Aug 20, 2013
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- As fall camp wraps up and game week preparation starts for the Tennessee Volunteers on Thursday, UTSports.com caught up with the UT assistant coaches to get their thoughts on who has stood out most at each position on the field.
In the second of a two-part series, the defensive coaches chime in to give a preview of Tennessee in 2013.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee offense has quite the act to follow in 2013, after the 2012 Volunteers rated as one of the most prolific offenses in school history. A season ago, the offense gained 5,711 total yards, second in school history, just 83 yards short of the all-time record set by the 1997 offense led by a guy named Manning.
But with the majority of the catches, completions and touchdowns now competing for playing spots on Sundays, the coaching staff has spent the fall identifying the players ready to step up and replace that production.
Up front, the Vols return all five starters on the offensive line, a unit that allowed just eight sacks in 2012. With the quarterback situation still evolving, the line will be called on to replicate that protection in 2013. But when asked to identify a player that had separated himself from the pack, offensive line coach Don Mahoney didn't list a returning starter already ranked on an NFL draft board. It was a sophomore from the state of Tennessee, whose step forward has provided depth, an area Mahoney said was the biggest need in his unit.
"The most improved guy would have to be Mack Crowder," Mahoney said, crediting the Bristol native. "He's had a really good fall camp and it's been the work that he put in over the summer. From the mental part, he's a guy that, heading into this fall we're definitely counting on and excited about."
Crowder has the versatility to fill many roles on the line as a part of the rotation. But it has been his work at center that has most impressed his position coach and the rest of the offensive staff.
"From the center standpont, he's a guy that understands the game," Mahoney said. "For us, that's so important with the calls that he has to make, getting everybody on the right page, all of that. He's a guy that we trust completely.
"It's not really a surprise because I could see that in his work in the spring, in his mentality and all the things he has done off the field. He's an outstanding young man and we're fortunate to be working with him."
Another unit that returns most of its experience from a season ago is the running backs. Senior Rajion Neal was on pace for a 1,000-yard season in 2012 before an October injury slowed him for the rest of the campaign. Junior Marlin Lane also returns after gaining 658 yards as a sophomore. Together, Neal and Lane accounted for 1,366 of UT's 1,924 rushing yards a season ago.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie, a former SEC running back himself, said that both Neal and Lane had shown flashes of being the backs he would like to see, but all the players under his watch have shown the improvement he's been looking for.
"My players know that I don't hand out a lot of praise," Gillespie said. "All those guys have been working hard, to name one guy, it's too early. If you ask me three weeks from now, I'll be the same way. All of those guys have been working hard and making strides getting better."
"Devrin Young has had a pretty good camp from where he was when I got here in the spring," Azzanni said. "He's really come along and been really working to be a player here. He's really asserted himself and put his maturity aside and said `Coach I'm ready to be a player,' so I'm really proud of him."
Another position that returns experience is tight end, where Brendan Downs spent 2012 as an understudy to Oakland Raiders draft pick Mychal Rivera. Downs began fall camp a year ago looking to be a major contributor in two-tight end sets. A knee injury suffered in camp limited his time early in the season, but he played in the final 10 games, starting one. Now, he's the guy UT is counting on.
"Brendan Downs has had a nice camp," tight ends coach Mark Elder said. "I'd like to see more consistency, day in day out, but I think he's brought a good mental focus on a day-in, day-out basis. You want to see execution on every single snap, so he's done a real nice job."
The most obvious position battle on offense is to be the guy that touches the ball on every play. But offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian wasn't ready to tip his hand on who has emerged in that competition.
"They've all stood out in their own way," he said of the players competing for the spot under center. "They've come in with a good mentality. Hungry, competing, trying to be sponges, learn as much as they can. They're all good kids. I really like their approach and it's hard to say that one has stood out."
Junior Justin Worley is the only quarterback with game experience on the Tennessee roster, having completed 63 passes for 738 yards and a touchdown in nine games at UT, including three starts in 2011 in place of an injured Tyler Bray. Despite Worley's experience, Bajakian said he wasn't surprised that redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and true freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson were up to the task of keeping up with the junior.
"When you recruit at this level, when you coach at this level, I think all of the players you have on your team are hungry to play," Bajakian said. "They understand that they will do whatever it takes to earn that opportunity to play. They're high character kids who approach it on a day to day basis like they want to improve."