KNOXVILLE - The Tennessee football works year round to make themselves the best they can be. Offseason workouts. Spring practice. Fall Camp.
But it all comes down to 12 games.
Each game is important. But rivalries, well they are something else.
"It is really why you play the game," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "This conference and everything about it is just the battles and both sides of the football, particularly from offense line to defensive line."
"It is just something, you work all offseason and to have opportunities like this are ones you relish, ones you look forward to. That is why you are playing this game, to have a tremendous challenge that we do and a respect for an opponent as accomplished and have been able to do what they have done."
Saturday means the first SEC meeting of the year for the Vols.
Florida. The Swamp. National television.
"This is where guys really have to step up and play and play in a manner of which every game and every week is of the utmost and this one is even more because it is a conference game and obviously with the importance of who we are playing. You have to love this kind of battle," Mahoney said.
VOLS PUSHING VOLS
For the last two seasons, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane have battled for that starting spot at running back.
Neal came away with the honor after the 2013 fall camp, but that hasn't meant that he has gotten the majority of the snaps this season.
Though Neal and Lane saw the majority of the rushes in 2012, this season there are a handful of Vols also seeing time in Tom Smith, Deanthonie Summerhill and Alden Hill.
This healthy competition is exactly what running backs coach Robert Gillespie wants.
"The more competition that they can create for each other, the better they will be, the better we will be as a group," said Gillespie. "Right now we have both of those guys healthy, I think both of them are getting stronger and stronger every week as we go. We will get better as a group the better they get. They do a great job competing."
Gillespie is looking for the competitive group of running backs to also be playmakers.
"That is something that happened 19 or 20 years ago," said Gillespie. "That is DNA. You don't coach a guy to make a play. You don't coach a guy to be dynamic. It just has to be in them. We keep giving them opportunities and they will get better with reps. They are focused on the line and we have to keep giving them opportunities and good plays will come."
The running backs will be key this weekend when the Vols head to Florida as the team that has had the most rushing yards in 22 of the last 23 games has earned the win.
"That stat is something that we pulled out to talk to those guys about and talk to the running back group," said Gillespie. "We have to be able to run the ball. We have to take care of the ball, run the ball, establish a run game, and it will set up everything else."
"I have challenged our guys to see who is the best group this week and hopefully we step up to the challenge."
In Will Muschamp's 28 games as Florida head coach, the Gators' special teams units have blocked an impressive 13 kicks, including one two weeks ago and six last season.
According to Tennessee's special teams coordinator Mark Elder, having a blocked punt is absolutely catastrophic, and the Gators are the best at it.
"It is a combination of several things," said Elder. "First of all they have a couple guys that can flat out fly. (Loucheiz) Purifoy is unbelievably fast. Solomon Patton, I am certain can run with anybody in the country, maybe in the world. Those guys are super-fast.
"[Florida] does a great job of making you uncomfortable. They are pressuring the punt and they come after it a lot. They go after a lot of punts, they have fast guys that do it and they have great schemes. They do a really nice job as far as trying to scheme you up."
The Vols had a punt blocked against Western Kentucky this season, which led to a quick score from the Hilltoppers. It didn't directly impact the outcome of that game, but Elder knows that won't be the case against a tough Florida team.
"That is the biggest play in special teams, having a blocked punt is catastrophic," said Elder. "We can't have that. That is absolutely catastrophic as far as us being successful in the game. We were fortunate enough to come out with a victory and overcome it, but that can't happen."
Since having the blocked punt, Elder has preached the snap-and-clear mentality to senior punter Michael Palardy.
"You have a little adversity and you want to see a guy take the step forward and say, `okay, I have to improved,' as opposed to being down on himself," said Elder. "That is always what you want to see with someone, and it was great to see Mike do that, an upperclassman, a senior.
"That is what you expect from a senior. A guy that is going to - if you make a mistake, if you don't do your job how you want it to be done - then take a step forward as opposed to another step backwards and have it effect you negatively on the next punt or the next kick. Snap and clear, next play, move on."
A BIG TEST FOR THE O-LINE
The offensive line can be considered the most veteran group of this Tennessee team.
