KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- A day after Tennessee coach Butch Jones challenged his team to practice better, the Vols made significant strides on Wednesday as they continued to prep for Saturday’s game against the second-ranked Oregon Ducks in Eugene, Ore..
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was pleased with the progress and how focused the Vols were after a sub-standard session on Monday.
"We responded today and I was happy to see that, especially after coming off (Tuesday's) practice," said Bajakian. "We came out today with an even greater focus to execute, perform the techniques and mechanics that we ask them to perform. From Tuesday to Wednesday it's been a big jump and we'll continue to make that jump into Saturday.
"These guys want to be coached and they want to be challenged. They're a good group of kids. I like being around them and when they're hungry for that type of process, where they want to improve on a daily basis, it makes our job that much easier."
Meanwhile, Jones said defensive end Maurice Couch, who has been linked to five Southeastern Conference players, including his former teammate, Tyler Bray, receiving improper payments from an agent’s runner, will not play in the Oregon game due to heat exhaustion suffered in Tuesday’s practice.
The report by Yahoo sports also implicated players at Alabama and Mississippi State.
Bray and Couch reportedly received hundreds of dollars from the "runner" before and during the 2012 football season.
In honor of remembering those who lost their lives after the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, Jones donned a NYPD hat for practice on Wednesday. The hat read "New York's Finest" on the back as a tribute to the first responders that went into action 12 years ago today.
LEVERAGE, PURSUE, AND TACKLE
There are three key elements to the Tennessee defensive game this weekend against Oregon. Leveraging, pursuit and tackling in open space.
The Vols improved on each from week one to week two, but still have a ways to go according to the defensive coaches.
With Oregon's potent run game, open field tackling is the key to stopping the Ducks.
"That has been huge throughout the week, talking about tackling and tackling in space in particular," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "Talking about leveraging the football, they have a lot of speed, they can break down angles very quickly."
"Their run game is extensive; they have a lot of different things that they could throw at you, you have to be on point in a lot of different areas," continued Jancek. "Our focus has been on leveraging the football, obviously great pursuit and tackling in space."
Open field tackling is not just something the safeties have to worry about this week. All facets of the defense have to be ready to tackle in space.
"Our pursuit from our defensive line will be key in running to the football," said defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. "All of the things that we pride ourselves in doing as far as playing fast, playing assignment, execute and run and play hard every play."
The other key? Finishing plays.
"Finish plays," said Martinez. "That is the key, finish the play. Once it is finished, snap and clear and get on to the next play. Even if you had a really good play or you didn't have a good play, there is no time to sit there and think about it with this group."
WE'RE TALKING ABOUT TEMPO
By far, the most talked about topic this week has been tempo. Whether it's Oregon or Tennessee, it's all about the tempo.
"Tempo is a huge part of our offense and it's very important at all times," said offensive coordinator Bajakian after Wednesday's practice. "Whether [we're playing] Oregon, Western Kentucky or Austin Peay, we're emphasizing that and want to pick up the tempo."
For the Ducks' home opener against Nicholls, 57,769 came through the gates of Autzen Stadium, which has a listed seating capacity of 54,000. So Bajakian knows the packed house may play a role in the trenches, but thinks the Vols can still push the tempo on Saturday.
"The noise level causes you to do some stuff procedurally," said Bajakian. "But we still aim to move up-tempo and keep the defense on their heels with how quickly we play."
Through two games, Bajakian is happy with his offense's ability to adjust the tempo.
"We've done a good job of changing tempos," Bajakian said. "We monitor that throughout the course of the game and obviously postgame. We've executed – when we're checking plays at the line of scrimmage – we’re going fast and have done a good job of pushing the gas pedal and then stepping on the brakes a little."
When playing uptempo, having a signal caller that can remain poised under any circumstance is crucial. The Vols have exactly that in junior Justin Worley.
"We always try to push him, but he is even-keeled, and that's what we want," said Bajakian. "We want our guys to never be too high or too low.
"He does a good job of having a solid temperament about him. We're always on him about improving, and he has that mentality too, so it's not like we have to push him that hard."
While Worley's temperament is right where it needs to be, Bajakian knows there are areas his quarterback must improve on this week.
"As is always the case, we just have to play pitch-and-catch when it's there," Bajakian said. "As windows close more quickly - whether it's man coverage or zone coverage - we have to have better ball location. That's the No. 1 improvement he needs to make."
Redshirt senior defensive lineman Daniel Hood has been through it all during his time on Rocky Top.
And through it all he has continued to be the smart, steady presence that he is.
Jones and Co. came to Tennessee to try and establish consistency with the football program; Hood is an example of that.
"Daniel Hood, he has been the rock for us to be honest," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "He has been stable, highly intelligent, given us great leadership, and is the model of consistency. A lot of the players are still up and down where Hood is really consistent.
"He is the field general," said Stripling. "He is a very intelligent young man, we talk in terms of level two football, which is identifying back sets, recognizing run-pass, all of those different type of things. He is one of few that can do that."
Jancek also likes what he sees out of Hood and the effort that he gives in practice every day.
"I love Dan," said Jancek. "He does everything we ask him to do, he is very smart, he gets lined up perfectly all the time, he helps out other guys get lined up."
Hood's hard work has already paid off in 2013 as he recorded his first career interception. The Knoxville native lined up in the correct spot, got his hands up at the right time, batted the ball into the air and caught it at the right moment.
Jancek was excited for his veteran lineman.
"In the first ball game when I saw him get that interception, I was really happy for him," said Jancek. "I know he has worked really hard and had a long road up to this point and it great to see him playing and playing at a high level."
JACQ IS BACK
A Vol that has been ever-present on the sidelines through the first two games will be back in action against Oregon this weekend as Jacques Smith has returned to practice this week.
Smith will provide an extra burst of energy for the Vols, according to Stripling.
"We anticipate Jacq being a nice shot in the arm for us to give us some burst of energy, fresh legs, some juice," said Stripling. "We are excited about having him back."
Smith, who has been out since the beginning of fall camp with a broken thumb, got back into action on Monday and has been shaking the rust off since.
"There is a rust factor," said Stripling. "I think a lot of these young men, when they come off and they haven't been on the field for a few weeks they think they are just going to jump out there and it is going to be smooth and it is not."
"He has experienced the rust factor," continued Stripling, "but it is great that we had him early in the week practicing, and we can knock some of the rust off."
Also of note, freshman Corey Vereen also returned to practice this week, but has been limited after injuring his meniscus during fall camp. Stripling says that he is doing good, and when he is ready to go he will be put in.
Though Oregon is talented offensively across the board, the Vols' main objective is stopping the team's leader quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Mariota has thrown for 433 yards through two games this season also adding 235 yards on the ground for a team leading 26.1 yards per rush.
"I will tell you he is scary," Stripling said. "He really is. When you think of quarterbacks and their speed, a lot of quarterbacks are potentially dangerous, he is dangerous. He has great speed."
"One of the things that we do is study the scrambles and obviously this young man can really scramble," continued Stripling. "Quarterback draw and scramble is very effective. It is something we are highly aware of."
When Mariota turns on the steam, he is hard to stop. That is why the Vols have to be in their correct gaps, ready and waiting.
"You have to mix it up on him," said Jancek. "He is very athletic, he has tremendous speed, a great burst, when you see him on film, he just out runs angles. You have to have a plan, that is for sure."
That plan is to get lined up, and make plays.
"You just play disciplined and execute the defense," said Martinez. "We recognize how talented he is. Every time you have a talented quarterback, that is where it all starts on offense. We just have to execute and like I have been saying, get lined up, play with great leverage and make plays in space."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)