April 17, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - As the Tennessee football team approached the final week of spring practice, it could see the light at the end of the tunnel. But rather than focusing on the end, the Vols are zoned in on the process of getting there.
When taking Haslam Field as UT did Tuesday morning, or doing off the field work at Neyland-Thompson Sports Center, 180-plus feet are all in.
"We made a real point not to stick one foot out the door this last week," head coach Derek Dooley said. "We have three practices and we have another game. This is a real important week to show improvement. We had every player identify two things that they need to improve upon the most in the last week. We keep moving some things around to evaluate players. This is another week and it's an important week."
The fourth and final week of spring practice got off to a great start as the Vols' mentality was precisely where it needed to be.
"It was a really good practice," Dooley said. "I think the players came off that second scrimmage. We got after them pretty good yesterday in the meetings, just about trying to make the game a little more personal.
"I told the team it's one thing to play hard, give effort and all of that stuff but there's a zero-sum element to this profession. There's a winner and a loser. You have to at that moment of truth have that mentality that you refuse to lose. That's what has to drive you. They did a really good job today and we'll see how they respond on a back-to-back tomorrow."
In Dooley's third spring at Tennessee, the depth he's built has made a noticeable difference.
"I think more guys are developing," Dooley said. "In the past when you put the twos in, maybe there are only 30 percent of guys really developing who can help you play. Now, having a good two-deep, you feel like everybody out there has a chance to be a contributor. They're getting worked and they're getting better."
WHO IS Jacob Carter?
As Vols fans look over the combined statistics from the first two scrimmages one name that might stand out as somewhat of an unknown is the leader in receiving yards. That man would be sophomore Jacob Carter of Nashville. The 6-0, 190-pound product has hauled in eight catches for 140 yards including a team-best 102 yards in last Saturday's scrimmage.
"Jacob is doing a good job," Dooley said of the walk-on. "We activated him on special teams. He's playing with a lot of toughness and he's playing with consistency. What he's doing out there hasn't been a fluke. He works hard. He has good size. He's tough. He has good hands. He's been able to be productive."
Carter's relationship with sophomore quarterback Justin Worley has really enabled him to get in the mix as he plays with the second-team offense.
"I just got opportunities and made plays," Carter said. "Worley and I are clicking well, but everybody has been able to make plays. When I catch the ball, Vincent (Dallas) is blocking, Da'Rick (Rogers) is blocking - everybody is blocking, I just happen to catch the ball on certain plays. If they catch the ball everybody else is blocking. It just looks good for me catching balls but everybody is doing the same."
Carter has four catches in each scrimmage. He came out of Ensworth High School, where he was a starting receiver and safety. Carter earned All-Region honors as a senior.
"When you're a consistent player, especially at wideout, you have an ability to be productive because the quarterbacks trust you," Dooley said. "They know where you're going to be and they know what your skill sets are."
Carter is somewhat surprised by his success, but points out the Vols are limited in numbers at wideout.
"We don't have too much depth right now," Carter said. "Everybody is getting some time on the field. But it hasn't surprised me. Everybody is getting opportunities right now so you just have to make the most of it."
Carter knows he still has a long way to go to earn significant playing time once the fall rolls around.
"Zach (Rogers), Da'Rick, and Justin (Hunter) are phenomenal receivers right now," Carter said. "I do what I can. Justin [Worley] is going to give me opportunities to make plays, I am going to try and help him out when I can. I am just doing the best I can right now."
Dooley agreed in terms of knowing what kind of impact Carter might make in the regular-season
"I think it's too early to tell," Dooley said. "He's still a young player in the program. We've had pretty good success with walk-ons. I've put a lot of guys on at walk-on since I've been here, a ton. We've had some being good contributors. Tyler Wolf, some of our long snappers. Nick Guess we put on. Nick, of course, I didn't do it but he's a great story. We had Shane (Reveiz) we put on, Joseph Ayres. We've had a lot of guys and those walk-ons are important."
DEFENSE UNDER CONSTRUCTION
The ongoing construction on the new football complex provides a fitting backdrop for UT's spring practices, as the Vols continue to lay the groundwork for a new defensive system.
While defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's system is still a work in progress, significant advances have been made over the past few weeks.
"I think they are progressing very well," Dooley said. "First of all, they like what we're doing. They have a belief and confidence in the coaching that they're getting. They're putting in a lot of work outside of football to try to learn it.
"I'm very pleased with the commitment level they're putting in there to get it. It's just something that's going to take time, experience and reps. We have to do a good job as coaches when we get to game week to make sure that we're playing fast and confident."
As noted by Dooley, the players have been quick to buy in.
When asked about the positive attributes of the new defensive framework, sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson pointed to the freedom it allows him to have on the field, as well as the confusion it causes on the other side of the ball.
"It gives us more room to play, to blitz or drop back and make plays instead of just having to sit in one spot and drop to one area," Johnson said. "The offense doesn't really know where we are coming from or whether we are sliding or not. We can switch up the protection on them and get in and out of changes so fast that it confuses them."
BENEFITTING FOR REDSHIRTING
The Vols have been among the national leaders in playing true freshmen over the last two seasons, as 32 have seen action since Derek Dooley arrived in Knoxville in 2010. But in the case of some players, taking a redshirt season in their rookie college season can be a major benefit. Two of those players are redshirt freshmen offensive lineman Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson.
Both Tennessee natives used their redshirt seasons to gain experience as well as strength and size.
"That freshman year, being a redshirt, it really helped," said Kerbyson, who played at Knoxville Catholic, where he was a 4-star recruit. "In the beginning during training camp I didn't know if I was going to or not. When it was towards the end and finally our coach told me I kind of got a little devastated but then I realized that it was a gift to have an extra year to play football, to have an extra year to get an education.
"My strength numbers are up 40 pounds on my lifts. I went from 18 reps when I first got here to 26 with 225. So the redshirt has really helped and it is just like a fresh new start. I am only a freshman instead of sophomore. So it is really nice."
Crowder agreed that not being pressed into game action in his first college season helped him in so many areas to better understand the college game.
"I can comprehend a lot more and really the speed of the game has slowed down for me," said Crowder, who played at Tennessee High School in Nashville. "I have gotten used to it a little bit more. I have gotten used to playing with the guys up front and that's really a big part of the offensive line, just getting a feel for everybody around you. "
Both Crowder (center) and Kerbyson (right guard) were listed as second-teammers on the pre-spring organizational chart by Dooley. The coach feels the duo and several others who joined the program in 2011 have made some progress through the first dozen practices this spring.
"They're still a ways away," Dooley said. "Kerbyson and (Alan) Posey, probably Tiny (Antonio Richardson) and Mack have made the biggest jumps. Kerby and Posey still have a little work to do, but they're making progress and they're going to be good players for us."
With more offensive linemen in the mix for playing time, it means more depth, which is something the Vols have lacked on the offensive line in recent years.
"It's not where we need it to be, but we had zero depth when I walked in the first spring," Dooley said. "We didn't even have any starters, much less depth. We had one guy with three starts under his belt. Our whole offensive line has probably had over 500 snaps."
DISH O&W GAME SET FOR APRIL 21
The DISH Orange & White Game will take place on Saturday, April 21 with a 2:30 p.m., kickoff. Admission and parking will be free for all fans. In addition to free admission to the game, Fan Appreciation Day will feature an autograph signing with head coach Derek Dooley, assistant coaches and Vol players. The signing, held in recent years at Haslam Field, will be held on the field at Neyland Stadium from 12:15-1:15 p.m.