With a combined 133 starts between them, LT Antonio Richardson, LG Alex Bullard, C James Stone, RG Zach Fulton and RT Ja'Wuan James know what it takes to win.
"I think this group is a very mature group, very experienced, and very businesslike," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "I told them there shouldn't be any difference from week one to this week in terms of anything that is different."
"They have just been on a steady focus and mindset which is good," said Mahoney. "As we get closer to the time of kickoff that is going to be accelerated that much more. I like the manner of them; it has been very businesslike and very serious."
All coaches are able to find things that their athletes need to improve on and for the line, it is consistency and communication.
"We are not as consistent as we need to be, still a lot of room to grow," said Mahoney. "I think one area where we improved somewhat last week was communication and it is going to be the utmost playing on the road and in a hostile environment."
"We still need to improve our overall strain and physicality consistently, there are flashes of it here and there but it isn't where it needs to be," continued Mahoney. "That is something that is constantly reminded to them, they are responding to that and their approach has been really good."
Going up against a typical SEC defensive line in Florida this week will be the Vols first true test of the season.
"You can't be wrong with this one," said Mahoney. "We have to have all five on the same page to have success against this defense."
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
If the offensive line is the most veteran group on the team, then the Tennessee wideouts have to be the most youthful.
Tennessee returned just three true wide receivers from last year's squad, converted Devrin Young and added some talented true freshmen.
"It is what it is; we have two true freshmen on the outside," said wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. "They just don't have the experience those guys at Oregon had, those are three-year starters. They have to go through some lumps. We made some plays then we didn't make some plays."
"Like I said at the beginning of the season, there's going to be some peaks and some valleys," continued Azzanni. "We are going to see flashes of what is and what can be, and that's what we saw last Saturday. I tell you it's not for a lack of effort; I thought their effort was outstanding and they blocked their tails off. They gave me everything they had; we just lacked the big play on Saturday."
One of those true freshmen is Charlotte native Marquez North who has been acclimating himself slowly to big-time college football.
"I felt he improved this last Saturday, I really did," said Azzanni. "I can't ask him to go out there and be Randy Moss or anything because that's not in the cards yet, but I need him to improve on little things here and there and believe he did that. He caught the ball well, made some plays down the field got us a first down, but we're still lacking the big play. That's what we're working on."
Freshman Josh Smith did have a big play for the Vols, a 51-yard catch in the first quarter, the longest of his career and longest pass of quarterback Justin Worley's career on Rocky Top.
Plays like that are what the Vols need to win at the SEC level. And all of the Vol wide receivers are looking forward to making them this season
"I think all of the freshmen want to, we want them to expect that," said Azzanni. "We want them all to expect to be a freshman that comes in and has an instant impact."
COMING RIGHT AT YA
Having coached on the Auburn defense for four years, Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen has seen his fair share of SEC offenses. And says this Florida team is classic SEC football.
"It's old school. It's typical SEC football," said Thigpen. "What Alabama does, what Georgia does and what Florida is now doing, is control the clock and try to bloody your nose. They run the ball as hard as anybody."
A couple players responsible for controlling the clock for the Gators will be running backs Matt Jones and Mack brown.
"They've got Matt Jones, but they also have other weapons out there with Mack Brown and some of the other running backs. All of them have the same thing in common, they want to go north and south, get four to five yards a pop, be very patient with the ball and very seldom do they make mistakes."
However, the Florida backfield did cough the ball up in their lone loss of the season at Miami two weeks ago.
"The Miami game was a fluke in my opinion; turning it over five times, that's not what they do," said Thigpen. "They want to control the ball running it as many ways as they can with motion, shifts, and different formations trying to get guys out of position."
Because of the Gators' style of play, Thigpen knows his linebacking corps will be in the heart of the action on Saturday.
"Again, it's old school, smash-mouth football," said Thigpen. "It's all power, counter and isolation. It's what the SEC is built on. It's not going to be an east to west game. They've got some plays where they try to get out on the perimeter, but the main event is to run the ball north and south and not have any negative yards.
