Aug. 1, 2011
"Talking to Coach Mack (Ron McKeefery, strength coach), the thing that we feel really good about is we feel like we have improved our strength, speed, explosiveness across the board at every position. All the combine testing data - that's about the only data you can use to evaluate where you are, whether it's bench, 225, squat, vertical jump, 40s - all of those things have seen significant improvement across the board. Hopefully that will translate into better play on the field.
"The second thing from the summer was trying to develop this team as a team, going from being a coach-led team to being a player-led team. Because we had so many seniors and so many vocal seniors last year, I think in some ways it hamstrung the ability of the young guys to really take ownership from a vocal standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. And that's OK, but it means that you now have to start working toward that.
"Some roster developments: you will see that we have 104 reporting. You will notice that Tino Thomas and Geraldo Orta are not on the 104; both of them had shoulder surgeries this summer. One of them might become one of the 105; we have about a week to figure that out. So they're still here, still in summer school, we're still rehabbing them and then we will decide where we go on that last spot. You will see 19 other newcomers on scholarship, a total of 79 on scholarship. That's where we are and maybe 80 if one of those two becomes (available). It will take us three full recruiting years to get up to 85, and that's OK. We are way ahead of where we were a year ago.
"Austin Johnson - we were all disappointed when we read the news and we are disappointed anytime a player makes a bad choice that puts a negative light on our program. We are handling that issue internally. There are several things we are going to do with Austin and I am comfortable with where we are on that. He will be out there the first day. He is eligible to play and we hope we do not have any more headlines like that again.
"Injury situations, updates - Ben Martin will be out there, but we can't forget that he hasn't played a down since I have been the coach here so we are going to ease him into this stuff. We don't want to go out there full-go the first day and something go bad. Antonio Richardson had a shoulder surgery in the spring and he is day-to-day. He is not 100 percent, but he is doing great. He can still bench press more than 98 percent of the team, but we have to ease him in. He will be out of contact early on. Jacques Smith seems to be full-go. Again, we have to manage him a little bit. Herman Lathers - he's still a couple of months away so he is not going to be in the 104. Just so you know the rules, the first day of classes you can have unlimited. Really the 105 is from today up until the first day of classes, which on our calendar is about two and a half weeks. He (Lathers) will be here for first day and we will be rehabbing him. C.J. Fleming is not listed in the 104. He is still on the team; he will be back the first day of classes. Toney Williams is transferring. He is not in the 104. I don't know where he is going. We wish him the best.
"Same practice structure as last year. The first three days we are going to split the squad, so all the newcomers plus about 30 more are going to practice. Its coaches' two-a-days so the upperclassmen two-deep are going to be in the afternoon and then the newcomers and more guys will be at night. It's a great three-day window for us to really evaluate the newcomers especially - get them some hands-on coaching; you don't have the veterans out there around them. After that we can make some decisions going forward.
"We have a new practice schedule in the fall. Monday is going to be our day off. That is a change from last year. Also we are going to a.m. practices on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I have spoken about that before. I don't make those kinds of decisions on a whim. I have spent about three years wanting to do this and finally felt comfortable enough where I think it's going to help our football team and help us academically. For the media, our press conference is still on Monday with the same availability. I think the only difference is not having that Monday practice.
"Obviously, I have talked a lot about our team in the spring and summer and there's no sense revisiting that. We know we're young. We know we aren't going to use that as an excuse for failure. We have some guys who flashed a lot of good things last year but nobody really who played 12 games consistently in a championship way. So it's time to quit talking, get on the field and see what we can develop here the next few weeks before kickoff."
You talked about it, but from everything that happened last year to you see this being a more of a player-led team over a coach-led team?
"I think you have to start over every year. The best teams I've been around have ownership in the locker room. The coaches don't have to go manage all their day-to-day issues. They are like professionals, and the coaches put their energy on teaching and coaching - on how to make them successful on the field. Every team's unique and you never can take that for granted, and this team because we don't have a lot of guys with a lot of experience, you just have to develop it."
You talk about guys being senior leaders and wanting leadership, and then a senior like Austin Johnson goes out and do something stupid. Do you consider that when determining what his punishment would be, the expectations you have for a senior?
"It's a great point, and I think we were all shocked and disappointed when we saw it because he's never really given any indication that he would do something like that and, also, because he probably had one of the best summers from a commitment standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. It's a great reminder to all of us that you can never take that for granted and you're only one bad decision away from hurting your reputation.
