Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and student-athletes Joshua Dobbs, Cameron Sutton, Josh Malone and Jalen Reeves-Maybin spoke to reporters on Monday.
(Butch Jones’ opening statement)
"Going back and revisiting Saturday night, I really thought we played complimentary football.
I thought all three phases really complimented each other. We were able to generate explosive plays and control the field position. On third downs, I thought, in terms of situational football, we did a good job prior to running the clock out in the fourth quarter. We were 9-of-14 on third down conversions.
“Defensively, we were able to get off the field as well. Kentucky was a big-play, quick-strike offense, and if you take away the one big play, we really limited the momentum plays. On the road, one of the key factors to win is limiting momentum plays and not letting the crowd get into it. I thought our players had a great business-like approach. Now, it's what we do with that moving forward to the next challenge. South Carolina comes in here as a very hungry football team. Coach (Sean) Elliott has done a really good job of infusing energy and excitement. They are playing loose. They are a hungry football team.
“We all know what Pharoh Cooper brings to the table. He is one of the most explosive and dynamic players -- not only in our conference but in the country. Defensively, with coach Hoke, you see some different things schematically. They are playing with a high level of energy. They are big and physical up front. They have the luxury of playing ma-to-man on the back end. It's going to be a great challenge for our football team this week to continue to improve and prepare. We are not anywhere near where we need to be, in terms of a finished product. When you watch the video, it's never as good or as bad as it seems. We have to continue to work on the small details, from the fundamentals to doing things right in different situations. We are looking forward to going back to practice today."
Broad Effort on Special Teams
The buzz around Knoxville continued on Monday following another huge special teams effort in the Vols' 52-21 win at Kentucky last week. For the second time this season, UT recorded both a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown in the same game and kick return specialist Evan Berry reaped some individual awards as he was named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week.
By this point, there is little doubt that Berry - the nation's leading returner in terms of both average yardage and total touchdowns - is a special talent, but head coach Butch Jones remained adamant that special team’s success begins with the 10 men standing in front of the returner.
"I think Evan would be the first one to tell you it's the other ten individuals on the football field," Jones said. "They're taking great pride in their performance. They are taking great pride in their fundamentals."
Tennessee enters the week ranked among the FBS leaders in both kickoff return and punt return average. In fact, with a No. 1 ranking in kickoff return average (40.4 yards) and a No. 6 in punt return average (19.1 yards), the Vols are the only school in the nation to rank in the top 10 of both categories simultaneously.
That kind of production could not be possible without the dedicated work of the blockers up front. The job is less-than-glamorous, but Jones went out of his way to single out a handful of individuals that have hung their hats on special teams performance this year.
Among the highlighted were Cortez McDowell, Austin Smith, John Kelley, Gavin Bryant, Justin Martin and Jauan Jennings.
Jones was particularly pleased with the play of freshman Micah Abernathy, who delivered a couple key blocks in Berry's 100-yard kick return score on Saturday.
"As the off-returner, you have to rely on your instincts and your judgment because you don't have a particular person to block and you have to make full-speed decisions," he said. "He made two full-speed decisions to get Evan to the end zone. He's getting better and better."
That special teams might will be put to the test on Saturday when the Vols face a South Carolina unit that ranks 18th in the country in kick return defense (17.8 yards per return) and 32nd in punt return defense (5.33).
Injuries Not Stopping Vols
Sometimes, just because you don't see them on the field, doesn't mean our players are not impacting the team in other ways.
"Any time you don't have Curt Maggitt on the field for you, it hurts you because he meant so much to us," Jones said. "Our players played off his energy and leadership. What I see is a transformation that is occurring in terms of leadership. We have other individuals stepping up, and to Curt Maggitt’s credit, he is actually mentoring and guiding individuals and force feeding them. Curt has done a good job with behind-the-scenes type leadership, which has been great to see. Any time you don't have him, it hurts you on and off the field."
Maggitt's leadership has helped others on the Vols defense succeed.
"It's those individuals stepping up – Corey Vereen, Derek Barnett – they have great pride in their performance," Jones said.
Against Alabama, the Vols piled up five sacks, including two from Vereen. Barnett recorded two sacks against Kentucky and now has three in the past two games.
Some other injury updates from Jopnes’ Monday press conference:
Senior defensive lineman Maggitt: “Curt Maggitt, I believe, has an MRI at the end of this week, so we'll know a little bit more in terms of where he's at and if there is a timetable for him to be back."
Sophomore offensive lineman Jashon Robertson: "I give Jashon [Robertson] a lot of credit. He's battled through this. He's maintained a great positive attitude. He's a great character individual. His mom has done a tremendous job with him. Just can't say enough about him. He's battled and battled. It's the same nagging injury. Unfortunately, wrong-place-wrong-time, he landed on it again, but it's no worse than where it was. He'll do his due diligence. You know, you talk about development, and you need to practice. His practice time has been limited because of the injuries, but to his credit when he's played, he's played well. I can't wait to get a healthy Jashon Robertson back because the sky is the limit for him."
Junior wide receiver Marquez North” “Marquez North was just a game-time decision. He couldn't go. He practiced all week. [He was] just sore and stiff, and we're going to do some different things this week with him to try to get him ready to go, because we need him."
Junior wide receiver Jason Croom: “ Jason Croom, I'll know a little bit more today in terms of his status. I would say he's still probably doubtful for this game."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)