Aug. 8, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee has continued to grind away in the summer heat on Haslam Field and first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is liking what he has seen so far as the Vols work to finish installing his new defensive schemes.
"Things are going good," Sunseri said. "We're developing a little bit of toughness about us, working on fundamentals and doing what we have to do. The most important thing is learning their assignments, learning what the techniques are and applying their techniques when they get out. We're getting good effort right now, we just have to get better."
Helping that process early in training camp is the team's ability to retain what it learned during a crash-course this spring.
"(There has been) a bunch of retention," Sunseri said. "I'm really happy about it because they are understanding the concepts and they are applying those concepts to the their techniques. They worked hard all summer and they are doing pretty darn good."
Although most eyes are on middle linebacker Herman Lathers to lead this year's defense, Sunseri's scope stretches out a little wider when he looks for leadership on the field.
"We're not just expecting Herman Lathers to be a leader, we are expecting all of the seniors to be leaders," Sunseri said. "All of our guys on defense, (Brent) Brewer, Prentiss Waggner, it doesn't come down to one guy. They need to understand that they are all out there playing together as a unit, playing together as a team.
"There is one guy who is usually talking more than anybody and he is the quarterback of our defense. In one aspect you can say that (Herman) is the leader, but I am looking for 11 leaders going out there to get the football."
The Vols still have plenty of work to do before their first true test in 23 days, but Sunseri is pleased with the progress they have made to this point.
"I'm happy with where we are at right now," Sunseri said. "Like anything else, these kids are coming out here every day and having pretty good practices. They are long practices, they are taxing on your body and if you can get through here and be efficient, we are going to have a good defense."
CHANEY MOLDING VOLS OFFENSE
In his fourth season with the Vols and third under head coach Derek Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is seeing a greater level of comfort with the players went it comes to the game plan as well as relationships, both on and off the field.
With so much change and transition over the last few years, it has been hard in many areas to build consistency within the program. That has taking a turn for the better heading into 2012 according to Chaney.
"I find the advancement of our offense is coming more from understanding one another's personalities," Chaney said. "I think we know these kids better, they know us, they know it isn't personal when we are getting (after them). When you are a young player and a new coach is yelling at you, you have to understand it isn't personal. I think our team and their maturity understands it is not that way, they are excepting coaching right now. If you do something more and more you get better at it. So we are more advanced that way. We understand the concepts a little better but I think we know each other a little better, which is what I like the best. It is easier to coach guys you know."
Along with the experience, the communication has grown and Chaney is pleased with the team's effort through six days of camp.
"I am comfortable where we are right now being in day six of training camp," Chaney said. "I think our kids are trying hard and their effort level has been good. We have been pressing just the physicality of our conference and trying to become a better physical football team. We seem to be going out every day and trying to hit. Today I wasn't super pleased about it but for the most part we are trying to hit people."
Chaney will have lots of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. Both through the air and on the ground, Chaney will have many options and that excites him.
"I am real pleased with Justin [Hunter]," Chaney said. "He had a wonderful summer. I think his confidence is there on his leg. I have seen some catches that remind me of Justin, which are fun. He is not quite there yet he has to push through these last 20 practices before we get to that ball game and it think he will be ready to roll.
"Cordarrelle (Patterson) is coming in here; he is a big, athletic, fast kid. There has been nothing that he has done to disappoint or wow us. We are comfortable. We knew him pretty well. He is right about where we thought he would be. He is a big, fast kid that can make some plays."
The running game is an area that Chaney feels the Vols have made improvements.
"I think Rajion [Neal] is doing a great job preparing for practice," Chaney said. "He is coming out every day with a workman's like attitude and doing a good job, as is Devrin [Young], as is the whole group. Rajion is really raising his game and Devrin is making plays for us a lot. So those two are getting up there and doing some nice things. Marlin [Lane] is being a steady performer and doing a real nice job on some third-down stuff.
"I am pleased with where they are at. It will be fun to shape them as we get going. It is like a ball of clay. As we start maneuvering through, I am tickled with all those kids and I think they are going a great job."
RUN, BLOCK, REPEAT; RUN, BLOCK, REPEAT
The two biggest things that running backs coach Jay Graham emphasized Wednesday were pass protection and repetition. And how the pair goes hand in hand.
For the former Vol, how well one pass protects determines how much playing time one will get in 2012.
"It determines how much you see the field," said Graham." Every one of our guys has to be able to pass protect. We are going to throw the ball, and it comes to the time where you can't switch guys in and out based on their ability to pass protect. It is important that they all know how to."
Pass protection doesn't come easy to most running backs; it didn't come easily to Graham either during his time in the orange and white from 1993-96.
"You have to have toughness and great timing and the ability to think between the snaps," said Graham. "It is a skill that you have to develop. It takes time. I got good because I did it a lot of times. That is the most important thing. You do it in practice, you get to the game and you do it in the game."
Through the Vols first five practices, that is what has been seen on the sidelines during the open period. A lot of the same thing. But that is what Graham wants and is pleased with the effort of his running back corps at the beginning of fall camp.
"I think the biggest thing is repetition," said Graham. "Repetition of punching and seeing the defender. It is not as easy as you think. A lot of it happens at the last second and is all about timing. Getting a lot of reps until they can do it correctly is the most important things.
