March 12, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It will take time, but head coach Butch Jones has a clear vision on where he wants the Vols to be as spring practices progress. After the second session on Tuesday, Jones spoke about how members of the team are continuing to re-program their minds and habits with the idea of working towards 'becoming a champion.'
"Work in progress. It is like we told them, `you are either developing good habits or bad habits," said Jones as he addressed the media outside the sparkling new state-of-the-art Anderson Training Center. "We are still in that infant stage of developing our mentality and our football team." Practice No. 3 on Thursday is one which Jones and the players are eagerly anticipating, as he will coach the Vols in full football gear for the first time.
"I told them that football practice officially starts on Thursday when we put the pads on. We have to get a lot better in a hurry," said Jones. "It is our mental conditioning, it is being able to play through fatigue, it is being able to execute. We have very little in right now. I know they are trying but we have to step it up a notch come Thursday. Obviously when the pads come on the game becomes a lot different."
As the Vols continue to learn the ways of Jones and his new staff, he continues to stress the importance of details and specifics. Every little piece goes into building the winning mentality.
"I think the more we continue to do it the more it becomes a habit," said Jones. "You have to practice it every day and you have to live it every day, you have to stress it and you have to have meticulous attention to details. It is going to come with time. The big thing with this football team is they have to understand every time we step on the football field there has to be a great sense of urgency."
Jones has a full picture of what it will take to put the Vols back on the path to success. He is quick to point out it is an entire team, university and community effort.
"I think there is a lot of energy. This is a very prideful program," he said. "Obviously the energy level of our coaching staff. Our coaches have done a great job; our administration has done a great job. I think it is a whole effort on everyone. Our fan base has been tremendous, our former players. When we talk about the Tennessee family that encompasses a lot of things.
APPETITE FOR SUCCESS
Senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls summed up the defense's mindset in one, simple word.
"We are hungry," Walls said. "I think we are about tired of talking about it and about ready to go out and do something about it. We have a lot of seniors this year and we've had some hardships here, but I think it is going to help us out in the long run. I think we are hungry, that is the only word I can come up with, hungry."
Fellow linemate Mo Couch confirmed that sentiment.
"We are hungry for real," Coach said. "Last year, we had the worst defense in Tennessee history. We have a lot of guys that are eager and very hungry. We are just going to be level-headed and work all through spring ball, summer workouts and get ready to compete for the fall."
Since Walls has stepped foot on campus, he has been under the guidance of a different defensive line coach in each and every season. But that doesn't matter to Walls.
"I think it helps us a little bit because you pick up on the defenses a little faster," said Walls. "I know that is crazy to say we are getting used to change, but I think these guys are going to be here for a while, for a long time, I hope so. They are already helping us out more than ever before. Coach Strip is a great guy. He knows what he has going on so it is my job to just shut up and listen. We are excited."
Someone who has been through all the coaching changes with Walls since he stepped foot on campus, Eric Gordon also sees a change in the current players.
"I am seeing guys buying in, guys getting a lot closer, and I am seeing guys get on the same page," said Gordon.
"As a player, especially here at the University of Tennessee, you know what great defense is," Walls said. "You've seen it. We know we can be a good defense, a great defense, especially with this coaching staff. We are looking forward to it. Our expectations are high, like they always are. This coaching staff is going to make sure we get there."
Gordon has set his sights on one location in particular.
"We aren't settling for 5-7," said Gordon. "That is not us as a defense, that is not us as an offense, that is sure not Tennessee as a team. We are hungry. I would like to go out on top. I don't see us doing anything else but getting a ring and getting to that dome."
RANDOLPH BACK IN ACTION
Even though it's just been 179 days since he tore his ACL during the Florida game last season, it seems like it's been a lot longer for safety Brian Randolph.
"It's been a long year for me," Randolph said. " I'm very anxious to get back on the field. It's a blessing that I'm able to now. It's a good feeling to be able to perform with my teammates."
Randolph hit the practice field for the second time on Tuesday but admits there were times in his rehab process when he wasn't sure how quickly he'd make it back.
"It was a long time," Randolph said. "There were times that I thought I was never going to get better. But I just came in and got my work in, my rehab in, and now I'm back. It didn't take too long."
Although the physical part of rehab was no easy task, Randolph said the hardest part was the mental aspect of the recovery and having to watch the games instead of playing in them.
"There were some days that you come in and it felt like it got worse from the day before. It was a long lagging thing so it took a while to get over."