"Did I take that into consideration? I don't really think I did. I try to do it how I do with all these players, whether it's what kind of harm they caused to our program, what were the facts around it, how bad was his choice, what are the legal ramifications. There are a lot of things you consider, but I don't think I considered that standpoint. I can tell you this - there's nobody who hurts more about what happened than Austin. And you who know Austin know that."
Some of the offensive linemen were joking that they have a goal of helping Tauren Poole reach 2,000 yards. How important is it to set realistic goals and how do you drive that into the players?
"I've never been one to put these number goals - that's great if they have that, but I think it's a dangerous way to go. I do think you have to be realistic but you always should be shooting for things. We have our goals, in that we know we want to win an SEC and a national championship.
"It's good to have that, but your focus can't be on getting 2,000 yards; your focus has to be on what we have to do get that goal. And as long as your focus is on the right stuff, I don't think it matters what goal you have. The goal's really there to keep driving you when things get hard or when it gets tough; it's a reminder of why we're doing what we're doing. But your day-to-day focus has to be on what are the things I need to do today to get to that goal."
How does your handle on the roster compare to this day a year ago?
"It's a lot better now but there's still the same amount of uncertainty in a lot of areas. Here we have one player in our front seven (on defense) who has the proven ability to go out there and play down after down. The uncertainty is still there. What's happened is it's kind of shifted from offense to defense.
"Last year coming in on offense, I didn't know who was going to play on the offensive line; this year, I've got a pretty good idea. On defense, it's the opposite. We had a pretty good feel for who was going to play; we didn't know who was going to be any good. There's still a lot of uncertainly in a lot of areas, but we do have a better handle on what we think."
When you look at the secondary, are you planning to play a lot more nickel to cover up some of that work from the back four?
"About 50 percent of the game is nickel now anyway with the amount of subs that people play. Half the time you're out there, guys are in three-wides or more. So that helps you if you are deep in the secondary, and you better be deep. The question is will you play nickel on regular downs - I don't know. Time's going to tell on a lot of this. It helps at least having a lot of bodies back there. We don't know if any of them can play, but there are a lot more capable bodies."
Tyler says he's up to 202 pounds; is he getting big enough for you?
"As long as he can take the hits and elude the pass rush, I'm OK. A lot of his strength issues are really more core. It affects, sometimes, your ability to throw the ball down the field accurately when you're off-balance. That's where those big strong guys - it makes a difference. The other area is to be durable, taking the hits."
A lot of the guys say they have gained weight. What is (Ron) McKeefery doing differently than the guys in the past?
"If I were to sum it up, we push more heavy weight more often. It's a little less aerobic and more pushing around heavy weight, which is what you do in a football game. You're pushing around heavy guys a lot. So it's a little bit more in line with what I believe philosophically. Ron has a nice combination of having intelligence from his industry - he's a smart guy who can talk with the best of them on the intellectual part of his industry that nobody understands, including me. He's got enough of the drill sergeant in him to motivate and push the guys the way they need to. That's the hard thing with a strength coach - some guys are great drill sergeants and are doing things that probably you shouldn't do, and then some guys are really intelligent and they've got the computer and these nice reports, but they're not pushing the guys. And the key is having that blend."
Greg Schiano at Rutgers has proposed doing away with the kickoff.
"We may as well take the pads off too and play flag football. It's hard for me to propose doing away with a play that's been in football since - we call it foot-ball. What's your question?"
How do you coach it (the kickoff) safer, or what do you do?
"The most important thing is teaching the proper way to tackle. What's happened is, and I really mean this, we've softened this game up at every level and then they get to our level and they don't know some of the basic fundamentals of how to tackle and how to block that are the safe ways to do them. We spend a lot of time teaching how to tackle; the elements of a tackle. A lot of injuries occur when there's reckless technique of tackling. That's when the injuries really occur the most. That's not always the case. There's that inevitable `force equals mass times acceleration' - it's going to hurt. The concussion thing is a serious thing and I'm not minimizing that."
You've talked about the young roster. Is maybe a flip side of that the fact that 50-some of these guys are guys you recruited and who have only played for you and know your system?
