KNOXVILLE - Tennessee defensive end Maurice Couch, implicated in a Yahoo! Sports story for receiving improper payments, has been declared ineligible and won't play in the Vols' game Saturday against No. 2 Oregon.
"As of right now," coach Butch Jones said in a story posted on the CBS.com website, "the situation with Mo Couch is we've declared him ineligible for this game. Right now our compliance group is currently in the process of working through all the details and logistics of the situation.
That's all we kind of know right now, but as of right now moving forward, he will not make the trip to Oregon."
The Yahoo! Sports report, which also named four other Southeastern Conference players that may have received improper benefits from an agent's "runner," said Couch received four payments from former Alabama defensive lineman Luther Davis. Documents indicate that four transfers for $13,50 were made to Couch.
Couch's former teammate, quarterback Tyler Bray, Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and his teammate, wide receiver Chad Bumphis, also were named in the story.
Meanwhile, the Vols continued their preparation for the Ducks on Wednesday.
At the beginning of the 2013 season, the Tennessee coaching staff made some changes to improve the speed of the Tennessee defense.
Couch is a senior from Orlando, Fla., had had four tackles and a sack in Tennessee's first two games.
One improvement included the Vols working out throughout the summer to slim down and speed up.
The other, moving safeties Brent Brewer and Jalen Reeves-Maybin to linebacker slots.
The Vols will need that speed this weekend against a very fast Oregon offense.
"They're going to make plays," said linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen, who faced the potent Oregon offense in the 2011 national championship game while at Auburn. "It's like playing a Michael Jordan. He's going to make plays. You just have to make plays as well."
The Tennessee linebackers have been preparing for the speedy Marcus Mariota throughout this week in practice and know what could happen if they don't get to him quickly.
"An athletic quarterback gives you so many different dimensions," said Thigpen. "There is no gap for it, so there's nobody assigned to the quarterback. You turn your back on a quarterback that runs a 4.40, you turn around, he's right up on you."
"If you're not on it -- if you misfit a play, if you misfit a read or you squeeze in too far, they have guys that can be in the end zone," continued Thigpen. "They're zero to 20 in three steps."
The Vols know what they need to do and have taken the correct steps this week in practice to get there.
Now it is just execution time.
"We have to be disciplined football and gap assignment," said Thigpen. "We have to have our alignments correct, our eyes right, and then when you get in position and make the tackles, we have to make tackles in space--that's our number one challenge."
A NEW LOOK FOR THE TIGHT ENDS
Butch Jones' tight ends are expected to do a lot out on the field.
One must be very versatile to fit into his schemes and packages.
Brendan Downs has done that so far.
"We ask a lot of our tight ends, no question about it," said tight ends coach Mark Elder. "We will ask him to be flexed out like wide receiver, you will see him out there - two point stances. They have to run just like the receivers, all those things that we ask them to do."
"They will line up right next to the tackle, they are doing all the run blocking, just like an offensive tackle essentially," continued Elder. "We also have them off the ball, moving around, coming back behind the line of scrimmage, doing a lot of those things."
Downs is 2-for-2 with touchdowns this season, making the most of his opportunities, reeling in both short yardage passes thrown his way in the redzone this year, and crossing the goal line.
He has also done all of the things that don't show up in the stats.
"Brendan Downs is a smart football player, it is important to him, he studies, it makes sure he knows his assignments," continued Elder. "He has done a nice job with those things and we are excited about him taking steps forward to be an even better player."
WIDE RECEIVER U BY COMMITTEE
With the loss of 151 receptions, 2,352 yards and 21 touchdowns at the position, first-year coach Zach Azzanni has implemented a wide receivers by committee system in 2013.
Through two games, the Vols have sent 11 wideouts onto the field. Of those 11, eight of them are underclassmen.
Despite learning a new system and the overall youth at the position, coach Azzanni has seen early-season improvement, but is remaining patient.
"They were more physical, not where I want them to be but we were more physical," Azzanni said about the Western Kentucky game. "There was some improvement made and I was pleased. There were some other areas I didn't think we got as good. Baby steps with this crew, baby steps."
One of the biggest challenges for the Vols wide receivers this season is learning the new system.
"There are so many intricacies out there, especially in this offense," Azzanni said. "We are going so fast and you have to process so fast. The route technique, the blocking technique, how you get signals, just all those things are different than any other position, especially in this offense. It is a big adjustment, it takes a while, and unfortunately it isn't overnight."
Two guys that have really stood out to the coach are first-year players Johnathon Johnson and Josh Smith.
"They both stepped up; both made a lot of mistakes but also made some plays," Azzanni said. "It was nice to see. It was nice to see some guys catch the ball and have fun doing it. It was a good confidence builder to."
Although he'd like to see the big splash plays week in and week out, Azzanni knows with this week's opponent it's all about time of possession.
"We have to make some plays; we have to keep the chains moving," said Azzanni. "That is what we have to do in order to keep the ball in our hands. We have to keep the chains moving, if that's through the air, it's through the air, if that is on the ground, it is on the ground. Whatever it is, we have to keep them off the field and keep ourselves on the field."
