April 19, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - On Saturday at Neyland Stadium opportunity knocks for Team 117. The 2013 DISH Orange & White Game - set for a 2 p.m. start - offers a final chance for the Vols to get on the gridiron this spring and prove something.
With that in mind, Thursday morning's practice session - No. 14 this spring - served as the final tune-up.
"This was the cramming before the final," said defensive line coach Steve Stripling. "What we actually tried to do today is get everything on video, building our video library, so when the incoming freshmen get here you now have a resource that the older players can take them through."
While the 15 allotted practices are obviously important, the first-year coaching staff under head coach Butch Jones knows it's going to take much more to accomplish its goals for Team 117.
"We always want more work," said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. "They will go through their footwork in the summer. They will go through their lifting and running and all those things. But there is nothing like putting the pads on and actually hitting. I would like to go three more weeks and have two-a-days every week, but the reality is physically we can't do that. The foundation has been set in terms of what our expectations are."
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie echoed the same sentiments on Thursday.
"I told the guys, I said everyone in the country gets 15 practices. Everybody. Every school we play against," said Gillespie. "It's what you do with those 15 practices. The second part of it is what you do with the other 330-some odd days. That's what is going to make us a good football team.
"It's not the 15 practices where I'm here yelling, Coach Jones is screaming, and (Mike) Bajakian is screaming. It's the extra work that they carry throughout the offseason and through the summer. Those are the things that will make us a good team, not 15 practices."
NEAL GROWING INTO LEADERSHIP ROLE
As a senior, running back Rajion Neal is expected to set an example for the younger players on the team. Coach Robert Gillespie said Neal is working hard to become a better leader, but with a lot of youth on the running back depth chart, he's pushing the upperclassman for more.
"He has taken more reps," Gillespie said. "He's done a really good job of staying healthy and taking care of his body. From that standpoint, I have seen him show some leadership ability. But I would like him to show more because we do have a young group. We have a bunch of guys who haven't played before. He has definitely taken some strides to become a more visual leader."
Gillespie said the team needs Neal to lead the team visually and vocally.
"We need for him to take major strides in being a leader, a vocal leader," Gillespie said. "But first and foremost before a vocal leader, his actions have to speak. I think he understands that from just the talks we've had off the field. He's definitely gotten better but he has a long way to go."
According to Gillespie, the most important thing for Neal is to be consistent and to hold himself accountable on a daily basis.
"He has to be consistent every day to where he can look in the mirror and recognize who he is as a football player," Gillespie said. "When we look at film every day, we have to recognize who that is. That's the way I've talked to him about it and I think he understands it, so it's not a deal where we constantly challenge him and call him out. I think it has a lot to do with himself. He has a lot to prove to himself."
SPRING PRACTICE BRINGS OPPORTUNITY
During the spring, especially under a new coaching staff, all the players have a chance to prove themselves, and set a new precedence for their performance. One player taking advantage of that this spring, according to offensive line coach Don Mahoney is walk-on and Knoxville-native Jacob Gilliam.
"Jacob Gilliam has been getting a lot of work at right tackle," Mahoney said. "He has really made some strides this spring that I have been encouraged with."
"I think Sam Cranford has done a nice job," Azzanni said. "He's actually one of our most consistent receivers right now. He has dropped some passes here and there, but he also has gotten thrown in the fire when he didn't think he was. I was pleased with the way he responded. He will be a solid contributor to us and our program"
While some walk-ons are impressing at wide receiver and offensive line, Coach Tommy Thigpen is looking for one more linebacker to step up and take a starting position.
"We've got to get one more guy ready," Thigpen said. "It will either be Brew (Brent Brewer), Kenny Bynum or Greg King. One of those guys has to step up and help us out at base. I'm proud of those guys and their efforts."
Unlike the regular season, there are no awards given out at the end of spring practice. It's all about getting reps and getting better in a limited amount of time.
However, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen believes his group of Vols has one man in mind when it comes to receiving accolades this spring.
"Right now if you had to ask the guys who had the most improvement as a player overall, it'd be hands down Dontavis Sapp," said Thigpen.
It's not only been the on-field skills of Sapp that Thigpen and his teammates have noticed, but Thigpen was quick to point out the rising senior's intellectual ability.
"Dontavis has come into his own. He gets it," Thigpen said. "He's got a great mind and a great memory. He's done a great job for us as far as getting guys lined up and getting motivated. I'm really proud of his progress."
Ultimately, Thigpen is not just looking for one standout, but for the Vol linebackers to each know their role in the new 4-3 scheme.
"The guys have a foundation. They've been in a 4-3 before," said Thigpen. "We've got a really clear understanding of exactly what we need to do. Each guy has a role out there."
JOHNSON LEARNING ON THE FLY
For Lemond Johnson, things have progressed pretty fast. He committed to Tennessee in mid-December, and as one of five mid-term enrollees, he's gotten a head start on the rest of the 2013 signing class.
"He's done great," secondary coach Willie Martinez said. "He's done great. Major advantage for a kid that comes out, for us and our program, it's a major advantage for you to be here. Where he should be in high school right now going through prom and enjoying, you know, his last semester of high school, he's here. So it's kind of like his redshirt, he's kind of going through it all, how to do things."
Instead of doing the things normal high-schoolers are doing, like going to his prom, Johnson is learning what it takes to be a student-athlete at a Division I program.
(He's) "Going to class and seeing how to manage time, how to get everything," Martinez said. "How are you going to be able to juggle things from the standpoint of football, weight training and academics. He's getting a good balance of it and he's got a great idea of it."
While Johnson has made strides on and off the field, he and the rest of the DBs still have a ways to go.
"It's still a work in progress but there has been some progress as far as a little bit more consistency from some of the players," Martinez said. "I'm not going to say as a collective group. It's still not there, but there have been small improvements."