"To me, they do as good of a job as anybody in the country at controlling the ball and regulating the football game."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
»(On Marlin Lane fighting to be a starter)
"I don't want to coach a guy if he doesn't want to be the starter. Marlin is a very competitive guy. I think he and Rajion are good friends off the field, but on the field those guys really compete. That is good."
»(On the Florida defensive line)
"So far they are. They have done a great job of getting off the ball. They do a great job on the line of scrimmage. They use their hands really well. They are powerful. I don't know if I could find anything else to say about them. They are really good. They play with a lot of energy and passion, we just have to match it. You know I think it will be a true test of us to see how good we are and how good we can be."
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
»(On the Florida secondary)
"Well unfortunately I know those guys pretty good. I know Marcus (Roberson) and Cody Riggs. I was there when those guys were coming in and they're all very good football players. I tell you something else, they're very well coached. Will Muschamp and Coach Robinson do a great job with those kids. They play a million of them, they're very deep, they're experienced, physical, play with confidence, physical, and fast. They're everything you want in your DBs. We are going to have to play perfect to beat them.
»(On simulating Florida's defensive physicality)
"I don't know that you can simulate their physicality and speed. We're talking about some of the best DBs in the country. I don't think we can simulate that with a scout team. I'd love to, but again when you have a young group of receivers, I worry about them lining up and running the right depth. I worry about them blocking the right guy. The way we train, we train physical and hopefully that pays off against a physical team."
»(On having to change game plan at Oregon)
"Yeah, it hurt a lot. We were down to our fourth string slot basically. So starting two true freshmen on the outside, our fourth string slot on the inside, and Cody Blanc got to learn. I mean I threw him in there Thursday at the 'W' position, Thursday. That's usually when you're polishing up your game plan, but that's when he had to learn the whole game plan at a completely different position. Yeah it hurt a little bit but I thought, for the most part, they did alright assignment wise."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
»(On A.J. Branisel)
"A.J. is coming along... He is getting better as far as knowing his assignments, performing at the level we want him to perform at. He is coming along in those regards. He is not making mental mistakes right now."
»(On losing Joseph Ayres to injury)
"Obviously Joe is experienced, his leadership, his physicality, those things are tough to replace. He is a fifth year senior, he loves Tennessee, he loved playing football here, it meant the world to him. He was a tremendous leader in my room. So we are going miss those things. He was very physical. So we are going to be miss some of those things.
"But as with anything that stuff is going to happen, we are going to have injuries, the next guy has to step up. It is the next man in and we expect that guy to perform at the level and expectation level of the position. It is not an expectation level of the person, we have a expectation level for the position. Regardless of who that is that is playing it they have to meet that expectation level."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
»(On getting Curt Maggitt back)
"It's day-to-day, again only Curt can answer that. He's been talking to Coach Jones a lot about the possibility of playing or not playing. I'm not sure, so I guess it's a day-to-day thing with him. It's between him and Coach Jones on can he be 100 percent, probably won't be 100 percent all this year, so it's all predicated on how he feels and how he can contribute to our football team."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
»(On Florida's defensive line)
"They do some things, they will mix up looks, they can stretch you with different things. With moving on the front from the even front to giving some different other looks, twisting. And then of course, tremendous get off, they are extremely quick up front, they have a solid linebacker corps that is extremely active. They tackle well. It is just like it was last week, you can't be wrong on a step, you can't be wrong on a landmark, and you better be straining beyond the whistle to be able to maintain and sustain the drive."
»(On the difference between Oregon's and Florida's D-Line)
"There is a speed factor. There is a different body type. By no means with that being said am I taking away from Oregon, it is just a different body type. The structure of Oregon's defense, with their two tackle ends who are 6-foot-6, stout, great as far as the initial get off and extension, in terms of getting off and forcing you to sustain a block longer.
"These guys are quick, mobile, moving the front, having to redirect, having to get second step down, having to have great eye discipline to be able to climb the linebackers. All those things. It is different in that way. We go up against our guys quite a bit in terms of the front similarity. Last week's front was a little bit of a different animal for us which took us a little while."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)