Sept. 12, 2013
KNOXVILLE - At the beginning of the 2013 season, the Tennessee coaching staff made some changes to improve the speed of the Tennessee defense.
One improvement included the Vols working out throughout the summer to slim down and speed up.
The Vols will need that speed this weekend against a very fast Oregon offense.
"They're going to make plays," said linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen, who has faced the potent Oregon offense previously in the 2011 National Championship game while at Auburn. "It's like playing a Michael Jordan. He's going to make plays. You just have to make plays as well."
The Tennessee linebackers have been preparing for the speedy Marcus Mariota throughout this week in practice and know what could happen if they don't get to him quickly.
"An athletic quarterback gives you so many different dimensions," said Thigpen. "There is no gap for it, so there's nobody assigned to the quarterback. You turn your back on a quarterback like that that runs a 4.40, you turn around, he's right up on you."
"If you're not on it--if you misfit a play, if you misfit a read or you squeeze in too far, they have guys that can be in the end zone," continued Thigpen. "They're zero to 20 in three steps."
The Vols know what they need to do and have taken the correct steps this week in practice to get there.
Now it is just execution time.
"We have to be disciplined football and gap assignment," said Thigpen. "We have to have our alignments correct, our eyes right, and then when you get in position and make the tackles, we have to make tackles in space--that's our number one challenge."
A NEW LOOK FOR THE TIGHT ENDS
Butch Jones' tight ends are expected to do a lot out on the field.
One must be very versatile to fit into his schemes and packages.
Brendan Downs has done that so far.
"We ask a lot of our tight ends, no question about it," said tight ends coach Mark Elder. "We will ask him to be flexed out like wide receiver, you will see him out there - two point stances. They have to run just like the receivers, all those things that we ask them to do."
"They will line up right next to the tackle, they are doing all the run blocking, just like an offensive tackle essentially," continued Elder. "We also have them off the ball, moving around, coming back behind the line of scrimmage, doing a lot of those things."
Downs is 2-for-2 with touchdowns this season, making the most of his opportunities, reeling in both short yardage passes thrown his way in the redzone this year, and crossing the goal line.
He has also done all of the things that don't show up in the stats.
"Brendan Downs is a smart football player, it is important to him, he studies, it makes sure he knows his assignments," continued Elder. "He has done a nice job with those things and we are excited about him taking steps forward to be an even better player."
WIDE RECEIVER U BY COMMITTEE
With the loss of 151 receptions, 2,352 yards and 21 touchdowns at the position, first-year coach Zach Azzanni has implemented a wide receivers by committee system in 2013.
Through two games, the Vols have sent 11 wideouts onto the field. Of those 11, eight of them are underclassmen.
Despite learning a new system and the overall youth at the position, Coach Azzanni has seen early-season improvement, but is remaining patient.
"They were more physical, not where I want them to be but we were more physical," Azzanni said about the Western Kentucky game. "There was some improvement made and I was pleased. There were some other areas I didn't think we got as good. Baby steps with this crew, baby steps."
One of the biggest challenges for the Vols wide receivers this season is learning the new system.
"There are so many intricacies out there, especially in this offense," Azzanni said. "We are going so fast and you have to process so fast. The route technique, the blocking technique, how you get signals, just all those things are different than any other position, especially in this offense. It is a big adjustment, it takes a while, and unfortunately it isn't overnight."
"They both stepped up; both made a lot of mistakes but also made some plays," Azzanni said. "It was nice to see. It was nice to see some guys catch the ball and have fun doing it. It was a good confidence builder to."
Although he'd like to see the big splash plays week in and week out, Azzanni knows with this week's opponent it's all about time of possession.
"We have to make some plays; we have to keep the chains moving," said Azzanni. "That is what we have to do in order to keep the ball in our hands. We have to keep the chains moving, if that's through the air, it's through the air, if that is on the ground, it is on the ground. Whatever it is, we have to keep them off the field and keep ourselves on the field."
After fall camp, senior Rajion Neal was named to the starting spot at running back.
But running backs coach Robert Gillespie made it clear that though Neal was the starter week one, that didn't mean that he would play the majority of the game. It also didn't mean that he would definitively be the starter during week two.
Neal has taken that advice and ran with it, literally.
"Rajion has been getting a lot of snaps," said Gillespie. "He did a really good job in camp. He did a good job staying healthy throughout the spring. He did a good job staying healthy throughout fall camp. He's really done a good job of just keeping that role."
Right at Neal's heels is junior running back Marlin Lane, who actually played one more snap that Neal last weekend against Western Kentucky.
"Marlin is a guy that's one snap away from just getting in the groove," said Gillespie. "He breaks a long run and he's the guy that gets in the rhythm, he'll play a little bit more."
Having two solid backs fighting for playing time really isn't a terrible problem to have, especially going into a game against the No. 2 team in the country.
"It's a really good situation to have both of those guys playing well right now," said Gillespie. "But they're going to have to step it up another level going against Oregon this week. Both guys did a really good job protection wise. Hopefully we can continue to build. I thought we made major strides from week one to week two, and hopefully we can continue to make strides going into this week."
With depth at running back including spring standout Alden Hill and walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill who has grinded out fourth quarters for the Vols in the first two games, Neal and Lane have some competition to keep them improving week-in and week-out.
"These guys work all week," said Gillespie. "The guys that work the hardest are the guys that are going to play the most. To me, it's a revolving door. It's whatever you've done for us lately. It's not a promise deal, where if you started last game, you're going to start next week. I think that motivates the guys to continue to work hard, but everything that you get on Saturday is earned during the week."
The running back group will look to move that practice week competition to the field this weekend.
"If we go out there and play Tennessee football, play tough, and we're able to run the ball as a running back group and an offensive line, I think we have a chance of being successful against Oregon."
TRUE TEST FOR THE FRONT FIVE
Tennessee's offensive line takes pride in being ranked No. 1 in numerous preseason polls as the best in the SEC and second in the country.
In their first away game of the season, Saturday at Oregon, the Vols will be challenged with a solid defensive line in the Oregon Ducks and offensive line coach Don Mahoney knows what the Vols need to expect in Autzen Stadium.
"They are big, really fundamentally sound, use their hands extremely well," said Mahoney." Their front three are very active with their scheme and what they do defensively. They present problems, in terms of certain things that you don't see on a regular basis as an offensive line."
Mahoney has stressed the importance of being alert for every second of every play when on the field.
"We don't have room for error," Mahoney said. " If you do you get exposed on a given play, as I have always said, it just takes one to go bad and the play is not good and we have a negative play. So we have to be on high alert on every play in terms of being pin point on."
Team 117 has responded.
"I sensed it at the start of this week and obviously the opportunity that we have, the urgency level is at an all-time high," Mahoney said. "I believe that the guys will respond to that. We just have to respond consistently, we have to react to an adverse situation that occurs and bounce back the next play and not let it be one that is a snowball type of deal where it is one play after the other. We have to snap and clear and move on to the next one."
The offensive line has pinpointed their focus each and every week to better their blocking and Mahoney is seeing progression each week.
"I like the fact that we made strides in terms of the effort," Mahoney said. "That was pointed out in terms of sustaining blocks. We had more guys who we had with knock downs that again are a result of sustaining the block for a long period of time. It's outworking your opponent. That was the biggest thing I was pleased about."
Finishing the play is detrimental and Mahoney recognizes the effort that players are giving to do so.
"You have to keep demanding that," said Mahoney. "You have to keep praising that when it happens. You have to make sure you correct it when it's not happening. Those results of yardage are what you're working towards and why we got what we did."