"That's a positive, certainly. Those guys, I sat in their living room, I know what their makeup is, I have a better feel for the things we probably shouldn't do when we coach them and the things that can motivate them a little bit. You have a better feel for the guys and, hopefully, they chose this school because they believed in our coaches and our system. That's a real positive."
Do you feel the sophomore class is mostly your guys too - even though some of them came in before you?
"The ones we signed, I do."
Getting back to Tyler Bray and this team being player-led team, what's your sense of where he is from over the summer in terms of being a leader?
"Everything I've heard has been positive from that standpoint, and it starts with his level of commitment. You earn the respect to be a leader, to me, based on your level of commitment to the program. People have a hard time respecting somebody if they don't see them committed to doing everything they can do to help us win. And I think he's proving that to our team. Again, it's a work in progress."
What kind of contact do you have with him, or are you allowed to have with him?
"Yeah, I've seen him, I've talked to him, we've had some discussions. `How's it going?' You know. `How's school?' I don't disappear for two months; it's hard for me to."
Ever since you've been here you've been talking more strength and size than you have speed - I know you want your guys to be fast. But especially on defense, is that still a theme and is it reflected more on your recruiting class this year that maybe you've gotten bigger and stronger?
"Yes, but speed's in there too. The thing I mentioned so much about size and strength is because it's so noticeable when they're just standing there; we don't even get to the running part. You feel like you're beat from the beginning. I made the comment in the 192 speeches I made the last two months that big fast guys usually beat up little slow guys. We forget that. We get all these fancy evaluation techniques as coaches, but usually you've got a better chance to win with the big fast guy than with the slow little guy. I felt like our signing class this year from a height-weight-speed standpoint, we improved at every position. Now that doesn't mean they're going to be better players and that doesn't mean you sign bad players who are big and fast and you don't sign good players who have some deficiencies. But over the course of your team, there have to be some minimum height-weight-speed standards you adhere to."
Do you still think that when you line up opposing SEC teams and have the guys out there in shorts and t-shirts that those other guys are going to look better than yours will?
"That's the first thing I do in pregame; I look at their guys and I look at our guys and just get a little feeling. Sometimes I go, `OK, we're going to be all right;' and then sometimes I go, `This is going to be a hard one.' I think every coach does that, and then they go back in the locker room and say, `Did you see 67? Holy smokes, I didn't know he was that big!' That's pregame."
How much of a contribution do you need from this freshman class and what areas do you think could maybe give them quicker?
"I think we're going to need them at just about every position; if not from a starter, from a role guy, from a spell guy and from a guy who can go out there and push the guy ahead of them to be better. It's hard to say you're not going to need them in some capacity."
Are there any particular positions where they could be there quicker?
"I don't know. It's too early to tell for that."
With the uncertainty on defense, there is a lot of junior college influx of talent. Could you talk about the anticipation and what you expect to see from those players?
"We only have three, so I wouldn't say it's a lot. Two or three guys a year is probably what you want and we'll see. Byron (Moore) is a little different because he's not truly a junior college guy; he's a 4-2-4 (four-year/two-year/four-year) transfer. So we really only have two junior college guys academically, but we obviously took them in the areas where we felt like we needed some immediate help - d-line and secondary - and we'll see if they can provide it."
Is Byron playing safety or corner?
"We don't know yet. A lot of the guys, we just don't know. There are a lot of guys who we've got to go out there and evaluate and see where they fit in."
With a fuller roster at more positions, are you able to do more in August to push them so you won't wear them out? Will you be able to make it easier on them during that time?
"We had 104 guys come in last year too; we just didn't have the scholarships. We still had bodies, so you could still work them the same from a body standpoint."
What concerns to you have with your kicker and punter?
"They're new, like a lot of the other positions. Michael Palardy played, so he's a little bit like the freshmen who played last year. You feel like he's going to be OK. He struggled on kickoffs, so we've got to improve there. And Matt Darr, I wouldn't trade him for anybody but he's never played. He's a very talented punter. It's just a matter of getting out there and going through the growing pains; I think he's going to be a great punter for us in time.
"The things you worry about are the growing pains. What are the growing pains that are going to come with this? Some of them aren't that bad and some of them really look bad. You've just got to stay true to the process."
Your offensive line had so many freshmen playing last year, what kind of growing pains are there?
