March 21, 2011
"I thought I'd first tell you a little bit about the offseason. We had an eight-week offseason program in the winter and it was so important we get bigger, faster and stronger. The stature of our team was well below what it needed to be to compete in this league. We put a really big emphasis on throwing around a lot of heavy weight -- a lot -- and learning how to strain. I think our players really responded and I was pleased with the program. We made significant improvements in our strength levels and our speed. So it was a good start to the season.
"We enter now Phase 2 of a yearlong process, which is spring practice. It's a continual pursuit for improvement every day, and I think it starts with setting a high standard of what we're trying to accomplish every day -- probably a little higher than what we've set on them the past year. I think our players are seeing that. It comes down to repeat, repeat, repeat. It comes down to getting a lot of feedback on what we're doing -- critical feedback -- and knowing that the process ahead of us can be mentally and physically grueling. As long as our team is focused on continuous improvement, I think we will keep moving in the right direction.
"I feel like this is Year 1, and last year was Year 0. It was such a unique situation we walked into last season, it didn't feel like your first year. I feel that right now, this is Year 1. We obviously need improvement everywhere. I think every spring you come in and you want to improve fundamentally at every position, you want to improve in the schematic knowledge the players have, you want to improve on the intangible values we build our program on, and you certainly want to start building a team dynamic -- which this year will be very different from last year.
"You look at some of the key questions coming out of the spring but the biggest thing is can our freshmen, who energized our team a little bit, become dependable, every-down contributors in the SEC. I think that's a big jump from being excited about a player as a freshman and then turning them into every-down starters who can help you compete for a championship. That's probably our biggest challenge for the spring.
"We obviously will have a lot of questions in the front-seven. Only two starters are returning, Malik (Jackson) and Herman (Lathers), and Herman is hurt right now from surgery. (Third is) a new kicker and punter, and the fourth thing is all the returning starters, this is a very important spring for them because we're going to have 26 new faces in June who, in their minds, are going to be competing for a starting job. A lot of questions for a team that probably didn't play consistently in any area.
"Some personnel notes: We all know Janzen's (Jackson) status; he's not going to be with us this spring. He seems to be managing his life well right now -- on pace to come back but that's day-to-day, month-to-month.
"Brent Brewer has been reinstated to the team. He has served a five-week suspension from all team activities. Still there are some other internal disciplinary measures that are being taken. One of them is suspension from a session of summer school, which will be significant. I think it was a learning lesson for Brent and it was a learning lesson for all the members of our team. It was very unfortunate what happened. So many people find themselves in a position where emotions take over and you have to learn to just leave, walk away and walk out no matter what anybody does to you. So he's been reinstated. He's still has some things he's doing but he's back with the team.
"Daniel Hood, we have moved to defensive tackle in just a constant search to get bigger guys on the defensive line. So we will see how he does. Montori Hughes is going to miss the first two practices for team rule violations, but he will be back Practice 3.
"I mentioned Herman Lathers, and here are some IR (injured-reserve) guys: Herman is three months out of a right shoulder surgery. Marques Pair is three months out of his ACL. Those two guys are limited to nothing. Nash Nance had to get a screw in his left foot, so the first few practices he's still going to be in rehab. You know about Ben (Martin). Tyler Page moved from quarterback to safety.
"And you know we have six new freshmen here mid-year, who all have done a phenomenal job in the offseason program. There are five on offense: (Justin) Worley, (Mack) Crowder, (Brendan) Downs, (Vincent) Dallas and (Marcus) Jackson. And then one on defense: Justin Coleman.
"That's kind of an overview."
You said you wanted the team dynamic to be different this year as opposed to last year. How so?
"Well, it's going to be just because that senior class we had was a vocal class to say the least. Now, the first few days with this team is as quiet as I've ever seen a team. But every year's a new year as it relates to team chemistry and leadership. That's the biggest thing."
With the roster limitations last year when you took over the program, was there anything you were not able to accomplish in spring practice that you plan on this spring?