After fall camp, senior Rajion Neal was named to the starting spot at running back.
But running backs coach Robert Gillespie made it clear that though Neal was the starter week one, that didn't mean that he would play the majority of the game. It also didn't mean that he would definitively be the starter during week two.
Neal has taken that advice and ran with it, literally.
"Rajion has been getting a lot of snaps," said Gillespie. "He did a really good job in camp. He did a good job staying healthy throughout the spring. He did a good job staying healthy throughout fall camp. He's really done a good job of just keeping that role."
Right at Neal's heels is junior running back Marlin Lane, who actually played one more snap that Neal last weekend against Western Kentucky.
"Marlin is a guy that's one snap away from just getting in the groove," said Gillespie. "He breaks a long run and he's the guy that gets in the rhythm, he'll play a little bit more."
Having two solid backs fighting for playing time really isn't a terrible problem to have, especially going into a game against the No. 2 team in the country.
"It's a really good situation to have both of those guys playing well right now," said Gillespie. "But they're going to have to step it up another level going against Oregon this week. Both guys did a really good job protection wise. Hopefully we can continue to build. I thought we made major strides from week one to week two, and hopefully we can continue to make strides going into this week."
With depth at running back including spring standout Alden Hill and walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill who has grinded out fourth quarters for the Vols in the first two games, Neal and Lane have some competition to keep them improving week-in and week-out.
"These guys work all week," said Gillespie. "The guys that work the hardest are the guys that are going to play the most. To me, it's a revolving door. It's whatever you've done for us lately. It's not a promise deal, where if you started last game, you're going to start next week. I think that motivates the guys to continue to work hard, but everything that you get on Saturday is earned during the week."
The running back group will look to move that practice week competition to the field this weekend.
"If we go out there and play Tennessee football, play tough, and we're able to run the ball as a running back group and an offensive line, I think we have a chance of being successful against Oregon."
TRUE TEST FOR THE FRONT FIVE
Tennessee's offensive line takes pride in being ranked No. 1 in numerous preseason polls as the best in the SEC and second in the country.
In their first away game of the season, Saturday at Oregon, the Vols will be challenged with a solid defensive line in the Oregon Ducks and offensive line coach Don Mahoney knows what the Vols need to expect in Autzen Stadium.
"They are big, really fundamentally sound, use their hands extremely well," said Mahoney." Their front three are very active with their scheme and what they do defensively. They present problems, in terms of certain things that you don't see on a regular basis as an offensive line."
Mahoney has stressed the importance of being alert for every second of every play when on the field.
"We don't have room for error," Mahoney said. " If you do you get exposed on a given play, as I have always said, it just takes one to go bad and the play is not good and we have a negative play. So we have to be on high alert on every play in terms of being pin point on."
The Vols have responded.
"I sensed it at the start of this week and obviously the opportunity that we have, the urgency level is at an all-time high," Mahoney said. "I believe that the guys will respond to that. We just have to respond consistently, we have to react to an adverse situation that occurs and bounce back the next play and not let it be one that is a snowball type of deal where it is one play after the other. We have to snap and clear and move on to the next one."
The offensive line has pinpointed their focus each and every week to better their blocking and Mahoney is seeing progression each week.
"I like the fact that we made strides in terms of the effort," Mahoney said. "That was pointed out in terms of sustaining blocks. We had more guys who we had with knock downs that again are a result of sustaining the block for a long period of time. It's outworking your opponent. That was the biggest thing I was pleased about."
Finishing the play is detrimental and Mahoney recognizes the effort that players are giving to do so.
"You have to keep demanding that," said Mahoney. "You have to keep praising that when it happens. You have to make sure you correct it when it's not happening. Those results of yardage are what you're working towards and why we got what we did."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
»(On Oregon's special teams)
"They certainly have a lot of speed. They are very dangerous in the return game. Their kickoff returner, number 6, he can flat out fly, he is fast. He is dangerous, he has three touchdowns on kickoff returns in his career. We are certainly well aware of what he can do. Their punt returner is extremely dynamic, number 11, he has had a big return. They are very dynamic and guys that we are aware of."
»(On the returners on Oregon)
"Their kickoff returner, that position is usually a lot of speed and hitting the hole in the right spot. We obviously have to do a good job of wrapping him up and bring him to the ground. The punt returner, he is make you miss, he has that ability to make you miss in a short area. We have to do a great job, same thing, as far as wrapping up, we can't be missing tackles. We have to do a great job of that."
»(On directionally punting and kicking)
"We always ask our guys to direction kick or direction punt, whether it be kickoff or punt. We are asking them to hit certain spots on the field. When you have a very dynamic returner that you are going up against, obviously if you don't hit those spots or you are off, it exposes you just a little bit more. We have to do a great job as far as ball placement is concerned, we have to do a great job as far as the wrapping up and tackling is concerned."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Deanthonie Summerhill)
"I was probably most pleased with the way he was able to come in and eat up the last five or six minutes of offense. That's important. I trust him as a position coach and as an offensive coordinator, Coach Bajakian really trusts him, trust Tom Smith and all those guys to be able to go in the game and coach for us, if need be."
