KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee Vols began their on-field preparation for the season opener against Utah State on Thursday.
The scout team donned blue jerseys for the first time as Butch Jones led the Vols in their first practice since classes started in Knoxville on Wednesday.
"The message from (Jones) is quite clear to me, we are in game week mode," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney, "everything is picked up a whole notch.
Officially camp has end, it is kind of different how the weeks fall and so forth, whatever he wants and demands of us is what we see through as a staff and as a team."
The Aggies, coming off a 9-5 season and a Poinsettia Bowl Championship, have the respect and attention of Tennessee. Utah State won six of its final seven games in 2014.
"They're very aggressive schematically and very sound," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "They're a well-coached defense and you can tell they play hard. You know, we emphasize to our guys about being different with our level of effort and those guys I think buy into the same type of mentality. So, we've challenged our guys with it being our effort and our style of play versus their style of play. I give them credit. They play very hard and play a very physical brand of football and it's evident on video."
Mahoney was happy with the performance after two days away from the practice field to focus on the start of classes.
"Today was a great start," Mahoney said. "Getting the kids acclimated to the start of school, a lot of these kids are going through that process of class and now practice and then study table and bed, trying to get in that routine. So it is here."
After missing a period of time due to injury, junior defensive end Curt Maggitt was back in action at Haslam Field. Despite being sidelined from in-practice action, Maggitt has been staying in shape and preparing to return to action on Sunday night vs. Utah State.
"He has been in the water, on the bike, on the treadmill, all of those things," defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "I think he has done a good job of maintaining his conditioning levels. It is just going to be getting out there and actually playing. He hasn't played in a game in a long time. I am excited for him."
Maggitt is an undeniable leader of the Vols' defense, so having him on the field always provides a jolt of energy for the Orange & White.
"I always feel good about Curt because I think he's older, said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "He's mature. He's a great leader. He has all the qualities. Obviously I would like to see him get a lot more practice but I feel there's still 10 days out and he's going to get plenty of work."
IMPROVEMENT IN THE SECONDARY
Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez is satisfied with the numerous improvements made in the secondary. With the countdown approaching to Utah State, the competition among the groups have shown the growth in skill and understanding.
"We've improved," Martinez said. "We're starting to figure out our style of play. I think the last couple of practices we've been able to develop some ball disruptions, better energy as a collective group, and more in-sync understanding of what to do."
Three individuals that have solidified their abilities to earn starting roles are Justin Coleman at nickel back, Cam Sutton at a corner and Brian Randolph at strong safety.
The competition for the remaining sports is heating up with just 10 days to game day. At the other cornerback position, Martinez says a decision won't be made until later in game week between Emmanuel Moseley and Michael Williams. The competition at free safety has also been intense with the decision coming down to Devaun Swafford, Todd Kelly Jr., and incumbent LaDarrell McNeil.
"Those three individuals have solidified up to this point," Martinez said. "Those guys have been consistent productivity wise."
Because of the healthy competition, the players in the secondary have progressed through pushing one another, improving consistency at the positions.
"It's a lot more player-coaching," Martinez said. "It's more player-driven. That's what's neat about it. They're putting more pressure on each other instead of the coaches doing it. That's nice to see. That's the difference."
"It's really good for us. We feel really good as far as the competition. We didn't have that last year. We have a lot of guys competing for reps at all of the positions."
Heading into game week against Utah State, Bajakian is reaching a comfort and confidence level with his offensive. In particular, starting quarterback Justin Worley continues to show command and ownership of his position, which Bajakian notes as one of Worley's biggest improvements entering this season.
"He started that really once last season ended, but there's definitely now a little more ownership to it," Bajakian said. "I think that's validated a little bit more. He can even grow a little more in that role."
While the senior quarterback's individual growth is noticeable, his coach also praised the relationships he is building with the wide receivers unit and the offensive line. As Bajakian points out, this year's offensive personnel provide Worley with more options on both sides of the field, putting more of an emphasis on his ability to connect with each player.
"I think there is a lot that goes into it but I also think that developing a comfort level with the receivers and timing with the receivers has also played a role," added Bajakian. "I don't know if it is as much scheme as it is just options for the quarterback. A lot of time, if we have concepts on both sides of the field, the quarterback can make a choice based on whichever side might give us the best look."
Making that choice, the right choice, can be the hardest part of the game. But with Worley demonstrating more and more ability lead the Vols offense, Bajakian feels sure that he will rise to the occasion come August 31.
"He's getting rid of the ball on time," Bajakian said. "His rhythm and anticipation have improved. He's making good decision, good decisive decisions. That's important."
With game week preparations beginning to ramp up, Mahoney says he has seen his unit begin to gel, especially senior Jacob Gilliam and freshman Jashon Robertson, as the game has started to "slow down" for the two projected starters.
"They're really just playing a lot faster and a lot more consistent," he said. "The learning curve for both of them, you know, young guys when they first come in and play, when they really start playing well is when the game starts slowing down - at any position."
Mahoney has been especially impressed with Robertson, who has quickly earned first-team practice reps after recently being moved to the offensive line from defensive tackle.
"He's one of the best (freshmen) that I've had a chance to really be around," said Mahoney. "When he first started playing the position, the first day we had to practice, I left the field and I said to Coach Jones, `Coach, he's asking questions that most guys would not ask.' I said, `man, this guy's special.'"
Mahoney has also been encouraged by the versatility shown by two veteran offensive lineman, sophomore Dylan Weisman and redshirt junior Kyler Kerbyson.
"I think he could definitely be a center or guard type of guy because of how smart of a player he is," he said of Weisman. "He's athletic, he's powerful, extremely dependable - those qualities you look for in a center. It's certainly not something that I would want to jump into right now with the learning curve with him coming to the position, gaining confidence, gaining accuracy, all the things that we're striving for, but I definitely see him being a two position guy for sure."
Mahoney went on to compare Kerbyson to former Vol, and current Kansas City Chief, Zach Fulton.
"He's a lot like Zach Fulton, playing some of [tackle] last year with certain situations with practice and so forth," he said. "He's a guy that has a lot of experience and understands the position, understands defense, understands alignments and those kinds of things...he, as well, is a very intelligent player."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)