One week into preseason practice and one day out from its first scrimmage of fall camp, the Tennessee football team took Haslam Field Monday morning as anticipation continues to build for the 2022 season opener on Sept. 1.
Entering his second year on Josh Heupel's staff and fourth overall at Tennessee, defensive line coach Rodney Garner met with members of the media to discuss his unit's production through the first seven days of preseason camp.
Known within the program as 'D-Rock,' Garner's group of linemen were key in the Volunteer defense finishing top 10 in the nation in tackles for loss last season, but the 32-year SEC coaching veteran knows his line can take another step in 2022.
"Well, that was good for last year's team, but that was last year's team," Garner said. "What are we going to do this year? I mean, we have to take a step forward. I think we exceeded the expectations for everybody, except for the guys in the room and probably the coaching staff, but nobody came to Tennessee, I think, to say they want to be 7-6. That is not the standard. We're moving in the right direction, but everybody, when they look in the mirror, they can see where we can get better.
"We all have to be truthful with ourselves and understand that we have to continue to strain every day to get better. And if we want to become great, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's what it takes."
With a week of preseason practice in the books, Garner is looking to his veteran players to step up as leaders within the defensive line room. The upperclassmen have a big presence to fill after the departure of VFL Matthew Butler, who made his pro debut for the Las Vegas Raiders Thursday night at the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
"I'm going to be honest with you, that's been a big void," Garner said. "Matt, I guess we probably took it for granted how valuable he was. I don't know that we've filled that role yet. I think we just have to keep pushing the guys, to keep straining them and see who's going to rise to the top. For some of them, it's easy to lead when things are easy. When we're faced with that adversity, who's going to be that guy who's still going to stand in there and be the guy to say, 'You can count on me. Get behind me. I'm going to show you the way.' We really don't have that yet.
"I think B.Y. (Byron Young) is trying, but B.Y. is a different type of leader than that. B.Y. is much quieter. He just really takes care of B.Y. We need him to come on and be a more aggressive guy and take the bull by the horns, per se. Big O (Omari Thomas) needs to get better so he can become a better leader too. That comes with also doing it on the field and not just being a verbal guy. You have to also do it by your actions too."
A junior defensive tackle out of Memphis, Thomas also took the podium Monday afternoon to update the media on his third time going through preseason camp. After a productive sophomore campaign last fall, Thomas has taken a detail-oriented approach to perfect his craft before the season begins.
"I've been able to lock in on the little things," Thomas said. "Just be able to always play vertical and when I take my first step, I'm bringing my hands with me and being able to follow my feet, follow my hands. I'm just focusing on the details more, knowing where the back of line is. It's been a lot of the small details from Coach G that he's been putting on us, and showing us how important it is to be able to focus on those small details."
Those small details will undoubtedly help 'D-Rock' to generate pressure in the backfield and cause nightmares for opposing quarterbacks this fall. Disrupting the pocket more frequently has been a point of emphasis for Garner's linemen this offseason.
"We have to be able to affect the quarterback just with the front, and not have to bring blitzes down in order to affect the quarterback," Thomas said. "That's something that Coach G has taken pride in, as well as the defensive line room. We want to be able to affect the quarterback without Coach Tim Banks having to send pressures. That's something that we work on every day in pass rush. It's been a big thing that we looked at this offseason and this fall camp."
As far as making a difference inside the room, Thomas spoke to his and Byron Young's ability to step out of their comfort zones and emerge as vocal leaders for the Tennessee defensive line.
"I'm pushing myself to be more of a vocal leader, because I've always been a person who did the right thing and brought people along on the side," Thomas said. "Right now, I need to be able to step up and be more vocal as a leader, rather than just doing the right things on and off the field. I need to do what Coach G wants me to do. One thing that Byron Young and I have been able to just be better about ourselves is being more vocal."
The Vols will compete on a newly sodded Shields-Watkins Field Tuesday morning for their first scrimmage of the fall inside Neyland Stadium. The scrimmage is closed to the public. Head coach Josh Heupel is set to take the podium to meet with members of the media following the intrasquad session at approximately 11:10 a.m.
