Aug. 21, 2011
KNOXVILLE - Just one short year ago, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley was entering his first season on Rocky Top. With a larger talent pool and Dooley's structure in place, the optimism surrounding the UT football program is much higher than it was 12 months ago.
"I'm a little nervous because of our youth and inexperience, but I feel like that we have a competitive talent level," Dooley said. "It's not where it needs to be to be a championship football team. It doesn't mean we can't win one. We have some holes, but I think we're a lot better than where we were a year ago. I think it's fair to say that."
Deeper at every position, the Vols have walked off the field following scrimmages this preseason with a more positive outlook on each side of the ball.
"I've seen that all camp," Dooley said. "We haven't had a lot of those disaster days. We had a real bad one the other day on offense and we had a rough night as coaches. For the most part, it's been a very equally competitive camp. That's what you want. The deeper we get as a team and the better recruits we keep bringing in on offense and defense, that's what you're going to have."
Despite improvements across the board, Dooley is cautious to how it will affect his team's results in 2011.
"That doesn't mean we're going to win more games because the other teams might be all better too. We forget that. They can improve too. We improve and everybody goes, `We're a lot better. Hey, that means were going to win more games.' Well, the other teams are improving too so we better improve just to keep up."
Regardless, the Vols are excited to see how the progress they've made fares against their opponents, rather than their own teammates.
"You go about four months playing and seeing the same guys," sophomore defensive lineman Jacques Smith said. "They know my tendencies and I know their tendencies, so it's always great to play against an opponent when they don't know what you are going to do and you have to study and watch them. That's the difference between the season and camp. You have to study your opponent and know his every move. We do a great job of that and I am so excited for the season."
Tennessee is off Sunday before the Vols return to Haslam Field on Monday morning for the final week of preseason. The Vols kick-off their 115th official season of football at 6 p.m. ET on Sept. 3 vs. Montana at Neyland Stadium.
THE HEAT IS ON
Expectations for the upcoming season have been built upon last season's four-game sweep through November, which heavily hinged on Tennessee's youngsters. Those very expectations, however, create a different mentality.
"Last year when (these young guys) went in, they really didn't have any pressure," Dooley said. "We were a bad football team. We were 2-6 so if they went out and stunk it up, nobody really would've cared. They could be loose. They were loose and they played well. Now, they don't have the luxury of having old guys in front of them. They don't have the luxury of saying, `We're going to save the day.' It's their team.
"The more you realize that, the more you realize how big Tennessee football is, you start getting the exposure and you start getting on the cover of these magazines, it's normal to start feeling a little pressure. Everybody talks about these sophomores and they go, `What happened?' Well, it's a different ballgame when you start feeling it. It's your team, there's pressure and they have to learn how to manage it."
While the 26 freshmen that played for UT last season (third in the FBS) have to manage the pressure, the coaching staff has done its best to prepare them for it.
"The first part was try to get them to feel the pressure because you want them to really appreciate the magnitude of it," Dooley said. "I don't think they should ever not appreciate that but once they do, then you have to tell them, `It really doesn't matter. Just go out and play.' You have to play both sides of the fence sometimes. I think we'll be there because these guys have a good confidence about them. I'm glad they felt that (pressure) a little bit in camp and hopefully by the time we start playing, they'll loosen it up a little bit."
BRAY BOUNCES BACK
At the forefront of Tennessee's 4-0 run last November was quarterback Tyler Bray, who earned three SEC Freshman of the Week awards for his sterling play. With the pressure building this fall, the Kingsburg, Calif., native enlisted in the help of his coaching staff to help settle him down.
"I talked to Coach Chaney the other day about what we needed to do on Saturday," Bray said. "I just needed to relax and go back to the way we were playing last year. I was just rushing myself and trying to make things happen too fast instead of just relaxing and trusting my line. I've got all the trust in the world but I just try to over think and rush through. Last year the expectations weren't that high and this year they are so I've kind of forced myself to do things I normally wouldn't do."
UT's gunslinger responded during Saturday's scrimmage, completing 10-of-20 passes for 144 yards, while leading a pair of lengthy scoring drives, including one that finished with his 5-yard TD delivery to freshman wide receiver Vincent Dallas.