"The first two weeks of spring last year was them learning what our expectations were on how we practice, what we're doing. So we're going to be a lot further along in two main areas. No. 1 is just organizationally how we practice -- what's the expectation from a tempo, from a physicality (standpoint), what are these drills we're doing. And then No. 2 is we are going to be a year into our schemes. We have continuity on offense, defense and special teams. I think that's going to help us get a lot more accomplished by the end of spring than last year. Last year, the first two weeks was survival, for coaches and players, trying to figure each other out."
You talked about how wide their eyes were on the first day of spring practice last year. Will there be any of that for you this go-round?
"I don't think so. It was just so atypical of a coach coming into a program. There was so much emotional baggage out there that it was difficult to get your arms around everything. This year, I think everybody understands each other. There's not a lot of newness. And because of that I think we'll be able to dive into the teaching, coaching and improving without all the other stuff on the periphery, and that will help us get better quicker."
Does it give you a greater sense of appreciation, having been through all that, of `this is going to be a lot easier'?
"I wouldn't use the word `easier,' because the challenges are going to be there. But there will be a lot better comfort level, that's probably the better term. It's never easy. I think also what gives you a little better comfort level is you have a little better feel for the positions. `OK, we feel we have some stability there, and these are the areas where we still don't know personnel-wise.' Last year, we only had a few returning productive players, so it was just a crapshoot of who was what. Everybody's got a little better feel for everything and we hope, because of that, we'll improve a lot more during the course of the spring.
"But we need significant improvement. The two biggest areas, and I want to hit on it again, are the freshmen turning into to dependable SEC starters. That is a giant leap from getting out there a few plays, flashing a few plays, everybody gets excited, to everyday doing it 12 games. That's going to take a long, rigorous process to get."
With your lack of seniors, are you concerned about leadership on this team?
"It's usually a concern every year. It's really, to me, more about team chemistry. It starts with trying to direct the team into a common purpose and I'm not sure we're there yet. So much of how we were last year, our focus wasn't all the same. There was a lot of self-preservation; there was a lot of support for each other but not really directed at what we're trying to achieve. I had to really re-center the team on the expectations at Tennessee. There are a lot of banners in that indoor (facility) of winning championships, and we've got to start getting our focus aligned with some kind of end in sight.
"I don't think we've been doing that. I think we've been really just kind of bouncing around, supporting each other, loving each other, holding each other's hands, hugging each other -- and we're not driving toward a mission. The more you get everybody together in sync, working for a common purpose, then it's easier to forge leadership and team chemistry."
Among those freshmen who have to step forward, certainly Tyler (Bray) has the biggest profile. How do you approach this spring and reps with Matt (Simms) and him?
"He's out No. 1 and Matt's our No. 2. He's going to get the 1 reps and Matt's going to get the 2. And then, of course, we have a new face, Justin Worley, and we want to see what he can do. So we'll get him some reps, but Tyler is our starting quarterback. He obviously has to develop in so many areas. First off, to master the offense intellectually. I believe the better he understands what we are doing, the more we can do and the more confident he will become. But we're going to try to push him a lot more, which may cause him to struggle a little bit. The better you get at that position, the more you want to put on them. Because the more he can do, the more effective you can be on offense. You'd love to get to a point where you give him a lot of freedom out there to do things, but that's not going to happen overnight. He's got a lot of work ahead of him."
Ja'Wuan (James) was talking about the young guys up front spending a lot of time together and learning together. Do you feel like throwing all of them into the fire at the time is a shared bonding experience?
"Yeah, it's been great for them and I think it will pay off over time. I mentioned last year that we went through a lot of changes up front, and it's hard when you don't have continuity on the offensive line. Those guys, fortunately, like each other, so they spend a lot of time together. That helps when they are in the huddle together; it helps when they are on the line of scrimmage communicating. I'm expecting them to really start taking off up front."
How do you feel about their size? (Zach) Fulton is listed over 330, James is listed 330 -- is that something you feel good about?
"The size is good; the strength levels are not. And you can see them when we watch cut-ups. Our lower-body power, upper-body strength -- we're not pushing anybody around. Our strength levels have to come up to match our bulk and size. And when you get that, now you can start doing something up front."
Do you think you will see that strength improvement during spring practice, or is that something where they will have to go through summer as well?
