KNOXVILLE - Special teams are a key element to Butch Jones' practices.
Tennessee practices every aspect of special teams on a daily basis, from surprise game-winning field goals in the middle of drills, to coverage to punt returns and on and on.
With a key factor to the Vols' special teams game on the sidelines with a broken hand, other members of the team will have to step up in Devrin Young's place.
One of those players is Jacob Carter, who went out twice to return punts on Saturday against Austin Peay, once returning to the sidelines when it looked as though the Governors were going to go for it on fourth and short, instead the quarterback got off a pooch punt. And on his first opportunity at a punt return, he ended up with a fair catch.
"He's a reliable guy," said special teams coach Mark Elder. "We know he's going to be able to field the ball. He's a great decision maker, so as far as that's concerned we know we're going to have the ball back at the end of the play and he does some nice things with the ball in his hands as well but he's a reliable guy."
There are many Vols in addition to Carter that have practiced their return game and Elder is excited for them to get an opportunity to do so Saturday.
"We've had a number of guys who have done really well with it, that we trust out there," said Elder. It was a close competition all through camp so there are a number of guys that we feel good about. I don't think it's really going to be an issue. We're excited for the next guy's opportunity."
You better believe that the first thing the returner does, whoever it might be, is secure the ball.
"In the return game, the very first criteria is that we secure the football," said Elder. "That's kickoff returns, we're fielding the football. If they're going for an onside, we're fielding the football. Whatever it is, we have got to field the football first."
"Yards after we've fielded the ball are bonus," continued Elder. "Obviously we want to increase our field position but we don't want to do it at the expense of taking a chance of not having the football, so that's our number one priority is to have the football at the end of the play."
GETTING BACK TO FULL SPEED
After tearing his ACL last season against Missouri, Curt Maggitt has returned stronger than ever this season for the Vols, and in just about eight months.
Though he didn't take part in spring football, he was out there every day taking reps alongside other injured players and making sure he knew the playbook so once he was cleared, he could get back to what he does best.
Through fall camp, Maggitt was practicing at about half speed, but has returned to normal this week in practice.
His team couldn't be any happier.
"Curt brings a different type of energy," said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen. "He went in yesterday and got his first real contact and actually kind of surprised everybody, taking on some linemen. The kids on our team really respect Curt; they have a love and passion for each other when he is out there."
Maggitt's impact is not just in his energy. The 6-foot-3-inch, 239-pound linebacker is also a physical presence on the gridiron.
"He is big and strong," said Thigpen. "He has a refined look. He has that SEC body look, probably one of the best bodies I have seen. He is a great looking kid. He can run and he is strong. He is also a smart kid. The sky is the limit for Curt. It all depends on how fast he comes back from the surgery he had last season."
Thigpen and the coaching staff are in no hurry to rush Maggitt back, and are letting him return to full speed at his own pace.
For Maggitt that pace is fast.
"The more confident he can get the better he will feel about it," said Thigpen. "He is a kid that has a great attitude and everyone loves him being back out on the football field. I know he is anxious but we have to be smart in the small process and not rush him out there.
"He goes out there when he feels like he can go out there and make an impact," continued Thigpen. "I tell him, `whenever you feel like going just tap the guy out, you know exactly where you are supposed to be, go out there and get reps. When you feel like you can go then go.' He is the one that knows, he is the one that has to get his confidence in his playing."
WIDE RECEIVERS ABOUND
Leading up to last week's game against Austin Peay, everyone had one question for wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni. How many wide receivers are you going to play?
Tentative answer -- nine. Result - 11. Seven caught passes.
"It was nice to come out and get up early, be able to coach through the game a little bit – kind of like practice – and that was good," Azzanni said. "We needed that."
While Azzanni is pleased with each player's performance, he knows there is room to improvement and implement the new `63' motto--six seconds [in a play], three great efforts.
"We're not at all as physical as I would like to be," said Azzanni. "We're not there yet-- from what I'm used to, my standard, Coach Jones' standard, so we have a lot of work to do that way. That comes with young guys being confident in what they're going to. The more reps, the more games, the more experiences, the more they can just kind of let it go a little bit more."
With that, Azzanni has challenged all wide receivers to reach the standard that he expects physically.
"Violent route running, violent releases, violent on perimeter blocking, and that's going to be a staple of our blocking," said Azzanni. "Usually the way you block is probably the way you release, it's probably the way you run routes, it's probably the way you attack the ball. That's why I'm such a stickler on blocking. If you don't block, you probably don't do those other things very physical."
Here are sound bites from the assistant coaches after Wednesday's practice:
DEFENSIVE BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On the young defenders against Petrino)
"We do that every day. It doesn't matter who we play. We talk about our eye discipline and not having eye violations every single day. So, it's regardless of who we play. Whether we're facing an option football team or a passing offense, it's something we're constantly working on. We try and improve every day."