"We all felt like Tyler (Bray) wasn't performing well and he was pressing a little bit," Dooley said. "And I think that's a good thing. It means he cares. If he didn't press, that means he doesn't care. That would probably concern me a little bit more. There's not a quarterback out there that doesn't go through phases of having some bad play. You're feeling bad. You feel like you're letting the team down and you don't know what to do. He's had two really good days (since then). Two positive days. That's a good sign."
PREVENTING BIG PUNCHES
Last season as a starter, Bray's 27 scoring drives took an average time of 2:10. During the last two scrimmages, however, the Vols offense has racked up some extensive drives. Last Saturday, UT had four drives of at least seven plays. One week later, the Vols had a 10-play drive to open the scrimmage, which was followed by a 16-play, 99-yard drive.
The defense, though, has been stingy in giving up those same big plays to the Big Orange offense that made Tennessee's opponents cringe late last season.
"I think that's a good sign for our defense," Dooley said. "Our defense is not getting gutted, if you will. They're in cover position. They're making you work on offense. They're making you convert thirds. We have to get off the field. We've given up a lot of long drives. We have to keep looking at third down and see where we can get better."
Being `gutted' can often be attributed to a lapse in focus, which only takes one member of the defense to throw off.
"Playing every snap is important," junior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. "You have to be mentally tough every snap, knowing what you have. You can't take any snap for granted because that snap you take off could be that big play."
Starting 13 games last season has helped Waggner with that approach, and that approach has helped his battle for a starting spot in the UT secondary.
"I think he's been our most consistent corner," Dooley said. "He still has that ability to go to safety if something happens. It just depends on who we play. Prentiss has been playing the best."
Although senior tailback Tauren Poole is the undisputed starter, Dooley knows the importance of having improved depth in the backfield.
"I've always felt like that you need three really good runners," UT's second-year head coach said. "Everybody wants a Heisman back but you'd prefer to have two, I call them, two ones and you roll them. Those two backs carry the load. That's what we did when we won the national championship at LSU. That's what I look at a lot of teams now and a lot of teams in the NFL (do). It's hard because here's what you have to think about. There are a lot of plays in a game. In the fourth quarter, if you have to run the ball, you want your running back at his best. You can't have him over there getting oxygen. So that's number one.
"The deeper the season goes, you need your best running back to be at his best late in the year. The only way to do that is manage his touches to help him have some durability. Then he has three to four years of doing that. If you don't have a deep running back stable, you're going to have a guy just getting beat up unless he's just some special guy. There aren't many Herschel Walker's out there. The defensive guys are bigger, faster and they hit harder. It's a load on those guys."
In addition to Poole and sophomore Rajion Neal, the increase of options have come in the form of freshman tailbacks Marlin Lane and Tom Smith. Both have impressed this fall, but Smith has been limited with an injury.
"I really felt good after the second scrimmage where they were, and then Tom (Smith) got hurt," Dooley said. "Tom has been on the shelf for a week. He's shown a lot. What we're seeing with Marlin is he's heavy-legged. All the freshmen right snow are struggling because of camp. This is the hardest thing they've ever been through. To his credit, he's pushing through and he's making some good runs. I don't think he has the juice right now that he's going to have during the season. So far, we've been very pleased with both of them and we need them to be heavy contributors to us. We need to get Tom well."
Regardless of who carries the ball for Tennessee, the success the Vols have this season will ride upon the productivity of the run game.
"If we don't run the ball well this year, we're not going to be any good," Dooley said. "That's just how it is. We don't have enough wideouts. We don't have enough experience at quarterback and receiver play to go out there and sling it around the park. We're going to have to run the ball well, we did and we made a lot of progress (Saturday)."
MULTIPLE SKILL SETS, MULTIPLE SCHEMES
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been able to open up the playbook more in his second fall at Tennessee. With a wealthier variety of ways to attack the offense, the Vols will give their opponents different looks schematically this season.
"I think we have a lot more players who have different skill sets so it allows us to package some things," Dooley said. "Different types of linebackers, different types of D-ends. Malik (Jackson), he's kind of a hybrid guy, so you have guys with different skill sets that can do multiple things. Some guys do some things well and other things not so well. So, `When he's in the game, let's do this. When he's in the game, let's do this.' A little bit like offense."
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