"It's a long, rigorous process. What's pleasing is we're keeping pretty good data on where they are and the improvements they've made, and they all made tremendous improvements on their strength levels. Now they've got to continue that, and we're going to keep lifting heavy during spring practice. And then they've got to start translating that into movement on the field."
How has Matt Simms handled this situation?
"Matt has been phenomenal. He's had a great attitude. He had one of the best offseasons of anybody on the team -- he really did as far as his work ethic and his attitude. I'm proud of Matt. He's handled it as well as any young man could handle given the high-profile nature of the position, the exposure of the school and his last name. I've just been proud of him."
Were you ever worried about him leaving the team?
"I don't worry about any of our players leaving. If they want to, we usually work that out when it happens. Matt and I have had a lot of good discussions. We've been very honest with each other and I think that's one of the reasons it's worked well."
How much were you limited by having a rookie quarterback and so many young guys on the offensive line and how much more can you do this year?
"I don't know. Spring practice is going to be our starting point. There are a lot of freshmen that go out there and flash, everybody gets excited about them and they never pan out to anything. Then, there are a lot of freshmen that go out there and have a great freshman year and then they have a terrible sophomore year because they think they are going to be pretty good. History is working against us a little bit. It's our job to make sure that neither of those scenarios happens."
As you move into Year 2, what surprised you as a coach last year or what lessons did you learn?
"One of the lessons is that when they say the game is over, there's a good chance it's not. This year, we're going to work on hanging on and staying on the sidelines a little bit. There are a lot of lessons from Year 1; there always are. Every year you coach, even if it's Year 25, you learn a ton about your team. We've spent the last eight weeks doing quality control. I shouldn't say eight weeks but since signing day. We've done a lot of soul-searching on the things we did well and the things we didn't do well. Schematically, we're trying to correct a lot of things we feel like we need to get better at. This is when you develop as a coach. You talk to other coaches. There are a lot of lessons and there are every year. It's hard to put it into one or two things."
You said your expectations are going to be higher. Is there any way to project how big of a jump you can make?
"There's so much that can go into it. The obvious ones are the development of this freshman class, how much improvement some of the upperclassmen make and this new class coming in -- these 26 guys -- how much can they contribute. The facts are, we're going to need some of them. I've made that comment -- we're going to open up next year with more than 70 percent of our roster freshmen and sophomores. To think we're going to sit there and amp it up on cruise control, we're fooling ourselves. We're going to have the youngest team probably in America next year. We need to start right now in making sure that our sophomores of next year don't play like sophomores. We need them to play like juniors and seniors."
Have there been any changes in the way Lance Thompson and Peter Sirmon have prepared for this spring now that they've changed positions?
"No, I think the continuity has been great. Certainly, it's going to be a little change for our players on how coaches teach. They're all different. Schematically, there's going to be total continuity. I think our defensive staff has worked well together. Peter has been a great addition and Lance has a proven record of coaching the defensive line. It's as fine of a staff as I've been a part of at any level."
The players have gone through so much changeover, how are they different emotionally and mentally entering a season where almost everyone is back?
"I think all of that is bygones; they need to approach it that way. Really, when I talk about 70 percent of our roster being freshmen and sophomores, when you ask those questions they don't even know what you're talking about. That's the beauty of it. The best thing about things that happened in the past are a new year turns and these guys don't even know better. I think we're past all that point. We don't have the drama. We don't have the crying and holding hands. We have to support each other. We need to lock it in, define where we want to go and work toward it."
With Janzen not being here in that spring and that being an area where you didn't have that much depth anyway, how are you going to deal with that?
"It's going to be a great opportunity for some other guys. I sat down and spoke very frankly with all of our secondary players. It's no secret that we signed a lot of guys in this class and two junior college guys. Their objective is not to come in and sit on the bench, I can assure you that. This spring is very important for all these guys in the secondary to show that they can be dependable, every-down players in this league. It's a great opportunity for them."
Now that you know your personnel better, does that change any of your thoughts about what scheme you can implement?
"You're always tweaking your schemes to fit your players. Certainly, you look at offense and our makeup at wideout is going to be totally different. When you look at Justin (Hunter), Da'Rick (Rogers), Matt (Milton) and Zach (Rogers), you start shaping the pass game according to what they can do. We need our runners to run better than they did last year. There won't be a lot of wholesale changes but a little change to try to help our runners out in the run game. Defensively, we're going to try to play a little more nickel than we did last year so we're going to practice that this spring. We're going to do some things schematically a little differently to help our players a little bit. We don't have a lot of big guys. It's the same sort of thing as last year."
