Aug. 10, 2012
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -The Tennessee football team opened its off-campus portion of training camp with a practice at Science Hill High School in Johnson City on Friday afternoon.
The Vols packed up and traveled the 115 miles to upper East Tennessee on Thursday, a move which head coach Derek Dooley said went off without a hitch.
"We had a heck of a move," Dooley said. "It was an incredible operation what our support staff was able to pull off because it looks like we moved the entire city of Knoxville over here. We woke up and didn't miss a beat. Kudos to the equipment staff, the training staff, the ops and the video staff on the incredible job they did."
Although the operations portion of the trip was a success, Dooley was not pleased with his team's effort once it hit the field for the first time outside of Knoxville.
"Part of the reason we came here was to kind of change the environment, make it uncomfortable, get them out of their comfort zone and we didn't handle that very well," Dooley said. "That's what we have to learn to do because we are going to be out there in games and different environments and how are we going to handle not being in that comfort zone? We were a little lethargic today which was disappointing but we have a scrimmage tomorrow and will be ready to amp it up."
Saturday's scrimmage will be the first for the Big Orange since the opening of training camp. For Dooley and his staff it will serve as a test of where the team is in its understanding of the schemes implemented over the last eight days as well as an evaluation tool for some of the younger players.
"Obviously, I want to see us play with a level of intensity the entire scrimmage which we didn't always do last year and certainly you want to execute and have all your playmakers go out there and make plays," Dooley said. "It's going to be a great level of evaluation for some of these guys that want to get in the mix and try to help the team."
In an interesting side note, the Vols practiced on Steve Spurrier Field, named after the current South Carolina head coach who was a three-sport letterman with the Hilltoppers, earning all-state honors in football, basketball and baseball.
"I think he is a generous man to give back to his high school, so I commend him for what he has done," Dooley said. "It's a tribute to the fact that he was a great player, a great coach and made a lot of money. When that happens, you get your name on the field."
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
As one of, if not the most, experienced offensive lines in the nation, the Tennessee offensive front knows what they are doing. It is getting the message out that is the hard part. Antonio Richardson knows that.
"On the O line the biggest thing is communication," said Richardson. "We know what we are doing, but getting the message out there. It's like a wire or power line that the signals have to go through; we have to get the message to go all the way down the line. [We need to] get it out so everyone can hear it."
When asked the other day, Ja'Wuan James had the same reaction recalling that even though everyone knows what they are doing they are reminded by Coach Pittman that they need to speak.
Despite the vocal issues, Richardson believes that the big men are ready for 2012.
"Watching the film we have been really pleased with what we have seen," said Richardson. "There are some mental errors here and there that we could clean up. But overall, it has been great and we just have to keep it going."
Saturday will see the first scrimmage of the fall season for the Vols and Richardson is looking forward to it.
"Any scrimmage is like game day," said Richardson. "Three more weeks we have to go to the Georgia Dome and perform. So we have to come here with the right mindset and be ready to go. We have to come off the ball and just play."
FROM THE PLAYERS' PERSPECTIVEAlthough they are less than 24 hours into their experience at Milligan College, the Vols seem excited about the chance to get away from the typical daily grind of training camp and have embraced the opportunity to focus on getting better as a football team.
"It is a good opportunity for us just to focus on staying focused outside of our comfort zone and outside of the normal schedule like in Knoxville," sophomore tailback Devrin Young said. "It is fun. It is a good experience. Even in high school we never went away for camp so it is different for me. The food is really good at Milligan too."
The food has clearly been a bright spot with multiple Vols commenting on it Friday, including sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson who agreed with Young's assessment. His priorities were elsewhere upon the team's arrival Thursday night, however.
"They have a nice cafeteria, nice dorm rooms and the bed was comfortable," said junior linebacker A.J. Johnson. "That was the main thing."
Not everything has been perfect though.
"The last 24 hours have been pretty crazy," senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "When we moved into the dorms, everyone was trying to find an area for (cell phone) service. I know I couldn't find service for the first two hours, but I found me a little spot where I could get some bars."