(On how to calm down the secondary this week)
"They're going to get attacked every day, so it doesn't really matter who we're playing. No, we just really focus on what we can control and preparing. There's really no magic to it, you keep working. We've been working since camp, spring, and fall camp. You work at the things that offenses do: different formations, different plays. The things that they do on offense, we've practiced them. We've done that since spring ball. That's what's so great about our offense, it's so multiple. We have a tempo offense. We run very similar plays. So, that's going to help us."
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On the tight ends' progress)
"We're getting there. We're seeing it at times but then you see some regress. You see the old 'fatigue makes cowards of us all' at the end of a drive. Sometimes you're not seeing quite the effort and physicality that you want. As far as that's concerned, that's what we're trying to get to. We're trying to get to the 63 effort every single play. On a 10- or 12-play drive, we want to see the same effort on play 12 that we are on one and two."
(On the possibility of using three-tight end sets)
"Certainly we can go out there with three tight ends and run some plays and that can be a positive thing for us, sure. It's good to have multiple different personnel groups because that's a lot of different things for a defense to prepare for. If you have one personnel group then they're only preparing for that, but if you can throw a three-tight end set, a two-back set, whatever it is, multiple personnel groups at a defense. That's more that they have to be able to cover, and more that they have to be able to defend."
(On Woody Quinn)
"He's coming along. He's not where we need him to be. He's not as physical as we need him to be at this point in time. He knows that and we're working that on an every-play basis in practice."
RUNNING BACKS COACH ROBERT GILLESPIE
(On RB's Improvement)
"There's always room for improvement, we did a few things, but we did whatever we were supposed to do. We ran the ball, we took care of it for the most part, and we just got to get the weak better so we don't have the need to pat ourselves on the back, we've got to go out and get better."
(On Rajion Neal)
"We hadn't talked about what Western Kentucky gave up, we know what Western Kentucky does from an X and O stand-point but we just try to go on toward it and just try to get better at what we do, you know? The opponents change, but our expectations of us as a team and us as a backfield doesn't change. We just have to continue to get better at the little things, week in and week out we have a checklist of things we have to improve on and that's our main focus now.
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On Johnathon Johnson)
"He had a really good second half. He played a lot in the second half. He's a very conscientious kid, trying to play physical. Thank God we have him from a depth standpoint. He just kind of fell in our lap and we need him. We needed him at that spot. We only had two guys. He played well.
"Yes. I think any time you come from junior college it takes a second to adjust--just the speed of the game, the intensity levels are not even in the same planet. All those things combine together make it hard on a kid to go right away. He's done a pretty good job."
(On players catching the ball well)
"I wasn't pleased. We dropped two balls and we want to be perfect out there, we do. I don't want to, Marquez (North) had a drop there on the vertical and we had another drop, I can't remember exactly where, but we had two that we should have had and we're going to be perfectionists out there. It's never going to be okay to drop a pass."
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On Bobby Petrino style football)
"Sound, very sound. Probably the best word is he just exploits what you do, he takes advantage of coverages, he takes advantage of your weakness, if there is a weak player on the football field. Then schematically he is probably one of the best football minds when it comes to X's and O's. He does a great job. I studied him every year when I was at Auburn. It was like he would get better and better every season."
(On other LBs making an impact against Austin Peay)
"Propst played a bunch in that game and I am going to keep pushing Christian because he has all the attributes that we look for in a linebacker. He is 6-2, he is 235, he can run and he is physical. The game for him is you have to keep playing with his head and watch what the older guys do. Watch what A.J. does, watch what Brent Brewer does. For him it is a maturity deal but he has a lot of pride and a lot of confidence in his play."
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On mentality of the line knowing they ran for 300+ yards)
"For the position itself the most important thing is winning, the second one is as a unit that you would like to put up some numbers that you can be proud of and keep the quarterback clean. One win, we did it, two rushing we accomplished some good things and the last one keeping the quarterback clean, we did that. As a unit goal were off to a good start. A thing that's neat is now it's on their mind."
(On where the offensive line is heading into week two)
"Communication on the sidelines between plays, we were strong in that area. Where we weren't strong was we didn't finish nearly as well as we needed to, technically we weren't anywhere we need to be in terms of hand placement and footwork to the liking we demand on our guys on a basis where it's over and over again. We demand excellence from that and we weren't there and it's game one. As coach Jones said, and he is exactly right, the biggest strides made are from game one to game two and were going to find that out.
"This week of practice the whole sense of urgency is a lot higher than it was last week and that's a real positive. It's something to gauge off of from game one to game two, and were still not pleased and probably won't be till game fourteen."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)