"That hurt me a lot. Sitting at home watching the game," Randolph said. "It was the worst feeling ever. I felt like I couldn't help my teammates, but for the most part they did pretty good while I was gone. I just wish I was out there helping them."
Despite being back on the field, the road to recovery isn't over. Randolph will battle soreness and overcompensation until he's regained confidence in his knee.
"Today, it's a little sore," Randolph said. "I kind of tweaked my hamstring a little bit because I just think it has a lot to do with me trying to overcompensate. I feel like at times I can go 100 percent, but other times I'm a little bit slower."
"I have no fear in it (his knee) right now, but we haven't put on any pads yet," Randolph said. "I think that might make a difference but for now, I don't have any fear."
JOURNEYMAN READY TO PURSUE DREAM
Pursuing his dream of playing football in America's best conference has finally come to fruition for junior transfer Riyahd Jones. Originally from Columbus, Ga., the 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback, has traveled all over the Southeast to pursue his dream.
The one-time Kentucky commit spent the 2011 season playing defensive back at Georgia Southern before transferring to Garden City (Kan.) Community College for the 2012 campaign, and eventually picked the Vols over multiple big-time offers from around the nation. With just two spring practices under his belt, Riyahd Jones has already set the standards for himself.
"My expectations for myself are just to get better as a player, develop a high-trust level with all the coaches from offense to defense and special teams and hopefully to earn that starting spot," said Riyahd Jones. "I didn't come here to be a backup; I came here to pursue my dreams."
Being a journeyman, Riyahd Jones isn't about to back down from a little competition. In fact, he knows exactly what he needs to work on and believes that gives him a leg-up.
"I've been coming in to watch extra film and do anything I can to be ahead of the game," Riyahd Jones said. "When you get to a place like this, everybody is good at their position. You've got to do something to separate yourself, whether it's lifting extra, backpedaling extra, watching extra film or whatever you have to work on. The biggest thing for me is working on my smarts to become a smarter corner so that's why I watch a lot of film."
The majority of JuCo players are brought in with just two years of eligibility remaining, meaning coaches expect them to make an immediate and positive impact on their program.
"That is what you try to dig into with the junior college players because when you bring a junior college player in you are bringing them in for immediate help," head coach Butch Jones said. We did our due diligence and he has done a great job. We are throwing so much at him and he is digesting everything from football to academics."
"When it's time for one-on-one or any type of pass, I get serious," Riyahd Jones said. "I take it personal when a receiver catches a ball so that's why I break it up. When the pads come on, that's when you're all going to see a beast. I'm just getting started."
TIGHT ENDS TAKE ON HIGHER PRIORITY
One difference will be the utilization of the tight end. Last year, at Cincinnati, Jones had one of the most productive tight ends in the nation in Travis Kelce, who caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns en route to an all-conference selection.
This production caught the eye of current Tennessee tight end junior Brendan Downs.
"I watched a lot of film on Cincinnati's offense," Downs said. "When I heard about the hire I went and looked at how Cincinnati used their tight ends. That is going to effect me. I was interested in that and once I saw that I was like `okay I think I am really going to like that."
"He asks a lot of his tight ends, we are all over the field," Downs said. "I think when he says that he means we have to be even more locked in because we are doing all kinds of different stuff on and off the field and with personnel. We have to be really locked in out there and have a really good grasp of the offense."
Downs said the offense will be quick and up-tempo, similar to the pace of last year's offense under Jim Chaney.
"We were a little up-tempo last year so that certainly helps the transition to this offense," Downs said. "But it is faster. In practice there is definitely a noticeable difference in pace. It has been a little different but I am starting to get used to it."
The versatility required of the tight end position is something that fellow tight end sophomore Justin King is also embracing.
"It's going to be a lot, a lot of things Coach Jones is throwing at us right now," King said. "We just have to come in, watch film, learn his offense, and learn what he wants us to do so we can be a better team."
"I'm not really a guy that feels like I can do so much," King said. "Whatever Coach Jones wants me to do. If he wants me to split out, flex out, come in the backfield, I'm going to do that. Like I told another guy, I just want to win. That's our main focus right now."
With the loss of the team's top four receivers from last season--Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera-- Downs realizes that production from the tight end position will be critical to the Vols' success this year.
"I think it is important. Any time, not just with the receiver talent lost, but in this offense especially tight end is going to play a big role in the passing game so he has to be on top of it."