On if he would play a defensive lineman before he is ready…
"I don't think you can afford to do that, to be totally honest with you. You may get away with it somewhat in a non-conference game, but in a conference game, I don't know that you can afford to do that. They have to show some glimpses of what they're going to be or could be. And maybe, they may not have gotten there totally because they haven't gotten totally comfortable with the system, and the game hasn't slowed down enough for them to play faster, but they have shown flashes that they can be really good. But you know, other than that, we try to go out here every day. We're straining, and we're trying to find 10 guys that can play at a championship level. I think you're cheating the other 10 guys on the field when you put a guy out there that's not ready—that maybe can't execute the calls, that's not going to play hard, that's not going to give his all for everybody out there. These guys work too hard for that, for me to cheat them out of an opportunity to win."
On Tyler Baron and Bryson Eason's progression…
"Well, I do think Tyler has gotten better. He's been more consistent. I would say starting this spring, he's practiced more than he's ever practiced before. And so, you would think by being out there on the field and working every day, then that you're going to improve, and we've seen improvement from him. He has to continue to improve on the little things. When we're sitting there watching the film, if you're going to be a true edge rusher, you can't put two hands on the tackle. I mean, he's got to learn to rush with one hand, be able to flip his hips and be able to turn the corner. He has to stop making himself short by turning and putting two hands on the guy, now he's not creating any pass rush. So, he has to work on the little things to get better and to take his game to that next level, but he is buying into it, he's being more coachable. I'm looking forward to him continuing to improve.
"Same thing with Eason. Eason has a lot of talent. He's a very gifted guy. He came here as a linebacker, and then I think they moved him, I don't know if it was freshman year that they moved him to defensive line or not, but I know last year, we put him at defensive end, and now obviously he's moved closer to the ball. You know, he's a big man. He's an athletic big man, but he has to embrace that role. Obviously the closer you get to the ball, the more physical, demanding it is to play in there. I think he's adapting to it. It's something that we just have to keep force feeding him right now, but hopefully he sees that he can be "a guy," I mean he really could be "a guy." When you start looking at the intangible things that you look at from that position—he has the body type, he has the initial quickness, he has short handed quickness, he has balance and body control, he's explosive, he has all the tools. Now, he has to embrace it from a mentality standpoint and from a heart standpoint, and be willing to strain to put himself in position to be a great player."
On what he wants to see from tomorrow's scrimmage…
"Schematically, we are a vertical playing team. So, we need to play more vertical, we need to be more disruptive, we want to cause chaos. When that ball turns over, we want to play two yards on the other side of the ball. So, that's number one, just being dominant up there (and) playing with vertical get off. Obviously we need to be better in our pass rush. We need to get better inside pass rush, and then we also have to do better with maintaining our pass rush lanes. Obviously in this league, there were some quarterbacks last year that scrambled the ball that hurt us. So we have to understand, how do we balance the pass rush lanes, and let's make sure we get the quarterback knocked down. Just taking those incremental steps to improve every day, that's what we're trying to work on."
On all the tackles for loss last year's team accrued…
"Well, that was good for last year's team, but that was last year's team. What are we going to do this year? I mean, we have to take a step forward. I think we exceeded the expectations for everybody, except for the guys in the room and probably the coaching staff, but nobody came to Tennessee, I think, to say they want to be 7-6. That is not the standard. We're moving it the right direction, but everybody, when they look in the mirror, they can see where we can get better. I know I can look and see where I can coach this better, I can put the guys in a better situation here. So, we all have to be truthful with ourselves and understand that we have to continue to strain every day to get better. And if we want to become great, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and that's what it takes."
On where he's seen growth in Byron Young…
"I think B.Y., his football IQ has improved tremendously from where he was last year this time. He continues to move that needle in that direction. I think just understanding the nuances of football. To me, last year when we first started, he really was like a newborn colt. He was just all over the place. Body was everywhere, just learning how to control his body, just understanding football, understanding pass rush, how to use his hands, how to flip his hips. And also, just improving on understanding how the scheme fits. Not just what he does, so how it all plays together, which will help him become a better player. And then, it's also going to give us the flexibility to actually maybe have an opportunity in some different packages, maybe we can put him in different places as his IQ continues to improve."
