the game. A track guy who is trying to develop his football skills."
DEF. LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
»(On Maurice Couch and Daniel Hood)
"I'm really getting a handle on Mo because he wasn't there at all. At least Dan had some in the spring. He was limited, but he was out there. Whereas, Mo didn't take a snap in the spring. It's been great to have him out there. I think his experience and his stoutness-- he's a very stout young man, showed up immediately."
»(On Dan McCullers)
"Definitely. I think you take a personal challenge for every player, but obviously our three techniques are very critical to our defensive success. That's the position he's playing. He's got all the tools, he just has to refine his technique, so we have to, it's a daily reinforcement."
»(On Danny O'Brien)
"Danny's just got to do what he does, which is, he's a great person. He's a great student. He's very, very tough. He's a brawler, so he's doing all the right things. He's just got to work on his athleticism and his soundness."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On A.J. Johnson)
"He's gotten a lot better (communicating). We run the same calls we did in the spring time and we've kind of amped it up a little bit more but he watches a lot of tape and all those guys - like is say, the beauty of the room is the age of the room so when nobody is watching those guys are up in the room critiquing themselves and getting calls. Again, we can add as much defense as we want but it's all predicated on how much the grasp it and they can communicate it to the other guys."
»(On Curt Maggitt)
"He's getting there. I think he's a lot more comfortable. We put him through drills every single day. I'll tell you he's just as strong as the other kids. We go through the tackling drills and he has a natural pop, a natural bend and I didn't know he was that strong until I watched him get off blocks and the pop that he has. Just the size and the physique that the kid has, he's going to bring a presence. The sooner he gets back the faster we get better on defense."
»(On Brent Brewer)
"Brewer is doing well. I'll tell you he's gotten lot more physical since this spring. I thought in the spring time he was still learning the position but now he's getting to a comfort level. He doesn't mind taking on guards and pulling guards and tackles. He's gotten a lot stronger; he got a lot stronger in the summer time and you can see it in his physique. He's got a lot more confidence now so he knows he can hold up a lot more against lineman so he's playing a lot more fast now."
OFF. LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On Brett Kendrick, Austin Sanders and Dylan Wiesman)
Brett Kendrick and Austin Sanders are battling. It's difficult on the edge of attack as a true freshman. Obviously with the speed of the game, but more so the timing with what we do with our offense, with the tempo of the offense, the fast offense, getting set, the timing of the snap, and all those things were sometimes you're just getting beat on the snap itself as opposed to physically getting beat. So, they're swimming a little bit mentally. Dylan Wiesman's ahead of them mentally. He's grasped things we, he's working both center and guard. Knowing that coming out of high school, we felt like that's what he could do, is both, and he's very sharp and he's picked it up.
TIGHT ENDS/ST COACH MARK ELDER
»(On Woody Quinn)
"Coach has been hard on Woody. I've been hard on Woody. Woody's a very prideful individual, it's important to him. I mean there is no question about that. So as far as that's concerned, he's taking that hard, but not losing confidence with it. He understands that I'm coaching him, and Coach Jones is coaching him to get better; and that our ultimate goal is not to get on him because we like doing that. It's to get him better."
»(More on Woody Quinn)
"We liked his film right from the get-go, for a number of reasons. We liked his size and his frame. We liked him as a blocker. We thought he was a good receiver, solid athlete. So he fit a lot of the things we were looking for, as far as size, speed, parameters. As far as him as a blocker, I mean he is still a little bit raw, but you saw some good things on film, and it's not what he could do."
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)