Aug. 3, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Saturday's second day of Tennessee football training camp showed that the players would respond strongly to critiques and the video breakdown from the first practice.
Head coach Butch Jones noted that the freshman wide receivers stood out as a group on Saturday, a promising sign for a team that looks to replace a 2012 receiving corps that is now in the NFL.
"I was very encouraged by the freshman wide receivers," Jones said. "I think they improved our football team."
Jones had praise for the freshman receivers, saying that they have digested the playbook and are adapting well to the speed of college football.
"They've really added a competitive component to the offense, which is greatly needed," he said.
The team as a whole returned to the field ready and composed, showing improvement from a grueling first day.
"We challenged them and this group is extremely prideful." Jones said. "It was an okay practice, but our standard here is a little bit more. I like the way we came back and we battled."
Some of the young wideouts' counterparts also had a strong showing on day two, as the return of Brian Randolph and safety battle between Byron Moore and LaDarrell McNeil reflect the depth in middle of the UT secondary.
"It is a battle," Jones said. "First of all, getting Brian Randolph back, you can see the recovery from spring ball to now. He's quicker, he's stronger. With McNeil and Byron, there's just day-to-day competition. Competition is healthy, but it also helps us in the special teams game as well."
WIDEOUTS SEEKING RESPECT
The Volunteer receiving corps should probably watch the old stand-up routine of Rodney Dangerfield because this offseason the wideouts have been getting no respect.
In addition to learning a new offense, the young receivers will have some big shoes to fill after losing two All-SEC playmakers to the NFL Draft (Cordarrelle Patterson to the Minnesota Vikings at No. 29, and Justin Hunter to the Tennessee Titans at No. 34) and the reliable Zach Rogers, who is now with the New York Jets.
"We're still young and we don't have a lot of experience. But with everyone doubting us, it definitely motivates us," said sophomore Cody Blanc. "To be in the position where we are looked at as not the most talented group... that just makes us feel like we can play like we have nothing to lose. We can come out and really prove people wrong."
The group has also seen its fair share of new faces. In addition to the incoming freshmen, Knoxville native Devrin Young has joined the receiving corps after spending his first two seasons as a running back.
"I'm just taking it each day at a time," said Young, who made five catches out of the backfield last year. "I am learning my playbook to learn my role. I just want to help this team whichever way I can on special teams, offense, or whatever."
Between the massive youth movement and position changes, the competition at receiver will be one to watch during fall camp.
"There is some competition. With some of the younger guys coming in, they are starting to get the hang of things. Obviously, the guys that were here already know what to expect," Young said. "Everyday forces you to be on your "A" game."
Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has a tall task of mentoring the receivers and finding the best combinations.
"Coach Azzanni is rotating people around a lot," said Blanc, who will be looking for his first college catch this fall. "He is not really sure yet. No one has a set position plus he wants everybody to be able to play multiple positions. We started out at one spot yesterday and we were at a different position this morning."
The Vols' returning receivers accounted for just 35 total receptions last season, led by Howard's 13.
"Everyone is out here competing but at the same time we're here for each other and we're trying to get better each and every day," Howard said. "You know a lot of our older guys are trying to step up and be leaders and teach the younger guys."
Positional battles are a major storyline for the Vols' fall camp - and just two days in - the one in the defensive secondary is shaping up to be quite compelling.
Two true freshmen were listed on the Vols defensive depth chart last week... Cornerbacks Malik Foreman and Cameron Sutton. In addition, sophomore LaDarrell McNeil got the early free safety nod over redshirt senior Byron Moore, who started all 12 games last season.
Echoing the words of his head coach, Moore offered his thoughts on the preseason depth chart.
"We don't even talk about it," Moore said. "We don't even look at it. We just went out there the first day and we rotated in different 1s and 2s. Everybody is getting reps at different groups, so there's not really a depth chart in our minds right now. It's just all chart plays, practice and get better."
"He's not a No. 2. Byron has played a lot of football here and is doing a good job," said Martinez. We've got free safeties that have experience and that's a little bit of an advantage for us. I don't see him as a No. 2; I see him as a senior and a guy with a lot of experience that's doing a good job through the first two days."
As the defensive backs coach, Martinez obviously welcomes the friendly competition. Especially at cornerback.
"We have Riyahd (Jones) and Justin (Coleman), who have the most experience and have played," Martinez said. "But we're still looking for a more-consistent guy like Justin. It's really a three or four guy race here for two starting positions."
McNeil, a sophomore defensive back, believes there's a purpose behind the Vols' DB competition.
"It is just friendly competition," McNeil said. "It's not like we are downing each other. We are trying to help each other get better."
Overall the DB corps is ready to put 2012 behind them and write their own story in 2013.
"Everything we use as motivation comes from negativity," said junior corner Justin Coleman. "We're not really worried about last year. We're worried about this year. We're trying to do better this year. We're a lot hungrier and we want to win. We're tired of losing. We're just a lot hungrier."
EXPERIENCE KEY AT LINEBACKER
With the growing trend of up-tempo offenses throughout the SEC and the nation, depth at each defensive position is key for substitution packages and fresh legs.
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen thinks that the experience of the team's seasoned linebacking corps, which features seven seniors and three juniors, will be very important moving forward.
"We're trying to get two-deep at each position and also get the third guys ready for a long season," Thigpen said. "This is an old football team with all of the seniors that we've got on and the juniors. These guys have seen it all and done it all and been behind or been ahead. They've seen a lot of things, so their experience to our team is invaluable."
Thigpen had praise for his upperclassmen starters Dontavis Sapp and A.J. Johnson, pointing out that Sapp is a communicator, natural leader and "one of the smarter players I've been around" and that Johnson has been vital to keeping the tempo of practice up and holding teammate accountable for poor effort.
Some of the younger players have stood out as well. Redshirt freshman Christian Harris and redshirt sophomore Kenny Bynum are two underclassmen who enjoyed strong spring showings to boost them up the depth chart.
"Christian really came on in the spring and saw a lot of reps in the summer as a solid backup," Thigpen said. "He's a really smart kid and a really physical kid. Kenny came in at a lot of outside linebacker formations, but we would eventually like to play him at Mike."
IT'S GO OR GO HOME
In his last season for the Volunteers, redshirt senior Daniel Hood knows that "it's go or go home," and with that mentality, Hood hopes to have his most successful season yet.
After playing in all 12 games last year, the Knoxville native has made the most out of his offseason, becoming stronger and more confident with the help of strength and conditioning director Dave Lawson and the new programs he has implemented with Team 117.
"It feels great," said Hood, who made seven tackles in 2012. "I feel just more confident because of all the offseason workouts we had with Coach Lawson. The whole program was built around building confidence in people and you know, when we did the things we did, you can't come out not confident."
With day two of training camp complete, Hood is pleased to see how well the defense as a whole has performed, not only in camp but in the offseason as well.
"The thing about this defense I've seen lately is everybody has been playing well together," he said, "it's not just one person doing everything."
Teamwork such as that has Hood hoping that in his last go-around, the Volunteer defense will improve immensely from years past.
"Honestly," said Hood, "with the way they're coaching and the way they're teaching everything, I think it'd be a shame if we finished anywhere else out of the top 20 in defense."
ONLY 28 DAYS UNTIL...
The Vols will open the 2013 campaign against Austin Peay on Aug. 31. To purchase season tickets, go to UTTix.com.