April 5, 2013
KNOXVILLE -- When Butch Jones came to Tennessee from Cincinnati, the majority of his Bearcat coaching staff came with him.
The newest addition to the Vol staff, Robert Gillespie, has never coached alongside Jones before, but is glad that he is getting the chance now.
"I have been fortunate enough to be around a lot of good head coaches, but he is probably the most detailed," said Gillespie. "He really understands the game of football, inside and out. Not just from a physical standpoint but a mental standpoint. He does a good job in challenging these kids everyday which in turn challenges us as coaches. We feed off his energy, we transfer that out to our players and we want the same energy back from those guys."
Gillespie was able to observe Jones before he arrived at Tennessee, coaching against Cincinnati while he was the running backs coach at West Virginia for the last two seasons.
He credits Jones and his staff with being one of the toughest opponents that he faced during his time in Morgantown, likely due to their intense preparation.
"It is a very, very detailed program," said Gillespie about a Jones run Tennessee. "It starts from top to bottom that is one thing we want our kids to understand if you do the little things right you have the greatest chance to be successful. It is all the little things that add up in the biggest moments."
"The kids are buying into it and when you watch film they point things out," continued Gillespie. "So you know they are really listening we try to do a great job in talking the same language making them use the same lingo that we use as a coaching staff. Those are the things that we think will give us an edge to be a great football team."
Jones' enthusiasm is contagious and a new buzz can be felt around the football complex this spring, from the players, to the staff, to the coaches.
"If you are a football coach and you already have that energy, you are just excited to around someone else who has it," said Gillespie. "All the coaches here feed off of him but we all bring our own set of energy, our own tone and way of coaching to the table. I think it is just a group of coaches who are just passionate about what they do."
A LEADER OF MEN
In 2013, A.J. Johnson will be looked to as a leader of men, instead of as a leader of stats.
"He's buying in," linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. "He's starting to understand, `I don't have to do everything, I'm not the only guy on the field.' And that's our emphasis: there's 11 guys on the field and everyone has a job -- do your job. That's been our emphasis: do your job first, get off your one-on-one, then go try and make a football play."
While Johnson's stats may not seem as impressive the new system, Thigpen says it's about quality, not quantity.
"If we do what we're supposed to do on defense, you won't have as many plays on defense," Thigpen said. "We're preaching that it's not about volume, it's about production. Would you rather have 80 tackles, nine sacks, three picks and some tackles for loss, or do you just want 100 tackles? For us, it's about the production on the football field."
While Johnson--a tackling machine--is already leading by example, Thigpen said his vocal leadership will be more prevalent as he grows more comfortable with the new defensive system.
"The more AJ learns with the defense, the more vocal and confident he's becoming," Thigpen said. "I'm really enjoying watching him grow as a player. He's really starting to buy into what we're doing."
This vocal leadership will be important for Johnson, as Thigpen knows exactly what he needs from his middle linebacker.
"We want that guy to be a lion," Thigpen said. "He's the alpha-male. He's the quarterback. In the defense we run, he has to line us up, call the plays, make the checks. He's got to do everything. That guy has to have a lot of confidence and knowledge of the game."
Thigpen may not have a lion, but he does have "The Beast," in A.J. Johnson.
YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE
As the old saying and classic 90's hit by the New Radicals goes, "You get what you give." The same can be said in sports. To get better and improve, a player must be willing to go that extra mile, and that's exactly what two young Tennessee wide receivers are doing this spring.
With former Vols Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson both headed to the NFL, the competition at Wide Receiver U is wide open. Both Croom and Blanc know that and are taking the extra steps to see time on the field.
"Jason really cares," Azzanni said. "He's getting better faster than some guys because his care factor and his commitment level for football are higher. He was in the cold tub, watching film and running last week. He did all the things he needed to do to continue to not waste a week and it's showed."
One of just 10 true freshmen to see the field in 2012, Blanc will be looking to transition from a special teams player to the offensive perimeter.
"I came in here once to grab something from my office - the lights were off in the indoor facility - and Cody Blanc was out here by himself running routes. He'd run to the other side of the field and run a route, and then run back to the other side," said Azzanni. "By himself... Not one person in this whole building.
"Those guys, they want to. They're trying anything they can to be in better shape and to get the system down."
STRIP PRAISES FROSH VEREEN
Vols' defensive line coach Steve Stripling has coached more than 30 years in college football. He has been a part of 22 bowl games. He has coached numerous players that have gone onto successful NFL careers.
So when Stripling hands out compliments, they are very deep in validation. Early enrollee Corey Vereen has caught Stripling's eye and the coach is gushing about his attitude and work ethic.
"I love Corey Vereen," said Stripling. "You won't find a harder working. He is the most motivated freshman I have ever seen in my career. He is unbelievable. He never smiles which is a little scary but he really is a pleasant kid."
Being a mid-year addition can sometimes he a difficult transition for some players. But the Winter Garden, Florida native has made a seemless move.
"A lot of times when men come in mid-year they are just trying to find their way through the system," said Stripling. "This young man has jumped in both feet. He has gone beyond all of our expectations. Unbelievable attitude."
At 6-2, 230, the 18-year-old Vereen is just starting to grow into the body that will be needed to compete in the SEC on a regular basis.
"I think when you talk about Corey and LaTroy (Lewis), some of the younger ends, they all have to develop physically and strength-wise obviously when you face guys like (Antonio) Richardson. They have to come a long ways that way. I like his attitude. He will be moving up the ladder for us."
BUILDING A SPECIAL UNIT
So much focus early in the Butch Jones era has been on the installation of the offense and the defense. But the third phase of the game -- special teams, is also undergoing an overhaul. Special teams coach Mark Elder is overseeing the recomposition of the specialists.
"Special teams is a third of the ball game," said Elder, who also coaches the team's tight ends. "We're going to win or lose four ball games this year based upon the performance of our special teams and these guys know that. We emphasize that. It's extremely important. That comes from the top down. That's Coach (Butch) Jones's philosophy, that's my philosophy, that's our philosophy. That special teams is as important as offense defense, and these guys understand that."
The Vols are still in the developmental stages of game planning in all three areas including special teams and Elder is still in the early phases.
"We were installing a scheme for the first time today with one of our units," said Elder. "So, the initial portion that you saw was getting us lined up and understanding the assignment portion of it. Then we were combining the assignment with some technique in the later portion of it. We got a little bit understanding the big concept, the big picture, because up until that point it had been all drill work.
"At this point we're still doing a lot of the technique work. We're not getting in to full speed 11-on-11. We're going to get to that here shortly. That's why we're installing the schemes now, so that way we can go a full eleven on eleven and that's really when you start identifying it. When you turn the lights on and you roll one ball out there and you kick the thing off and see how the guys do."