KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee coach Butch Jones put the Vols through their final day of training camp on Monday and the team will take two days off with the start of classes on Wednesday.
"This is our last practice of training camp," Jones said. "We have a team function tonight, and then we will take two days off. We will get ourselves ready to go academically, but also to relax from all of the nagging injuries. We will get our minds right."
Jones says the Vols large group of freshmen in making progress at different rates, which is to be expected.
"Right now with the freshmen, some continue to improve and others improve more slowly," said Jones. "Some are ahead of others, but now comes the maturation part. With the student body coming back on campus, players have to start managing their time with class and study table. We need to be a mature football team."
Maturity is a common theme for Jones, entering his second season at the helm of the Volunteers.
"We are still a work in progress from the maturity standpoint," he said. "We knew this, and it wasn't any surprise to us. These are 17-year-old's going through their first training camp. It's having that mental toughness to fight through the conditioning and fatigue. We talk about having a relentless approach, but the mental approach is so much more important than the physical approach."
Junior wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard isn't the only member of the wide receiver unit who has needed coaching along the way. Following a brief hiatus from the team this spring, Howard came into fall camp with a level head, a drive to be a better leader and a growing appreciation for Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni.
"Coach Azzanni brings it each and every day," Howard said. "There is no lack in his coaching and he's going to give it to you hard. He's going to be truthful to you and the only thing he wants to do is make you a great player."
Tasked with guiding one of the youngest groups in camp, Azzanni has worked with each player individually while creating a `wide receiver corps' mentality, stressing the importance of working together for the betterment of each other and the team.
"We all care for each other and we just want to get better and push each other," added Howard. "When you push each other, you're making another man better. That's more important. You know, at the end of the day, we're playing to win so there's no selfishness among us."
Howard not only praises Azzanni for his coaching style and helping solidify a key component of the Vols offense, but he also thanks the coach for giving him and receivers the tools to mature, improve and go forward.
"He cares for us all around, truly, and I just think it's his challenge," said Howard. "If you take his coaching, then you'll be able to go to the next level."
Now, with an established starting quarterback in Justin Worley and fall camp coming to an end, Howard looks forward to building off of Azzanni's principles and leading his receiver unit this season.
"I learned we can only control what we can control and that's running the routes and making plays," said Howard. "In general, we're happy that Worley got the job. He earned it and there hasn't been negative feedback after that so, we're just looking forward to making out and making plays."
OFFENSE CHEMISTRY SPARKS COMMUNICATION
With training camp ending, there has tons of progress across the team from individual success to team chemistry.
To freshman running back Jalen Hurd, the most noticeable growth that he has seen has been with the entire team, especially the offensive unit.
"I really think we've grown most as a team," Hurd said. "Not only me but I think I've grown closer to my teammates, got a better connection with them. I feel the offense is clicking. I think we're communicating a lot better."
With a fast moving offense that prides itself in a speedy tempo, the running back group and offensive line have come together as a unit.
"We have a great chemistry and we pride ourselves on that," Hurd said. "We say to each other every day the linemen are the running backs and the running backs are the linemen because if the linemen are doing stuff wrong then we're doing stuff wrong. If we're doing stuff wrong then the linemen are doing stuff wrong. We're together as a unit on that."
Worley has been leading the unit and with his leadership, along with the entire group of quarterbacks, communication has steadily improved.
"Justin Worley is an awesome quarterback along with all the other quarterbacks," Hurd said. "Whoever is in the game at the time, we look up to him and we look to that quarterback as the leader of that team at the moment. All of the quarterbacks play a significant role on this team."
Jones often stresses the importance of coaching moments on the field with Volunteer freshmen this fall camp. Among those who stand out, freshman defensive back Todd Kelly Jr. is demonstrating the maturity and physicality that Jones was hoping to see from the Tennessee legacy.
"Part of the maturation process is that the game has been playing fast for a lot of these kids and the ones that are maturing and growing and developing, the game is slowing down," said Jones. "We talk 'see a little, see a lot' – the eye discipline – and Todd Kelly has been a sure tackler. He's played physical."
Despite his youth, Kelly adds that physicality has always been a part of his game. When visiting as a recruit and preparing for his first workouts last year, he already understood that Tennessee would expect him to take his tackling and physical presence on the field to the next level.
"The SEC is the most physical conference in the country so you have to bring it every day," said Kelly. "Practice is like a game. These practices are more intense than my high school games were, so it's just bringing it every day and having a mindset to be physical, play fast and make plays.
"I came as a recruit and got to see the tempo, so I knew what to expect," Kelly added. "But it's a lot different being out there and experiencing it for yourself. Once I got out there, I had to get a feel for it."
While discussing practice etiquette with his team and teaching the difference between a `thud' and `tag off' hit, Jones immediately recalls examples of Kelly's technique. Kelly is a `thud' tackler who hits with power and impact, and Jones is excited to monitor his continued development.
"We've pointed out practicing etiquette, how you thud, how you tag off. We give illustrations of how you thud and it's always T.K.," said Jones. "Every day is a new learning experience for these kids and unfortunately it's half of our new football team. It's what makes coaching and teaching exciting."
D-LINE PLAYING ON 'SECOND-LEVEL'
Having to replace all four starters from last year's defensive line, this fall camp has been huge for the development of Tennessee's defensive front.
Sophomore defensive lineman Danny O’Brien says the new defensive line has improved tremendously thanks to hard work, both on and off the field.
"We've come a long way, especially even just from last year," he said. "Coach Strip talks about playing `second-level football.' That's when you're really calling out the sets, all that kind of stuff.
"This group has really taken that step, especially practicing on into the film room, just calling out all the different formations and all that. We've been really focused on that as a defensive line."
Senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams also has seen improvement across the board from the defensive line, especially in the middle.
"We've done great," he said of his defensive tackle group. "We've made a lot of strides, and the most important part that we didn't have last camp and last spring, is consistency.
"We would have a good practice, then come back and have bad practice. Have a good practice, then come back and have bad practice. But we've had consistently good practices."
It's the consistent effort, along with increased athleticism among the front five, that Williams believes will create more sacks and big plays this season.
"The defensive line, as a whole, we are definitely a lot more athletic," said Williams. "A lot of movement, a lot of good hand technique, we've definitely improved with that. We're a little bit undersized, but we're moving around a lot. It's good. We're definitely going to be making plays in there."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)