KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Neyland Stadium will be sold out on Sunday night as the Vols host Utah State, a team they have great respect for. On Thursday, Tennessee's assistant coaches talked about the stiff challenge the Aggies present.
With the countdown now down to three days, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian feels his young offense is as prepared as it can be.
"We've had a good week," Bajakian said. "Our guys have been practicing hard, and we've been emphasizing our style of play, which means playing with great effort and playing with physicality. They've responded."
Despite a team full of newcomers, which will include three starting freshmen, there are many positives leading up to Utah State in comparison to the start of last year.
"There are a lot of positives," Bajakian said. "We have more weapons at the skill positions, and a little better understanding of our expectations as a coaching staff and as a program."
"We believe that it's those expectations that will lead to victories. Between understanding how we're going to play the game and understanding what we want to accomplish, I feel like our guys are further along than a year ago."
In the quarterback position, Bajakian sees multiple improvements from Worley including in his ability to make quicker, more accurate decisions as well as better ball location.
Although the offense has some positives to lean on, Bajakian is fully expecting a challenge from a tough Utah State defense, which includes three starters with 27 starts each, more than the entire Vols starting offense. Utah State was also ranked No. 2 in the nation for their pass defense as they only allowed 19 touchdowns on 49 red zone trips.
"Number one is that they're very experienced," he said. "They bring an understanding of the game. They know how to win. They play hard. They play fast. They play physical. They're a well-coached group. They pose a lot of problems with just their skills and you add their scheme and they'll keep you on your heels."
To succeed, Bajakian says the team must tune together and manage the game. With just one practice left before game time, the wait will soon be over to see just how well the young group can do.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Vols are ready for the Aggies offense, led by quarterback Chuckie Keeton. Defensive coordinator John Jancek acknowledges Utah State's potent attack.
"I think they have tremendous schemes," Jancek said. "I think their schemes are well thought out. I think they know what they want when they are calling their plays. The tempo is challenging.
"They have good personnel on the outside with their receiving corps, they have Joe Hill back at running back and obviously Chuckie."
Jancek feels his defense is up to the challenge and despite so many unknowns, he feels confident on his Orange Swarm.
"I am excited," he said. "I just want to go out and play to be honest with you. I want to coach against another team and watch these guys go out there and enjoy what they have been working so hard for. We will just keep moving forward."
NECK-AND-NECK FOR THE KICK
With three days remaining until Sunday's home opener against Utah State, Special teams coordinator Mark Elder has the toughest competition of fall camp unfolding inside his film room. The battle for the starting kicker position is still ongoing, and George Bullock and Aaron Medley are not making the decision an easy one.
"We've examined this thing as many different ways as you could," Elder said. "I've looked at every single kick from all of camp, to just the pressure situation kicks, to taking out the long ones and the ones that would be more realistic. You'd like for it to be just, here's an easy decision and that's the guy. But it's neck-and-neck."
With Bullock and Medley matching each other kick-for-kick at practice, Elder explained that the possibility of splitting duties between kickoff and place kicking is very real. In his opinion, having options is clearly not the worst-case scenario.
"There is a chance of that," Elder said. "I'd prefer to not have someone do what we did last year, with all three. That's just a lot doing the punting, the kicking and the kickoff. Obviously, we're not in that situation this year. If we had the same guy doing [kickoff and place kicking] or a different guy, that's okay."
With the Utah State game inching closer, Elder added that Coach Jones will ultimately make the best decision for Team 118 and will use Elder's countless hours of charts and data to support his decision between the two young, high-potential candidates.
"We chart everything," Elder said. "Coach Jones is going to make a decision here coming up but it's close. We put those guys in pressure situations, trying to see who's going to respond in a positive way. Sometimes that's putting them in adverse situations to see who's going to hang their head if they don't make one. Is he going to keep his head high and be confident that he's going to go make the next one or is he going to hang his head? I feel confident that whichever guy we decide on is going to go out and perform on Sunday night for us."
Few coaches in the country face as difficult of a task as Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney, who has the task of replacing all five starters, including two NFL draft picks, on his offensive line. The youthfulness of the new starting five has been a hot topic, but Mahoney believes they are prepared for the task at hand.
"I think what they've done in practice," Mahoney said on Thursday. " These guys are excited, but they're nervous, too. I tell them, `let's control the things we can control,' and that is our attitude and work ethic. It's more about what Coach [Jones] talks about: let your actions be loud. We have to do that with our style of play, and I like the way they've approached it."
There will be new five faces on the starting offensive line, but not all are new faces to the UT football program. Jacob Gilliam,Marcus Jackson, Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson were all mentored by Mahoney last season and he's excited to see them in their starting roles.
"I can't wait to see them," Mahoney said. "The work ethic and the time they've put in over the Spring and training camp has been incredible, and we finally get to see them on Sunday. There are guys who are making their first starts. They've had to wait their turns, and now it's here. They've worked hard to prepare themselves, and I'm very excited to see them play."
Mahoney added that there will be some growing pains, especially in the first game of a season, but at the end of the day, it is all about the process.
"I want to be able to say they fought well and played together," he said. "I have really enjoyed their work ethic and how they have brought it throughout camp. We have to play with passion for four quarters and beyond. The biggest strides teams make is from Week One to Week Two, and we keep working to build off that, but there's definitely a bite in them ... and that part I like."
SENIOR BACKS SHARE MOTIVATION
It will be the Vol seniors final first game in Neyland Stadium when they run through the T in front of 102,455 Sunday night.
Leading the running back group, seniors Marlin Lane and Devrin Young will share a special moment with the young group, which includes highly-touted freshman Jalen Hurd.
Heading into the first game, running backs coach Robert Gillespie realizes that emotions are running high and the effort that the seniors have put in during the offseason are looking to be rewarded.
"Marlin has had a good off season," Gillespie said. "Most importantly, he's had a good week of practice preparing for Utah State both on and off the field coming in watching extra film, asking really good questions in meetings and going out and performing well on the practice field."
Young has bounced back and forth between tailback and receiver, showing his versatility.
"He's hungry," Gillespie said. "He's been moved to a lot of positions, so he's able to do things out of the backfield that some of those guys aren't equipped to do. Devrin is a very good athlete."
Besides wanting to do their best as individuals, Lane and Young share a similar feeling with the other seniors, wanting to succeed as a team. And it all starts with Utah State.
"All those guys that are seniors know that their days are numbered," Gillespie said. "They kind of take every practice to heart because they know they're one closer to being away from here."
"Marlin falls into that category that he realizes he doesn't have many games left and he wants to leave this season with a winning standard."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)