March 15, 2013
KNOXVILLE - There is one thing to be said about the Tennessee coaching staff and that is they are a cohesive group from top to bottom.
"This is probably the most detailed staff that I've been a part of," said running backs coach Robert Gillespie. "It all starts with the head guy, Coach Jones. It literally flows from the top to the bottom. I'm fortunate to be in a room full of such bright guys."
This week during practice Jones' emphasis was on developing habits.
"It is like we told them, `you are either developing good habits or bad habits," said Jones. "We are still in that infant stage of developing our mentality and our football team. We have to get a lot better in a hurry. It is our mental conditioning, it is being able to play through fatigue, it is being able to execute."
With the addition of the pads at Thursday's practice, assoc. head coach and defensive line coach Steve Stripling was looking for his players to really start getting better and that started with developing a standard.
"We are talking about the development of standard," said Stripling. "The ability to be mentally tough and play hard to compete on every down, to be a smart player and know the down distance. It is an all comprehensive approach but you know the mental toughness, physicalness and using our hands is the key emphasis."
Stripling looks to his seniors to guide the defense and is thankful for their role on the line.
"It is a big advantage. You take Marlon [Walls], Dan Hood and some of the other guys who have been around," said Stripling. "We are talking about outward focus in our group which means when times get tough don't think about yourself, think about what we call our warrior to our right and left. Encourage them and in doing so you really help yourself and that helps them."
"That is where your mental toughness is born, pushing through," echoed Jones. "We have to learn to push past that point. We haven't learned that yet. Every day we have to get a little better and a little better."
THE ROAD TO TENNESSEE
Three of the five early enrollees to the football team can be found in the defensive backfield.
JuCo transfer defensive back Riyahd Jones is just happy with his new home.
"It has been a long journey from JuCo recruiting and being dropped by schools, picked back up by other schools and without Coach Martinez I don't know if I would be here," said Jones. "He's been a big impact on me being here with him being at Auburn and recruiting me there. He called me a week after he got hired here and told me he wanted me to play here."
Martinez believes that Jones' transition to Tennessee has been a smooth one.
"Like everyone else there is the willingness to learn there and to do things the right way," said Martinez. "I would like to look at the film first. He is a focused individual that is trying to get better."
Jones credits that smooth transition to Martinez' abilities and is happy that Martinez has helped make one of his dreams come true.
"He's a fiery coach, but he's also a great teacher," said Jones. "On the field, he's loud, but in the meeting rooms he's teaching like a professor in class. He's drawing it up, running the film, and running it back, taking us to the field and walking us through it and it has been great. I'm glad to be here."
"My dream has been to play in the SEC my whole entire life. It's a blessing and so glad to be here. I'm ecstatic."
THE PERFECT FIT
An SEC guy at heart, the Vols new running backs coach Robert Gillespie has been on the job just over two weeks. Despite his brief time on Rocky Top, the Hattiesburg, Miss., native and his colleagues are already seeing eye-to-eye.
"He gets it, there's no question about it," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "He was a perfect fit in terms of an immediate gel and all those things. He understands how things time-in because of the offense in which he came from."
Mahoney believes it's not just how Gillespie understands the system, but the speed at which he's grasping it that makes him perfect for the position.
"The way we've worked now watching film for the run game, I love working with him," Mahoney said. "He gets it and he gets it fast."
Gillespie, a late addition and one of the only coaches to not have previous experience with head coach Butch Jones, feels honored to be a part of the staff.
"I understand these guys have won a lot of games together. These guys have been together for a long time," said Gillespie. "For them to see something in me and say `You know what, this guy can fit in with us, and he'll be a good fit,' because in coaching that's what it's all about. You have to make sure you put guys in the room that are going to be able to be in there and grind."
IN THE SLOT
In recent seasons, the slot wide receiver has burst onto the football scene all the way from high school to the professional level. New positional Coach Zach Azzanni hopes the speedy Devrin Young can be that guy for the Vols.
"I do see something with Devrin," said Azzanni. "In our style of offense we use our slots a lot. I saw a great stat last night and I actually tweeted it. Peyton Manning threw to slot receivers 71 percent of the time last year. That is seven out of 10 passes he threw to slots. We use our slots a lot here and Devrin is that type of body for us."
According to Azzanni, Young - who's making the move from running back - wants to be on the field and is willing to put in the work. Azzanni, who helped develop 5-foot-10 Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has taken it upon himself to see that Young progresses.
"He wants to get better. He wants a role on this team," Azzanni said. "He is a little guy that has 10-5 speed and we have to use that. That is my job. I can't just say he can't learn and he can't play. I have to find a way; that is my job."
As Saturday's scrimmage approaches, Azzanni pointed out a few key items he'd be looking for.
"We want to see how our pace goes," said Azzanni. "That is what we are built on. We are going to out-effort and out-technique people. That is what we do."
HUNGRY TIGHT ENDS
Sophomore Justin King is one of many Vols learning the ropes of a new position this spring, and according to his positional Coach Mark Elder, the fullback turned tight end has what it takes off the field to succeed in his new role.
"I love his attitude as far as he is in the office all the time," said Elder. "I'll be coming back here going to set up my meeting for the next day... It'll be 9:30 at night and he's in there watching film. So as far as that's concerned, he wants to be great and he's working hard at it."
Elder also pointed out that it wasn't just King, but the entire tight end corps is constantly striving to get better.
"I'm excited about the group. The group is very hungry. They want to be great," Elder said. "They're coming in, they're studying film, they're asking questions and they're studying the playbook at night. We just have to simply keep on getting better on a day-by-day basis."
For Elder and the tight ends, the quest to continue to get better each day continues on Saturday at Neyland Stadium with the first scrimmage under the new staff.
STILL ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Don Mahoney inherited one of the most veteran units after arriving at Tennessee.
His unit was ranked near, if not at the top, of the country for the majority of the 2012 season.
His unit also lost just one, although significant, player to graduation while returning four starters and multiple other players who got many snaps last season.
This doesn't mean much to Mahoney as he is pushing the offensive line as hard as ever to give Tennessee one of the most well-rounded offensive lines in the country.
"We have a lot of work to do still," said Mahoney. "The thing about offensive line is that it's a task that once the pads come on, it's been a long time since we've been in them. The position is never-ending, in terms of pad level, constant improvement of fundamentals, or footwork. The guys' attention to detail was good. We need to improve our overall effort and strength, but I like the way they have gone about it."
Mahoney is pushing for his offensive linemen to know every position on the line from A-Z.
"As I prepare them, they have to know positions from (left) tackle to (right) tackle," said Mahoney. "On a test taken they must understand the philosophy of a given play: a run, pass, or screen. (We'll change them around) as we progress through spring. As a whole, I expect them to know from A to Z."
"We are a little bit ahead," said Mahoney, "because from the standpoint of up front, there's a group of guys that have played quite a bit of ball and their understanding of the game is further ahead than I've been used to. The experience part of it is more than I've ever had in the past."