Aug 29, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - With just two days remaining until It's Football Time In Tennessee, the Vols are making their final preparations for Saturday night's season opener against Austin Peay.
Tasked with living up to the name `Wide Receiver U,' assistant coach Zach Azzanni knows it's all about preparation and has put his nine guys through the gauntlet this preseason.
"Every kid is different; I think I have an idea of how they will respond," Azzanni said after Wednesday's practice. "A lot of it is how they prepare, how they practice. I am a firm believer that it's the week of preparation that usually dictates how they will play. I have a pretty good idea of how each of them will respond.
"I'm looking forward to watching them play and seeing what they can do. We have prepared them; Coach (Butch) Jones has prepared them. We will find out Saturday."
With youth at the position, Coach Azzanni says it's still a wide open competition. The group competing for starting spots includes the likes of true freshmen Marquez North and Josh Smith, redshirt freshman Jason Croom and sophomore Pig Howard.
"I have nine guys," Azzanni said. "We're going to take them and we're going to roll with them. We've got to go. They've all got to play.
"Who jogs out there at the first snap; I don't even know what it says on that depth chart. They're all going to play. They have to. Whoever jogs out there snap one might be completely different than snap two. They all responded and no one went and grabbed any spots."
In addition to starters and playmakers, Azzanni is also still looking for leaders. And right now, he's leading by example.
"You're looking at him. I am the alpha male," said Azzanni. "We need so much more experience. We need them to grow up a little. They need to have a little clout on the field and I think once that happens you will see some leaders emerge and it may be some freshmen.
"I understand what it is right now. I am that guy, I am the senior, I am the captain, I am the alpha male. The problem is with coaches sometimes, we become white noise, so you need a player to police the group and right now it's a work in progress."
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie is a no-nonsense coach.
He knows his job is to get the players prepared to play and to not be their fan.
"My job is to coach, critique, and correct," said Gillespie. "None of that is fun. My job is to find one thing for you to get better at and once you get better at it, I find the next thing that you've got to get better at. My job is to always find ways to make them better and when I do that, they'll respect me more and more. So, it's not about trying to gain friendships, it's about making those guys be the best football players they can be."
Gillespie, since joining the staff right before spring practice, has had over 30 practices to develop the 2013 running back corps and on Saturday night is ready to see them perform.
"You get nervous just like a player," said Gillespie. "As a coach, we really just play through the kids. So the same jitters, excitement, and anxiety that you have as a player, you have it for your kids because you want those kids to go out and be successful. They've worked, they've done all the things behind the scenes. We're excited and nervous just like the kids are."
But just because they might be listed as such, doesn't mean that they are the only guys to play.
"Whenever the next guy's ready to go, he's ready to go," said Gillespie. "We don't have a depth chart. It sounds like some cool stuff to say, but who goes out first, Rajion may go out first and next play Marlin may be in and the next play Tom (Smith) may be in. So, it's just going to be by committee until we get a nice feel for who the guys are, to be honest with you."
Gillespie will look to the experience of Neal and Lane to help lead the rest of the running backs on Saturday, however.
"These guys are mature guys," said Gillespie. "They understand that they do have some of the most experience. They're two of the most experienced guys on this offense other than the offensive line. We have to do a great job of helping the line protect the quarterback, and also helping the guys on the perimeter and you do that by being able to run the ball."
"That's something they always have in the back of their minds," said Gillespie. "They've done a good job working. On Saturday night we'll see if they buy into it and they really go out and make plays."
DUAL ROLE FOR ELDER AND PALARDY
The place kicker and punter is the same person. The special teams and tight ends coach is also the same person, but the dual-role for Michael Palardy and tight ends/special teams coach Mark Elder hasn't hindered them in either role.
The senior has proven his importance to special teams, which is apparent to his coach. As his coach, Elder is taking extra precautions to make sure his all-in-one player stays healthy.
"(Keeping Michael healthy) is a big concern and it's something we talk about every single day since he's doing so much for us," Elder said. "We make sure we're counting his reps from kickoffs to punts, making sure that he's not doing too much.
"We want him to be not only good for game one, but game two, three and all the way through."
With this much riding on one player, Elder says even though Palardy is splitting up reps between positions, he earned his spot.
"There's always things that guys can work on," Elder said. "It may be the placement on kickoffs, or making sure we're hitting where we want on the field on his punts. If it's not exactly on-point, then that's where we'll rep him. That's with every position; no one is perfect, but we're striving to be. You always try to get better where you're lacking at."
Another position the special teams coach isn't lacking at is the kick returner position, which Elder says junior Devrin Young has made sure he got the starting spot.
"He is the most consistent performer at (the returning) position from spring to fall if you look at what he's done," Elder said. "With the returner, you can't be good five out of six because that's a turnover."
Not only has Young gained consistency, Elder also says that since he arrived in the spring, Young has gained confidence with the ball on the field.
"It's a combination of the fact that he has been the most consistent guy along with the fact that he's a threat with the ball in his hands."
Heading into Saturday's game, the dual-role coach knows what to expect and isn't shying away from the madness to occur at Neyland Stadium.
"I'm looking forward to experiencing it firsthand," Elder said. "You see videos of it, you've watched it, read about it, heard about it and I'm excited to get the opportunity to do those things. I've played (at Neyland Stadium) before, so I know what it's like. I was on the other side of it, but I know that the atmosphere here is second to none."
BE THE BEST TENNESSEE
In just two days, the Volunteers will run through the `T' to begin a new era of Tennessee football and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez plans to watch from above in the press box to see what Team 117's defense has to show Big Orange Nation.
Martinez hopes that the defense has learned that it doesn't matter if it's the first game of the season or the last, an SEC or non-conference opponent, you must expect the unexpected. The Tennessee defense will do just that.
"The thing that we say to our players all the time, you've been working since January, so regardless of who you play, let's be the best Tennessee football team we can be ourselves and worry about things we can control," Martinez said.
Most likely, Martinez plans to have many defensive players see time under the lights Saturday night. From veterans to walk-ons, Martinez and staff have watched players continuously develop and further understand the defensive playbook.
This year's defense, which contains multiple freshmen and walk-on players, has impressed Martinez as of late.
"I like them," said Martinez. "I like their attitude. Obviously, we have to see how they play. We have to see how they respond to playing in front of our fans and that environment, in an unbelievable atmosphere. So, it will be a true test how they go through it and will they produce and be effective."
Attitude reflects leadership.
`The good thing is we've got that leadership, the experience of Brian Randolph and Justin Coleman, Byron Moore, LaDarrell McNeil who went through it last year as a freshman," said Martinez. "You can see his communication with them. I know JaRon Toney has played nickel before, but it's really a new position for him from the standpoint of he's the No. 1 guy right now and Devaun Swafford backing him up.
"Obviously at the corner position you've got Cam (Sutton), and Malik Foreman and Reggie Juin, so they'll see playing time, and they've worked really hard. They've grown a lot in the last month, so to speak. I'm looking forward to seeing them play. I'm excited about it, so Saturday couldn't get here any quicker."
ONLY 2 MORE DAYS UNTIL...
The Vols open the 2013 campaign against Austin Peay on Saturday, Aug. 31. To purchase season tickets, go to UTTix.com.
For more information about the Tennessee football team, visit UTSports.com/football, follow @Vol_Football on Twitter or like the Vols at Facebook.com/VolFootball.