After settling in at Milligan College, the Orange and White made the short trek to Science Hill High School for its first off-campus practice.
"Practice went really good," Waggner said. "We had a little polish day before our first scrimmage tomorrow. It was a little bit of an adjustment for us from not practicing at our complex, but I thought we adjusted pretty good."
QUARTERBACKING THE DEFENSEIn his fifth season as a Volunteer, Herman Lathers is one of the most vocal leaders on the field and has been denoted the unofficial captain of the defense for 2012.
It is only right that he and Tyler Bray, the de facto offensive captain, are roommates on the trip to Milligan College.
"It is fun," Lathers said. "We both go to sleep late. We talk about stuff going on with the team and we just discuss things about coaches as well as what we have to do as far as leadership and expectations. It helps a lot since we are the captain of the offense and captain of the defense. It means a lot to the both of us."
His teammates constantly preach about Lathers' leadership and how he is a `big brother' and mentor to the majority of the defense. His hours of preparation and have made it easy for him to be this way.
"I am real comfortable," Lathers said. "I am the type of guy that studies a lot and meets with the coaches. We've discussed a lot and Coach Sal [Sunseri] gives me a lot of options what I can do as quarterback of the defense. It helps me a lot and if I know it I can teach it to other people. It is my job to learn and I embraced the defense."
Lathers is ready to demonstrate his leadership in Saturday's scrimmage.
"You just go into the scrimmage knowing that you have to do your job," Lathers said. " You let your work and actions on the field speak for itself. If you go out there and play to the best of your abilities, then you won't have to worry about the depth chart."
NEAL TAKING THE LEADThe Vols have a lot of depth at tailback heading into the 2012 season, but they do not have much experience at the position. Junior Rajion Neal is the only member of the corps that has more than one year of college experience. That has led him to become a leader in the backfield without even realizing it at first.
"It actually hit me this summer when Coach Graham asked me to take the younger backs under my wings and show them around and get them in the playbook," said Neal. "Kind of see where their heads were at and help them out as much as I could. It jumped on me quick."
In his two seasons with the Vols, Neal has gained 331 on the ground. He is battling with sophomores Marlin Lane Jr. and Devrin Young for the starting role, knowing all three will see time this season.
Neal is feeling strong about his performance early in camp.
"I just want to be sound," said Neal. "I just want to stand out to the coaches that know every phase of the game and that I am stepping up and taking on this role and showing that I can do this for the entire season."
As a group, Neal knows the running game needs to step up after a poor season in 2011 as Tennessee averaged just 90.1 yards per game, last in the SEC.
"The confidence is high," Neal said of the backs during camp thus far. "We are showing guys that we are going to hit these lanes that the o-line is creating. The o-line is blocking hard and definitely believing in us. We are showing the team that we are going to bring a different element to the game and we won't have to rely so much on the passing game. It will be a more even flow game, as far as running and catching the ball."
BIG ORANGE HOMECOMING
"It's really cool to be back here to show my team kind of where I'm from and where I grew up," Crowder said. "A lot of people haven't seen this kind of countryside before, so I'm glad they're getting to see this."
Both graduates from Tennessee High in Bristol, Tenn., the duo gets a homecoming as they take action on a familiar field.
"Just walking in the stadium and being in the visitors' locker room," Downs said. "I got some good memories here so it's cool."
The pair each experienced their own big moments at Science Hill, but are looking forward to make more that will be beneficial to their Volunteer counterparts.
"I made some good plays here in high school but I'm definitely trying to make some better ones here with this team," Crowder said.
From donning the Viking uniform to wearing the Tennessee letters, Crowder knew the transition from small town to the Big Orange was going to be a challenge, but he was prepared for it.
"Nothing really surprised me, Tennessee is a big school and there's a lot of hype with it and it's definitely lived up to my expectations," Crowder said. "I'm having a great time so far, really enjoying myself."
But the high school teammates know the trip back is strictly for business.
"We just got to come in and look at it it's still practice, it's still camp," Downs said. "We still have to come in and work."
"This trip is all business so I won't get to go home," Crowder said. "We're just using this time to bond as a team and become the best of players that we can be."