"What we hope is the growing pains are behind us on the offensive line; they should be. Now it's time to go out there and perform. Even though they haven't done it over 12 games, they certainly have plenty of experience and they've had a lot of growth in their chemistry. We need them to be a position that we don't really worry about, and they should be. That's how a lot of our positions should look. We feel like we are talented there; we feel like we are deeper there than most positions. Now it's just a matter of going out there and producing."
What role will (Prentiss) Waggner have? Will he play safety or corner?
"He could play a little bit of everything. Guys, a lot of these positions, especially in the secondary, we've got to get out there and evaluate our new guys and evaluate the returning guys to see how much improvement they've made on some of these crossover positions. There are a lot of crossover guys in the secondary; they're certainly that way at linebacker and a little bit on the defensive line, but not much. That's really the bulk of it."
Is Janzen (Jackson) one of those guys you need to see after his being gone so long? Prentiss said Janzen could be gone for five years and still test out as the best guy.
"I would say longer than that, he could. What I want to see from him is where his conditioning level is; his stamina. I think that's what he loses more than anything. And when we get in pads, he's going to be really rusty tackling and all that stuff. He can go out there and run and jump with no problem, but that doesn't make you a good football player. He's got a long way to go from that standpoint. The biggest thing from Janzen is putting him in pads, because he missed all of spring."
Is there something he has to prove to you where he has his job back? "No, not his job. But he does to stay in the program like all the players. He's like the rest of them; they've got to prove it every day by how they represent the program, and he's no different from the rest of them. But we're not going to put him on third team."
It seems like Zach Rogers has been plagued by injuries. How much production do you think he could really have over the season and is that third wide receiver slot pretty open at this point?
"Yeah. Zach's problem has been durability. He's got skills. He can run fast; he can catch and he runs good routes. But every time he has a good game, he's out for three. That's his issue. If he can become a durable player, he's certainly got all the capabilities and we need him to."
Who else do you like in that third spot?
"Vincent Dallas had a good spring. He came out of there competing with Zach in that third spot, and we'll see how these new guys come in and look."
When you look at your record as a head coach, it seems you've won the games you're supposed to win.
Well, there've not been any upsets. You've come really close to some major upsets. Is that of any significance to you? Do you look at it and wonder why you haven't had any major upsets, or is that just happenstance?
"We've had a couple, but we've a lot of close ones. Mississippi State was a big upset when I was at La-Tech. You hope you look at it and say we were really out-manned and we did a good job and had a chance to win down the stretch. But you beat yourself up for why you didn't close it out. I can remember all the games - starting with Hawaii my second game as a head coach. They were undefeated that year and had a great football team. We didn't have any business being on the field with them and we took them to overtime. But there have been a lot of them where you had a good chance and didn't finish it off. Hopefully as you keep coaching and keep improving your talent level where there's not a big discrepancy, eventually it will turn for you."
As the university continues to search for an athletics director, you've held that position in the past. What qualities would you like to see in a candidate?
"I don't really want to comment on that because that's in the chancellor's hands, and whatever qualities I might think they have are irrelevant. I'm not picking and I'm not on the search committee. I've got a boss right now and that's Joan (Cronan), and she's done a great job for me. When I get a new one, I'll shake hands and say, `Let's go to work.'
"I certainly hope the person is supportive of our program and me, and understands what the Tennessee fans expect from Tennessee football. I think that's important, because if they don't then decisions are going to get made that are not going to allow the program to continue to prosper."
Will you keep (James) Stone at center and are you comfortable with where he is snapping it right-handed?
"Yeah, but we'll also work him at some other positions just like Alex (Bullard). We try to have most of our o-linemen - not all of them, but the ones who can - at least learn one other position. Because the real key is when you lose a guy - this is where it gets hard - do you put the next best offensive lineman in the game or do you put the guy behind him? That's a continuing debate. If the guy behind him is your 10th-best offensive lineman, you better put your sixth-best lineman in and figure out how to make it work. That's what I've always done. Because of that, you've got to have some guys with some flexibility."
Do you feel like you have three centers, or three guys who could play center?
"We've got three more than we had last year, but I don't know if we've got three."
You have Anthony Anderson listed as the punt returner coming out of spring, but is that as wide open as any position on the team?
"Yes. Anthony will be back there because he came out of spring as the guy who is probably the most natural on our team. But we're certainly going to develop these newcomers to see who can get back there and provide a little spark for us. We hope somebody will.
"OK, guys. Thank you. We will see you out there tomorrow."