On defensive linemen who have made good progressions during fall camp…
"I said this in our staff meeting the other day, and I said it in my position meeting this morning: if we had to vote on who was probably the most improved guy in that room, it would definitely be Dominic Bailey. He's gotten better, he really has. He's flashed and he's shown that he's going to have an opportunity to help this team. The thing that I was a little bit worried about out there today was that I gave him that compliment in the meeting, and I thought in practice when we started out, I started seeing the old Dom. We can't do that. We can't play yo-yo. We can't be up and down. We need to be consistently climbing that mountain. He did pick it up in the later part of the practice, but the previous six practices, he put himself in a position that we think he's going to have an opportunity to help this team. Obviously, he's done a really good job during the offseason. I think his body's changed. I think his mentality's changed. He's a little bit more talented than I thought—maybe that's gaining the strength with the weight program and the maturity and all of that. It might be him just getting more comfortable in the system that we're running too. He's been able to show and flash a lot more."
On who is stepping up to fill the void left by Matthew Butler's departure to the NFL…
"I'm going to be honest with you. That's been a big void. Matt, I guess we probably took it for granted how valuable he was. I don't know that we've filled that role yet. I think we just have to keep pushing the guys, to keep straining them and see who's going to rise to the top. For some of them, it's easy to lead when things are easy. When we're faced with that adversity, who's going to be that guy who's still going to stand in there and be the guy to say, 'You can count on me. Get behind me. I'm going to show you the way.' We really don't have that yet. I think B.Y. (Byron Young) is trying, but B.Y. is a different type of leader than that. B.Y. is much quieter. He just really takes care of B.Y. We need him to come on and be a more aggressive guy and take the bull by the horns, per se. Omari (Thomas), Big O needs to get better so he can become a better leader too. That comes with also doing it on the field and not just being a verbal guy. You have to also do it by your actions too."
On having LaTrell Bumphus back and what he provides as a veteran of the program…
"I've said it many times: LaTrell Bumphus is probably one of the greatest young men I've ever had the opportunity to coach. He is a real dude; he's a man's man. We're trying to pace him a little bit, just trying to not over-do him. He really just started going full speed probably about a week or so before we started camp. We're just trying to limit his rep count, so we don't put him in a situation where we make him vulnerable. He's going out there, and he's done some really good things on film. He's been recognized after a couple of practices on the play that he's put out there. He's a guy that can be that tremendous leader, but it's sort of hard because we've been limiting his snap count, just trying to get him through camp on that leg. I think that leg will continue to get stronger every day. I asked him last night, and he's saying that it's still just a little sore. I think as he gets stronger, he will continue to elevate his play."
On Tyre West this fall camp…
"Tyre is a talented young man. He has to continue to invest in learning what to do, and then learning how to do it and be successful at this level, not reverting back to freelancing and doing it the high school way. It's going to be different. Things he got away with in high school, you can't get away with in the SEC. Him just buying in, being consistent, doing it the right way, and then getting more into his playbook so the game can slow down for him, and now he can speed up. It's hard for them to go 100 miles and hour when they're not sure if they should go here or go there. They're sort of feeling their way through the dark. He has to really get into that thing and know it. Like I told them today, we play in 24 days. It's going to go by before you know it. We can't wait to find out with 100,000 people out there, that you don't know what to do. You're going to have to show out here in practice that you've earned that right to be on the field when we kick it off."
On if he can tell when players begin to take his hard coaching in the right way…
"Like I've tried to explain it to the guys, all I want from my players is that they be the best version of them. Obviously, when they're in that moment, it may not seem that way. I called them up today after practice. I'm coaching Tyre. I'm telling him something out there on the field. He gives you that look like, 'Whatever.' I'm like, 'Dude, I just want you to be the best version of you. When we get this look right here this is what we're supposed to do. Am I right?' Well, he didn't do it. When we go up there and turn the film on, he didn't do it. I think so many times that they take it personal. I can probably be a little bit aggressive. I can probably be a little brutal. I say it in the nicest way, but I try to tell them to not take the tone. Receive the message. That aggressiveness, that's just me wanting to win. That's just me wanting you to be better. At the end of the day, 99 percent of my guys come back and they love me. In that moment, they don't like me, which is sort of like being a parent. Your kids don't like you when you're raising them, but when they get old, they love you and they appreciate everything you did for them. That's what we're hoping is the same thing that will transpire here—that these guys are going to love me. They're going to bring their wives and their kids back to see me, and I'll be playing with their kids like they're my grandkids. That's what it's all about. Just getting them to understand that I want what's best for them. I want them to be the best version of themselves so we can be the best version of a Tennessee D-Line, and we can be the best version of a Tennessee football team. That's all I want."