KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Each week offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian preaches to his team about finishing plays, garnering extra yards, pushing for first downs.
That extra half-yard pick up on first down might mean the difference on third.
Bajakian is not the only Vol coach that pushes that mindset on to Team 117.
"Coach Jones talks about inches make the champion," said Bajakian. "Every inch, every yard counts. Whether it is turning what might be a zero-yard gain into a two-yard gain, or turning into a 10-yard gain into a 15 or 20-yard gain, we are going to emphasize every inch that we can get, and every yard that we can get."
The way the Vols can achieve those goals? Being decisive.
Which is easier said than done with a youthful offense. But from the quarterback, to running backs to wide receivers and tight ends, the team needs to be more decisive.
"Decisive is the word that we use all the time," said Bajakain. "We have a phrase that we use, `Is he open?' If he is open, be decisive, get rid of the ball."
Decisiveness, and rhythm.
"That comes with continued comfort in the pocket, continued comfort in the timing of the offense and the timing of the receiver corps," said Bajakian. "Throwing the ball on rhythm. There are times if you look back at the first three games, [Worley] has been very decisive and thrown the ball on rhythm and then there are times he hasn't."
"The game is about timing and space,” Bajakian said. "Developing a rhythm with the wide receivers is important."
The Vol running backs, who worked the outside more through the first couple of games, have developed into better north and south runners, picking up more yards and finishing.
But the play caller needs his veteran running backs, as well as some wide receivers to continue on and become playmakers.
"Both running backs, Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal," said Bajakian. "I think also Marquez [North], Josh [Smith]. Alton Howard had a couple of big plays, but we need more from our entire offense in that regard."
"It starts frankly with not beating ourselves and making sure that we are in the right position to make those plays and when those opportunities present themselves, making sure we take advantage of them."
EAGER TO LEARN
After losing to both Oregon and Florida on the road, the Tennessee Volunteers are ready to be home in Neyland Stadium and get back on the winning track this Saturday against South Alabama.
One team theme created this summer was that the Vols were to be relentless. Since returning to the practice field on Monday, defensive coordinator John Jancek has noticed his players defining that term.
"I think our guys have a great attitude," Jancek said. "I think they have a tremendous fortitude about them. Even in the game Saturday, I just felt like they were very passionate. They wanted to get out there."
Jancek is pleased with the current mindset of the team because they are aware of what improvements need to be made.
"Just all of our fundamentals, our communication, angles to the football--lost too many, lost leverage on ball carriers, quarterbacks, and obviously the third down, we're really addressing that and trying to get that squared away," said Jancek.
The positivity that Jancek has seen is not just with one or two individuals, but extends from the defensive front to the back.
Senior Dan McCullers is one player that Jancek has looked to for motivating the defense.
"Everybody is challenging Dan -- Coach Stripling, myself, Butch Jones," said Jancek. "We're seeing progress. I think in Dan's mind, this is off the charts for him compared to what he's used to and it's still not up to our standard, but he is--he's not defiant."
Brian Randolph, who redshirted last season, has also been showing relentlessness on the field.
"Brian is just a diligent worker," Jancek said. "He puts in the time, obviously has great skill sets, so those are the things that I think are elevating his game right now."
Although the Vols sit with 2-2 record, Tennessee's defense is proving that will not stop them from improving and winning more games this season.
"They were eager," said Jancek. "They saw the adversity that we finished on Saturday as a challenge and an opportunity to greatness, so I was real pleased."
VEREEN THE MACHINE
Defensive lineman Corey Vereen went down with a tear in his meniscus on Aug. 7, just a week into fall camp.
Just a little over a month later, he was back at practice and 44 days after surgery Vereen saw action in his first game as a Vol against his home state team of Florida.
That is no surprise to his defensive line coach Steve Stripling, Corey is a work horse.
"With his type of injury this is the quickest I have seen anyone come back," said Stripling. "That just goes to his mentality, his preparation, and how he takes care of his body. He probably got five treatments a day. It is all in his attitude. It doesn't surprise me that he is back this early."
The freshman, who graduated high school early to get a jump on his career at Tennessee in January, was raring to go against the Gators, despite just having returned to practice earlier that week.
"Just the fact the first day the trainers said he could take a couple of snaps but he was jumping in every huddle and wanting to take every rep but that is typical Corey," said Stripling. "We just stick to the plan and we will be ready to go."
Vereen was limited with his snaps as he adjusts back to the fast pace of the game. But Team 117 will look to see a little more of the rookie Saturday against South Alabama.
Under the watchful eye of Stripling.
"We have a plan and we are going to get him much more involved," said Stripling, "but he doesn't do me any good if we over play him. I am going to be very smart with him and he is going to play as much as he is ready to play."
A BAD CASE OF THE 'WANTS'
Tennessee's third pick-six of the of the season came from an unlikely source at Florida, as freshman walk-on and Kingsport native Devaun Swafford took a Jeff Driskel pass back 62 yards to the house.
Playing nickel, Swafford trailed the speedy Trey Burton, avoided a crossing route and was able to make a great break on the ball to cut under Burton and put the Vols up 7-0 on the SEC rival.
High above from the press box, assistant head coach and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez was impressed with the walk-on's play.
"I wouldn't say it was typical for a freshman," said Martinez. The play that he made was a great play. We were in man coverage and first of all you have to cover the guy, which he did. You have to catch the ball, which he did. Then you can't fall down, which he didn't do and he scored. It was a great play."
Swafford's mindset is right where his coach wants it right now.
"In everything he does, there's a sense of urgency," said Martinez. "He has a bad case of the `wants' right now. He wants to be good, he wants to be a good player and he wants to succeed.
"The lack of depth put him in an emergency situation of let's see what you got and he's obviously performed at a different level than some of the other guys. He's ahead from the standpoint of his consistency."
Now listed as the starting nickelback, Swafford has been able to stay healthy and gain valuable reps when others at his position have not been so lucky.
"He's a freshman; he was playing high school ball at this time last year, but he's improved," said Martinez. "The only way to do that is to get reps and he's had the opportunity because he's been reasonably healthy.
"That's what hurts guys who get hurt. You lose all those reps of getting better consistently. He's been able to play four games for us now where he's gained a lot of experience, which you can't get when you're sitting on the sideline."
The Vols actually got a couple of those injured guys back in the secondary this week, as cornerbacks Riyahd Jones and Michael F. Williams returned to Haslam Field.
While it certainly helps UT from a depth standpoint, Coach Martinez knows they'll both need some time.
"It's hard to throw guys in there mid-week or the first time back out," said Martinez. "It's just getting their feet wet, getting them back in the fold and getting a feel for how far they are behind. What do they know and what do they recall so it takes some time. They've done a good job the first couple days back at practice."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)