April 3, 2013
KNOXVILLE -- During his inaugural press conference as UT's head football coach, Butch Jones said, "We'll be working to be champions each and every day. We will be a champion in everything we do."
Every day. Every snap. Every rep. Every play.
Demanding perfection. Demanding excellence.
Jones has demonstrated this mentality on the practice field, in part, with the installation of his new offensive and defensive schemes.
The team learns the fundamental plays early, then it builds from there. But the key here: the players must effectively master the plays they have before they can move on.
This strategy is likely most important for the long-term development of the most critical position on the team: the quarterbacks. They don't have much experience, so let's start deliberately.
"It is a little slow right now but it is good that it is slow," redshirt-freshman Nathan Peterman said. "We really need to master things and that is what we are focusing on--mastering these basic concepts...These coaches are very into coaching the details and very little things. It makes you the best player you can be."
"They haven't installed too much because they want us to get perfect," Peterman added. "We have to keep watching film, get better and work hard."
Fellow quarterback junior Justin Worley, the lone QB with any real snaps under his belt, explained that it's been a more progressive installation rather than the all-at-once strategy employed by the previous coaching staff.
"We have been installing different protections and pass plays just about every day," Worley said. "So I'm not totally surprised by that and I'm really enjoying it so far. I'm glad they aren't throwing the whole offense on us in four days where we are out there trying to tread water."
Jones' insistence on making the uncomfortable comfortable, or "changing venues," has been a theme in practices so far and helps the players sharp. Jones said he was pleased with the offense's retention, despite the influx of new material and the unfamiliar setting.
"Obviously we threw a lot at them today with installation," Jones said. "Doing some different trades and shifts and motions, different personnel groupings with our defense and things like that. Some different things in practice and structure. It is only the second time that we have been out there on our grass practice field so the environment changed. I like changing venues. I like changing environments. It goes hand and hand with being a good road football team."
THE NEW VOICE ON THE LINE
There is a new presence on the defensive line. Sometimes he can be heard yelling about technique. Other times his presence is felt as he silently takes in practice.
He is Associate Head Coach and Defensive Line Coach Steve Stripling and though he has only been at Tennessee for just three months, he has already made a big impact on his athletes.
"Coach Strip, I love him," said senior Marlon Walls. "He's the type that is going to get in your face and he's going to call you out. He isn't going to sugarcoat nothing. If you weren't playing to the standard that it takes to play a Tennessee defense, myself included, he's going to call you out on it."
This in-your-face coaching style is just what the defensive line wants and needs.
But Coach Strip isn't just about on the field coaching, he has also taken the time off the field to build relationships with each and every one of the line.
"We have a good relationship," said senior Daniel McCullers. "The whole D-Line is building something with him. He is a good coach, he gets on you but when it is all said and done he is just like another father figure to push you. That is what we need, a guy that works you hard, but can also joke around."
Like the rest of the Tennessee coaching staff, Coach Strip is using this direct approach to make his players into leaders.
"Last practice he called me out and I needed it," said Walls. "So it opened up my eyes and now like I said, I preached to the guys today about narrow focus. We're going to focus on a few things and that'll make us a better defense. We love it man. He's the type that's going to get after you and we appreciate it."
LEADING THE WAY
Coach Butch Jones has stressed the importance of focus and leadership all spring, and as he noted on Tuesday, both senior offensive lineman Ju'Wuan James and junior linebacker A.J. Johnson have shown those two traits through seven practices.
"They have to take ownership," said Jones about the pair. "Leadership is a skill set. You have to practice it and work on it every day."
"They are pushing me, pushing me really hard," Johnson said. "They're marking me a better player. I know they are helping me learn the defense better. Coach Jancek is working with me one-on-one when I'm not on special teams, so they're working me hard."
James, who's started every game of his Vol career, has taken notice of the Big Orange's defensive leader.
"A.J. has stepped up a lot," said James. "He's the voice of the defense. You can hear him on the field, at practice or in the weight room. He's taken charge of the defense."
As for James, he's seen a lot in his three years on Rocky Top and is not going to let his final campaign in the Orange and White go to waste.
"I'm trying to make sure we're not lacking that leadership position," James said. "I've seen how that can go bad. This is my last season. If some guy is going the wrong way or standing in the wrong spot, I feel like I've seen a lot and can correct them and everybody will respect it.
"I don't want to regret anything. I want to go out here, give it my all, and bring everyone along with me."
A MENTAL HURDLE
Following an injury - especially one to the ACL - the highest hurdle for an athlete to overcome is often mental rather than physical. Defensive back Brian Randolph and linebacker Christian Harris know that all too well, as the redshirt sophomores use this spring to work their way back into the Vol defense.
"I'm not going to lie, sometimes you can feel it a little bit and it makes you start thinking," said Randolph. "When I get into the same situation I was in during the game I did it, I start thinking about it then. For the most part I tune it out, just play and try not to worry about it."
When you're constantly backpedaling and cutting from side to side, one would think tuning it out would be the toughest thing to do.
"Actually, I thought I would be very scared about it, but I'm not as worried about it as I thought I would be," Randolph said.
For Harris, it's been easiest to just not think about it.
"I've tried not to think about it and I think that's worked best for me," Harris said. "I haven't had too much trouble thinking about it and wondering if I'll get hurt again so it's alright."
Coach Butch Jones credits the University of Tennessee staff and facilities for making the process easier on his players.
"Obviously, when you come off an injury it's always in your mind," said Jones. "We have a tremendous training staff here and a great set of doctors.
"Our players are doing a great job of taking advantage of the facilities and the care that they have," Jones said. "It's a hurdle but I think it's ongoing, and that's part of our mental conditioning program we talk about."
After being held out of contact drills early this spring, Randolph used spring break to continue working his way back to full strength.
"I went home and just rested," Randolph said. "I saw my grandparents and stuff like that. I stayed off my knee, got massages here and there and stretched a lot."
They are telling me they want me to be one of the best linemen that ever walked into UT," said McCullers. "That's what they want me to be."
The big man, who came to UT from Georgia Military College weighing in at 380 pounds, has dropped 35 pounds since stepping foot on campus, 10 of which came this past offseason, making him more agile on the line.
But McCullers knows he still has a way to go to be the best.
"It is a long way to go to be one of the best that came in," said McCullers. "There are a lot of linemen that came here. There is a lot to live up to. I am just going to keep trying to work hard, we have the best staff in the country and they are going to get us ready."
"Each day, they give me technique tips and push me forward to get better," continued McCullers. "It is going to take some work to do because I am not there yet but we have a long way until the season comes so I am going to continue to work. I am just going to take it all in and get better each and every day."