Aug. 21, 2014
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- Utah State had the attention of the Tennessee linebackers all off-season. Now that training camp is in the rear view and game preparation is underway, that attention has kicked up a notch.
After two days off for the beginning of classes that represented both a physical and mental break between training camp and game week, the Volunteers returned to the practice field now fully locked on the opponent that will enter Neyland Stadium next Sunday.
The change in tone was a catalyst for a productive afternoon on Haslam Field.
"Everyone is anxious preparing for Utah State now," sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "We're tired of beating up on each other and seeing the same things."
The biggest attention-getter for Utah State is quarterback Chuckie Keeton, the Mountain West Conference Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. Keeton has also been mentioned in the preseason Heisman Trophy conversation. But it's his on-field ability rather than off-field accolades that has the attention of linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen.
"He's dynamic," Thigpen said of Keeton. "He can throw it, he can run it, he can make all the checks, he doesn't give their offense many negative plays."
The dual threat Keeton poses had the linebackers focused on Utah State in the film room long before the extended game week preparation.
"You can't run by him, your guys have to be disciplined in their lanes, Thigpen said. "Don't let him beat you with his legs. He can throw it just as good as he runs it. He poses one of the biggest threats we'll see all year."
An opponent as experienced as Utah State with a player as talented as Keeton served as motivation for the team in preparation for the season. But the Volunteers aren't focused on stopping the opponent, they're focused on what they have to do themselves to stop the opponent. It's a lesson A.J. Johnson hopes the team can learn and apply to all 12 games on the schedule, not just the first.
"The one thing about football is it's not what they do, it's what you do," Johnson said. "We have to come out focused and worried about us and getting the job done."
Thigpen agreed. While the linebackers may be called upon to be the primary unit to keep Keeton in check, it is going to take an effort that extends beyond just the position that he directs.
"It's going to take all 11," Thigpen said. "That's kind of been our theme, no mental errors, don't beat yourselves, don't run past the quarterback and let him make an explosive play. That's been the thing, do your job, don't try and do too much."