April 5, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - When Tennessee was searching to fill its safeties coach position in early March - just weeks before spring practice - it needed someone that would be able to adjust quickly and remain focused.
Fitting that bill to a power `T' was Josh Conklin, who the Vols hired on March 9.
"I think for my personality, I'm always ready," Conklin said. "I always look forward to a challenge. I look at this as a challenge. It's an environment I've never been in before, obviously. I'm learning every day as I go through this process. Was I ready? Absolutely.
"Football is football. You can package it, you can do the concepts any way you want to, but when it comes down to it, you're coaching football. It doesn't matter if it's a junior high level, high school level, college level, or the NFL. Now, the schemes and some of those things may change, but if you understand the basic fundamentals and the basic concepts of it, I think you're in good shape."
Tennessee is a unique place where media attention, facilities and the bells and whistles are unmatched, but the magnitude of Rocky Top hasn't fazed the Vols' newest coach.
"Right now, I've actually tried to block a little bit of it out," Conklin said. "Just stay focused on what you have to do, and it's no different for our guys out here. When they step out between those lines and they're playing on Saturday, they understand that what matters is in front of them.
"Obviously it's different; the media coverage is different. The exposure is different. It's a positive. It's kind of neat to see, but, for me, when you get out there. I have a job to do and that's to coach those safeties and try to make them as good as I can every single day and invest in them as people as well."
Although it's still too early to get a read on what Conklin has within his unit, he likes the potential of what it could develop into. "I love the way they come to work," Conklin said. " I love the way they practice on the practice field. They want to become better football players, and guys that want to become better football players, you want to invest in them more as a football coach. In turn, they're going to invest more in you and get to where you want to go."
RIVERA PROVIDES STEADY HANDAfter posting a solid junior campaign, tight end Mychal Rivera is hoping to be even more productive as a senior in 2012. After just a week of spring practices, his new position coach Charlie Coiner is already impressed, but he still sees even a number of ways for the Valencia, Calif., native to continue to improve as a player.
"He understands the system and is doing a good job," Coiner said. "He has ways that he can improve. Some of the things I've talked him about are being more stout in the run game and being a more disciplined middle-to-short route runner."
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is quick to point out the difficulties of playing tight end in his system, often calling it the second-most difficult behind only the quarterback position. Although Coiner is in his first few weeks with the offense, he agrees with the sentiment.
"You have to get lined up and then the tight end is involved in the run game with all the run blocking, any formation that you make is usually made with the tight ends so you've got that and then you are involved in pass protection," Coiner said. "Sometimes there are times where you ask them to go in the backfield for pass protection and that's a different feature and then you have the route running, three-step, five-step, seven-step routes, whatever you are doing. It's just how many different type things that they do formationally and assignment wise that makes it difficult."
Those intricacies make Rivera's role that much more important for the Vols. As a senior who is entering his third year in the system, his ability to act as a coach on the field will only shrink the learning curve for his trio of talented young understudies, Cam Clear, Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith.
"I like Mych because he provides leadership in the room," Coiner said. "He's helping Cam, he's helping Brendan, he's helping those young guys and he's a pro. Every day he comes to work and takes notes and that's what I like about him."
BIG PIC PRENTISSAfter tying the Tennessee record for interceptions returned for touchdowns with three as a sophomore in 2010 and almost returning one to the checkerboards against South Carolina last season, defensive back Prentiss Waggner's INTs are usually memorable.
But his ability to turn interceptions into highlight-reel plays isn't his only way of "getting the big pic."
"It helps a lot because he can see the big picture," cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said of Waggner's experience at both corner and safety. "He can see everything that is going on around him. He knows where he is supposed to be at. He knows where he can overplay or where he can guess a little bit. He is a proven guy. When you get a guy that has played at multiple roles, those guys tend to see the big picture."
Waggner has made Ansley's adjustment to Big Orange Country easier.
Leading the entire team with 27 starts, Waggner has used his big-picture mentality to help the other Vols in the secondary.
"It just shows you leadership," Ansley said of Waggner staying after practice to work with the younger guys. "You always want to promote positive things, but when he comes out here and does that kind of thing, it lets me know that he is hungry and that he is pulling those younger guys with him. It makes my job easy when you have a guy that can kind of be the coach away from the coach."
That kind of attitude should serve Waggner well in his football future.
"Prentiss is really bright," Ansley said. "He is one of those guys who has played a lot of football here and he is a veteran. He has great ability at the corner position, so getting him in there and being a leader and a good communicator is great for us. He wants to be a coach when he is done here, so the guys that want to be a coach are the ones that soak it up a little bit faster."
OPTIONS APLENTY FOR PITTMANThe Vols head into 2012 with a number of options on the offensive line which is good news for new line coach Sam Pittman. Contrary to recent seasons where the Vols have started true freshmen and players with very limited experience, Tennessee has a wide array of linemen with 300-plus snaps on their resume. In fact, the Vols have six linemen who have started games and five who have started at least a dozen contests.
"Anytime you have been out there and you have seen things before they happen, seeing it before it was coming (is important)," Pittman said. "I think we will do a good job of getting that done.
"I want to play the best five guys we have but if it is close, the only way you can truly develop a guy to his full potential is to get him in the game. If it is close, we will put him in there but obviously continuity is number one."
The veterans of the line are senior Dallas Thomas and junior Ja'Wuan James as each have started all 25 games over the last two seasons. Thomas is showing his leadership and selflessness as he could switch positions in his final season with the Vols. With the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle, it is possible that Thomas will shift over one spot to left guard.
"I think it has been a great move for Dallas," Pittman said. "A great move. He is a natural at guard. Obviously we are trying to get Tiny [Richardson] ready for the fall. Our team got better when Dallas moved inside."
Another player who has shown extensive versatility is junior James Stone. The Nashville native has started at center and left guard in his career at UT and is currently seeing a great deal of time at right guard.
"James is so important because he is so smart and he can move around," Pittman said. "Right now he is playing right guard for us. He can play the whole entire right side and he can play left guard. He has really had a great spring."
With all of the experience, the Vols also have a bright future with youth on the line, most notably in Richardson, who is pressing for a starting spot in 2012.
"He looks like a big, athletic guy who has taken 40 snaps in his career," Pittman said. "That's what he looks like. He is very talented, very physical. There are a lot of things we need to work on with him, as well as a lot of other guys. There was a reason everyone in the country wanted him, and we're glad we have him."
"They are in the two-deep now, so certainly we hope they can contribute," Pittman said. "They have great attitudes; they are working hard. We are just trying to get them to play faster and once they learn what they are supposed to do a little quicker, they will be able to play faster. We have seen them play a little faster each practice this spring."