"I like their effort. They are trying to do the things that we are talking about in the meetings. They are trying to be physical, they are trying to finish runs, they are trying to pass protect and do things the right way. That is the biggest thing that I have been impressed with."
HINSHAW GROOMING NEWCOMER
With a group of new receivers on the squad, Coach Darin Hinshaw has had his hands full during the first six days of camp.
"We're going over a lot of new things and throwing a lot at them," Hinshaw said. "What happens is the brain is trying to figure out what I have to do, then go do it. What I want them to be able to do is not think anymore and just react."
He has been emphasizing that making the learning curve into a straight line, takes a lot of learning and studying of play books.
"It's registering right now, but they're not reacting and we have to be able to react and be able to play fast," Hinshaw said. "All those new guys are swimming in their minds and going `oh my gosh' and we have to get to where it's a comfort zone."
"It's a very talented group that has an unbelievable amount of potential," Hinshaw said. "Now we have to maximize that and go do it on the field. And get with the quarterbacks on the same page, and that's what camp is for. We have a lot of talent, but we have to maximize it, and go use it and go work our butts off to go get better every day."
COLOR SUNSERI IMPRESSED WITH LBsWhen defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri arrived at Rocky Top, he had heard a lot of hype about sophomore linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
So far, they have lived up to it with Sunseri heaping praise on both of them during Wednesday's media session.
"I didn't realize this until I finally got the two of them out there together, but those two kids might be the finest young linebackers that I have ever coached," Sunseri said. "Their attitude, their work ethic, their toughness. I am really, really pleased with those two guys. They have shown great leadership as young kids.
"I can see why both of them were All-SEC type players and now they are becoming smarter. They are understanding what they need to do and why they are doing it and the concepts of the defense. Those two guys are playmakers...I think they have the potential to get drafted in the National Football League. Depending on their work ethic and everything, they will determine the round they go in, but they have the talent to do it."
Helping shepherd both Johnson and Maggitt through the learning process has been the elder statesman of the linebacking crew, Herman Lathers.
Sunseri didn't hold back when discussing the significance of Lathers' contributions to the team either.
"(He brings) knowledge," Sunseri said. "He has a great understanding of the concepts and he can run. When you have a guy who can put people in the right places, you have a chance to stop plays.
"He is an excellent mentor, he is smart and has a work ethic about him. More importantly, being able to explain what you are doing, knowing why you are doing it and how you are doing it is different. It's not about learning assignments but the concepts of the defense."
EXPERIENCE IN THE TRENCHESHead Coach Derek Dooley inherited an offensive line that had collectively started three games in his first season at Rocky Top. Fast forward two years and Dooley's men up front now have a combined 106 starts.
In football, especially in the SEC, games are often won and lost in the trenches. Knowing that, first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman is excited to lead the Vols' front five into battle in 2012.
"Experience is a big deal, especially up front," Pittman said. "Here's when it's good though... If you can lock guys into one spot, then it's good. You've got to play by somebody for a period of time to understand it. Obviously, it's great that we have that kind of depth and returning starters, but we have to lock them into one spot. We have to find the five and place them where they want and need to be and then let's get rolling."
With such an experienced group, however, the hype starts to get louder, expectations grow larger and a quick start is expected.
"You can assume that, but they have to do it," Pittman said. "You can assume you have a whole boatload of great players, but they have to go play. What we're doing right now is they're responding to what we're asking them to do and they're responding really well. We're excited about the group."
One major benefit of having depth at any position is competition.
"Competition obviously makes the starting guys not just go into `cruise mode'," Pittman said. "Hopefully, we're coaching hard enough to where they don't do that anyway, but consciously they know if they don't get it on somebody else will."
The front five is not the only group currently going through some changes. With defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri implementing a new system on the other side of the ball, Pittman's O-line has reaped the benefits.
"It's good for us," Pittman said. "It makes us play with our heads up, it makes us make our calls and it makes us understand nose going across the face. It makes us understand a lot of different things. It has been really good for us."
PALERMO KEEPING NFL EXPECTATIONSJust a few seasons removed from coaching the Washington Redskins' defensive line, John Palermo doesn't plan on changing his expectations in his first year at Tennessee.
"We demand a lot from these kids in practice," Palermo said. "These big lineman are getting worn out in practice and they are getting worn out fast. We got kids at 320 and 360 pounds so the big guys are getting worn out quick, but that's because we are demanding so much out of them at practice. During the season we will be rolling in a lot of guys, so they will need to be ready."
In Wednesday's media session, Palermo talked about the upcoming practices and getting ready for the season. Many are curious about how the defensive line depth chart will shape up, but the Vols don't have all the answers just yet.
"As far as the depth chart is concerned, we just don't know right now," Palermo said. "After our first scrimmage, I'll be able to answer that. Right now, we are just rolling a lot of guys in there and trying to find out who our players and depth chart guys are going to be."
That first scrimmage will play a key role in Palermo's evaluation of the defensive line, but he is mainly looking for an understanding of the defense and consistency.
"I just want to see good fundamentals, great effort to the ball and no mental errors. There is no question that our guys are thinking too much. We just do so much. I mean we do an under- front, an over-front and a base-front. We are doing a lot of different things, but I will say that we are way ahead of where we were in the spring as far as understanding the scheme."