You talked about wanting to challenge Tyler a little more this spring. You acknowledged that he may struggle a little bit. How do you balance that?
"It's an inch-by-inch process. We're not going to throw so much on him that he can't go out there and think. Generally, that's never fazed him. If he doesn't understand something, he doesn't care. He's just going to do something else. A lot of guys get really frustrated because they want to master what we know. But with Tyler, if he doesn't get it, he doesn't really care. It's kind of like, `Maybe I'll get that tomorrow, but today I'm just going to throw it to that guy and it's going to be a touchdown.' We'll be the ones throwing our hats because he throws it to the wrong guy and it's a touchdown."
You talked about the increased comfort level for the players but what about for you going into this spring? How much more comfortable are you and did that allow you to accelerate the chemistry-building process?
"I hope so. What it does is it allows you to coach and motivate. You don't have to spend all of your time saying, `OK, look guys, this drill needs to be in the south end zone of the defensive field.' You're doing a lot less explaining expectations and organization and a lot more of what you were hired to do, which is coach, teach and motivate the players."
How frustrating is it to have a young team last year and be even younger this year?
"It's all how you look at it. If you have a negative attitude, it's really frustrating. I look at it as we have a lot of young talent so they're going to be fun guys to coach, develop and watch. Hopefully, we'll feel better about them each day they get older. I'd probably be frustrated if I felt like we didn't have any young talent. That would be frustrating."
You mentioned needing the runners to run well. What specifically are you looking for guys like Tauren (Poole) and Rajion (Neal) to do?
"More yards. Break more tackles. I'm not being funny; it's the truth. Get six yards on that play instead of three."
Will the growth of the offensive line, especially with the three young guys, help that? And which of those three guys is closer to being that every-down SEC guy?
"I don't think any of them are right now. None of them have done anything well consistently. I've always felt like runners make an offensive line and maybe it's because I coached running backs. That whole thing `He doesn't have a great line' -- I've never seen a great back not make yards in all my history. Great backs make yards. They make guys miss in space and they power through guys. To me, a great back makes an offensive line better. He energizes the O-Line, not the other way around. That's what I want to see the backs do. I want to see them create so that we get energized. That's what some of our receivers did last year. Denarius (Moore) and Justin did some things down the field where they weren't always wide open, but they made a play and they energized us."
James Stone was so effective with that unorthodox move. Were you tempted to leave it alone?
"We're going to try to snap right-handed. We're having James eat right-handed and text right-handed."
Do you hope to find a punt returner by the end of spring practice?
"Now you're really dreaming. We're going to work the same guys that were there last year. Tinkerbell didn't just do this and we have a new guy. We're going to give them the same opportunity. Anthony (Anderson) did a good job. When the new guys come in, we'll give them an opportunity and we'll see who rises up."
You do have Vincent Dallas on campus.
"We do have Vincent. We'll see what he can do. He'll get an early look."
Without a vocal senior class, who are maybe some of those guys you'd like to step up and be leaders?
"I think we only have nine seniors so if any of them want to, I'll be happy to take it. I've never been on a team that has that small of a senior class. On offense, there's one senior starter listed right now and that's Poole. On defense, Malik is a senior starter and so is Austin Johnson. We have three senior starters right now on the two-deep. That doesn't mean that's where we're going to end up."
Have you challenged any of those guys or any of the other guys to step up and be leaders?
"I think it's something that evolves over time. I'm not one of those guys who tries to force leadership on people. I think you have to promote it, teach it, and I think that you have to empower everybody to be a leader. You start with, `What is leadership?' It's affecting somebody in a positive way, to me. You're affecting others. Anybody can do that. Even your best leaders sometimes need a little leadership. To think that you're going to have all of your leaders and everybody rallies around them this early in the season is unrealistic to me. The first thing you have to do to be a leader is you have to be a bit of an example. If you're not doing what you're supposed to do on and off the field, then it's hard for everybody else to respect you."