March 26, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Spring football is officially underway for Tennessee as the Vols took Haslam Field for the first time in 2012 Monday morning. Although the performance wasn't perfect, the Vols are looking forward to progressing throughout spring practice.
"It was a typical first day," Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley said. "The effort was really good. I expected it to be that way. We have, of course, a long way to go from a discipline standpoint knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, knowing why it's important to do it that way and going out there and doing it the right way. It was sloppy from that standpoint, but the key is how we learn from it and how we don't go out the next day and make the same mistakes. That's what I told the players."
With seven new coaches and multiple position swaps, change was evident on the field as much as it was with its surroundings. The development of Tennessee's new overshadowing football training center looks vastly different from what it did when the Vols last took Haslam Field in November.
"They seem great," converted linebacker Channing Fugate said of Tennessee's new leadership. "They know what they are talking about and they come from good programs that win. I'm just going to listen to them and let them teach me all they know."
Although Tennessee has worked hard off the field leading up to spring practice, the greatest lessons will come on it.
"No matter how hard you train in practice, without real practice you can't prepare for football without playing football," Dooley said. "That's just how it is. The key is not how you look the first day. It's how you take the first day, watch the film, apply it to the second day and you grow from there. That's what's more important than anything."
ANOTHER REASON TO SMILEJunior wide receiver Justin Hunter is always smiling about something. While everyone wearing orange and white was jubilant to be back on the field Monday, the occasion meant a little bit more to the Virginia Beach, Va., native.
"I was really excited to go back out there because I haven't been on a football field since the Florida game," Hunter said. "I ran out there and said `Let's go.' I was real happy."
Hunter, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL against the Gators last September, wore a red non-contact jersey during practice, but was able to go the distance.
"He went through the whole practice," Dooley said. "It's not where he can go full speed, and then we back him down. He's kind of at the same pace throughout practice. It's hard for him when he's getting pressed and those guys are full speed. He went through the whole practice. He ran a lot of routes. We just now have to see how his knee responds today. We'll figure it out day-to-day."
While Hunter knows the possibility of pain awaits him Tuesday morning, he's just using it as another way to smile.
"I'm pretty excited because the first day it wasn't that bad," Hunter said. "Tomorrow is going to be a different day because I was running on it a lot today. I'm excited about it."
As the wideout moves forward this spring, Hunter is doing his best to block out what's behind him.
"I think the biggest thing is I can't think about it," Hunter said of the way he landed at Florida. "If I think about it, I'm going to reinjure it somehow. I just try to go out there, not think about it and make the best of it."
A MORE MATURE BRAYEntering his third spring football season, rising junior quarterback Tyler Bray is now a true veteran with the Vols as he begins the second half of his Tennessee career this March.
"I try to be a leader as much as possible," Bray said. "I kind of struggle with it, but I have been working on it. ... This year I am trying to get my act together and get this team where we need to be." Fellow rising junior Justin Hunter can see the maturation in his signal caller.
"He's older than last year. He's getting better," said Hunter. "He's throwing on time. We all know each other so well now, we know where to be at. We're growing up together."
Bray enters the 2012 season with 12 career starts and has racked up 3,832 yards with 35 touchdowns to rank among the Top 10 on Tennessee's career lists, in a short amount of time.
"I was talking about it yesterday how this is my third spring practice with Coach Dooley and some of the coaching staff," said Bray. "It is a little crazy."
Bray is at 100 percent after returning from a broken thumb late in the 2011 season. He spent the offseason working hard with both receivers Da'Rick Rogers and Hunter.
"I did a lot of rehab with (Director of Sports Medicine) Jason McVeigh and the guys in the training room," Bray said. "Just coming out here extra, me and Justin working. I would throw to him and work on his hands and I would work on my thumb. Having (Justin) and Da'Rick out there was great."
Dooley gave a brief view of his perspective on Bray after day one.
"Tyler is doing fine," Dooley said. "He was real rusty on his throws, but from a quarterbacking standpoint he's doing well."
Bray echoed Dooley's assessment of his first day of action.
"A little rusty. I mean it is going to be," Bray said. "Everyone coming off of spring break. As far as tempo goes, we are still a little slow, but we are moving forward and we are just going to try and regroup and come back tomorrow and have a better practice."
MOVING PARTS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE 3-4As first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri installs 3-4 principles into the Vols' scheme this spring, the importance of having quality depth within the linebacker corps has been an obvious point of emphasis.
While 2011 Freshman All-American A.J. Johnson is clearly entrenched as the starter at the WILL position, UT has moved a few other players around to put them in positions best suited for their abilities.
One of the prime examples of that is former strong safety Brent Brewer who is now listed at the top spot on the team's organizational chart for the SAM position. Although he is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered last season against South Carolina, the 6-1 junior is excited about the change.
"I'm ready to take on the challenge," Brewer said. "It's a lot different than safety because I am going against the offensive line and tight ends a lot. I think it is more (mentally taxing). You have to really let the D-line know what they are running, let the linebackers know what they are running and make sure everybody knows what they are doing out there. It's a lot more leadership and a lot more direction."
As far as the knee, it will be a work in progress this spring but he is feeling stronger with each passing day.
"I'm just trying to get my feet back under me, get everything situated and work my way back out there slowly into team stuff, 7-on-7 and things like that."
The Vols also dipped into the offensive unit, switching Channing Fugate from fullback to WILL linebacker. The move is similar to the one made with Austin Johnson in 2010, which paid off in spades as Johnson topped the Vols with 81 tackles last season.
"Channing is a good football player and we need some more linebackers," Dooley said. "We're thin at that position. He has the body type and the athleticism. We thought we'd give it a try and he was really excited about it. He did some good things late in the year on special teams covering kicks. He showed some defensive abilities there. I hope it will work out."
The fresh start at a new position has Fugate excited as well.
"I always said if I didn't play running back I would want to play linebacker. I think it's a fun position and we should have fun with it."
While not new to the linebacker corps, the Vols are looking forward to getting senior Herman Lathers back onto the field this spring at the MIKE position. The team's second-leading tackler with 75 in 2010, Lathers was eager to get back out onto the practice field after missing all of last season with a fractured ankle.
"It felt good," Lathers said. "Last year sitting out the whole year was tough but I put it in my mind that I was coming into spring to work and try to get my ankle back to full as normal as I can get it. I went out today and it felt pretty good."
Joining him inside this season will be Curt Maggitt who spent his freshman campaign working out on the edge where he collected 56 tackles, good for fourth on the squad.
"It is going to be a lot different," Maggitt said. "Playing `Sam,' I wasn't really the leader of the defense and being `Mike' has to take control and know everybody's assignment."
Fortunately, he has had a good mentor in Lathers.
"I learned a good gist of it working with Herm (Lathers) and coming and watching film every day," Maggitt said. "It helped out a lot. He's a big leader. Even last year not playing, he was still a leader and somebody everyone looked up to. This offseason every time I seen him he was always happy and working hard and just a fun person to be around and learn from."