»(On Alden Hill)
"He's in a fight right now. In the spring, there were several guys that didn't practice, injuries kept Tom [Smith] out, some off the field issues, academically with Marlin [Lane] kept him out. There were two or three guys that weren't there. He's working hard. He's a redshirt freshman. Right now, we have some guys in front of him that are playing really good right now. A guy like [Deanthonie] Summerhill has come in and gave himself a chance to play. Everybody is available to play Saturday."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On Marquez North improving)
"Yeah, part of that is him not running the right depths, maybe the breaking points were poor. That is why Justin can't turn him into a ball carrier yet because he is not allowing himself to be a ball carrier. He is not exactly where he is supposed to be and he is not there how he is supposed to get there. That comes with experience and more technique and just getting better. He was a running back most of his career, people forget that, he really was that his senior year as well."
»(On Oregon's defensive line)
"They are very stout against the run. They have a couple big time draft picks in the d-line and they have to go against probably one of the top running offenses in America every day in practice. They are very stout. They know their system inside and out. Their coaches have been there a long time so there is no learning curve right now, they all know what they are doing."
»(On the receiving corps)
"I don't know if we have to do anything different, we just have to keep improving. I can't really change what we are doing, I have to keep on the path that we are doing. I have a young crew here. I know it is coach talk, but it is true. We have to get better every day in practice. I can't worry as much about Oregon, I have to worry about my guys that are so young and getting better at technique and little things and playing fast."
»(On playing in a hostile environment)
"The good thing is I think that Coach Jones has done a great job preparing us. You guys are out at practice, it is chaos a lot. The reason it is like that is to prepare them, as much as we can, for games like this. This league is crazy as it is, and to be able to go Oregon, let's be honest, it is an SEC environment, an SEC caliber team, so this is going to be a great test to see where we are at."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On current and past Oregon teams)
"They're faster. That time, we just played for the run back then. In my opinion, they're a better football team. They have a faster quarterback. At that time, their quarterback was a really good player, but the kid they have now is Heisman caliber. Their team's speed is tremendous. They had the one kid who thought who was really fast back in 2010. They have the mamba, they have receivers that can run. They have tight ends that can run. They have done a really good job in recruiting--recruit a lot of big people. Their right tackle is as good as anyone is going to find in the country. He's done a great job of bringing in a lot of players. To me, speed, they're probably one of the fastest teams in the country."
»(On A.J. Johnson)
"A.J. comes to work every week. We're just going to keep challenging to make plays in space. He knows what he needs to work on. He's a very prideful kid. Again, he comes to work every day willing to learn.
"You have to make plays. I'm not worried about him making the plays in space, it's just like when the ball's rolled off the perimeter -- those guys, like last week, a couple plays broke, and we ran it down. This week -- the play breaks, you may not be as fortunate. You have to fit plays right. You have to be right on point with your fix. You can't have any misfits. If we're going to miss a play, make sure we fit the plays right. If they get us on a play, they get us, but don't let it be because we missed an assignment. Play assignment, technique football, sound football, we want to swarm the ball, tackle -- same thing we've been preaching since day one, but don't give them the cheap ones. Make them earn in distance."
»(On Curt Maggitt)
"He's getting there. This is a game that's played a lot in space. They're going to run the ball from sideline to sideline. It's a Coach [Jones] call. If Coach is ready for him to get out there, he'll put him out there. It's based on how Curt feels. Every week he wants to get out there. He wanted to get out there last week. It will come sooner or later."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On Oregon's athleticism)
"Their body types are powerful -- tall frames that use their hands well, that have played quite a few snaps underneath their belt. Even their backups at that have played quite a bit. We're going to have to sustain and maintain blocks. This is a game, where when you start playing against a team like this, you can't be off a step. You can't be missing a hat placement. You can't be poor with your hands or else it will hurt you, in terms of what we work towards, in terms of negative yardage plays and things like that and staying ahead of the chains, it can put you behind the chains, but they are a very skilled bunch that we have a big pinpoint on in everything that we do."
»(On consistency on the line)
"I have liked this part about them, it has been a short period of time with me being around them, but they are pretty much steady in terms of their demeanor. From Austin Peay to last week to this opportunity, I like that. We never would like our guys to be so high and amped from one game and then the next game they are not. You say, `Who is the true you?' I think you should bring your approach every week and respect every opponent, whether it is Division I-AA, whether it is Oregon, whether it is whoever, that you truly respect that opponent and you enjoy that opportunity. I truly believe, knowing them like I do, we are going out there with a purpose and I can see the look in their face and their demeanors that they are excited about this."
»(On increasing the tempo vs. WKU)
"Probably the third quarter more so because we were able to have the success in the third quarter getting into a rhythm and getting the ground game going like we did. The biggest thing in an uptempo offense is an incomplete pass, it is like a turnover, it slows the offense down, you can't have them. We were able to move at a faster pace because we were getting some chunk yards on the ground. I know our line was excited and getting momentum by that and feeling some success from that. So we were able to move off our adrenaline with our tempo being faster. We wanted to come out with a statement that we did in the third quarter.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)