Sept. 20, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Prior to Thursday's practice on Haslam Field, Derek Dooley released several changes to the Vols' depth chart as the team heads into Saturday's game against Akron (7:30 p.m. CSS).
The most significant change was the starter at left cornerback where sophomore Justin Coleman has moved ahead of senior Marsalis Teague, who started the first three games of the season. Coleman started four games as a freshman in 2011 including the first two games of his career. Coleman has played in all three games this season and has a tackle. Teague has seven stops with an interception, coming against NC State.
Junior Rajion Neal, who has started as the Vols' number one back in each of the first three games of the season was officially installed as the starter. Neal will be backed up by the tandem of sophomores Devrin Young and Marlin Lane.
At tight end, sophomore Brendan Downs is now listed as the backup to senior starter Mychal Rivera. Downs was limited early in the season since suffering a knee injury during the team's second scrimmage of fall training camp. Downs was back on the field for a few snaps in the Florida game last Saturday and will see more time this coming week versus Akron. The previous backup listed was starting fullback Ben Bartholomew, who has seen his hybrid role expand in 2012. Bartholomew will continue to be listed as the starting fullback.
The backup X receiver will now be sophomore Vincent Dallas in place of freshman Cody Blanc. Dallas has played in all three games and has one catch for seven yards. Blanc has seen action in two of the first three games this season, but has no stats.
AKRON'S FIREPOWERThe Akron Zips piled up 66 points on offense last week as they racked up a school-record 753 yards of offense. The Zips are averaging 39.3 points on offense with the spread offense installed by new head coach Terry Bowden. Quarterback Dalton Williams is throwing for more than 334 yards per game with 10 touchdowns in just three games.
The Zips are ranked fifth in the NCAA in passing yardage per game (378.0) and is second in passing touchdowns with 13.
The Vols' defensive staff is well aware of the challenge the Zips' offense, which is averaging close to 500 yards per game, presents.
"We have a humongous challenge," cornerback coach Derrick Ansley said of Akron. "Those guys are really balanced in what they do. They are well coached. Coach Bowden does a really good job with the personnel that they have. The quarterback is a really steady guy. He has been there a long time and is battle tested so we have to do a good job of going in there and covering those guys.
"We have to get our hands on them and make sure we give the defensive line enough time to get to the quarterback. We have a really good challenge in the secondary, but it's a great challenge. We look forward to it. They are going to put the ball in the air a lot and we are going to have a chance to make some plays."
Akron has already completed 102 passes in the trio of games, a remarkable 34 completions per game. Defensive line coach John Palermo is prepping his players for the various sets that the Zips run.
"Their offense is about 80 percent spread, so we are going to be in our sub packages most of the night," said Palermo. "They will do some stuff with two tight ends which we will use our base defense, but for the most part we will be in our sub packages."
MISSING RANDOLPHThe Tennessee secondary took a big hit last Saturday when starting free safety Brian Randolph went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Don't expect anyone to use his absence as an excuse, however, as the Vols are looking at the unfortunate occurrence as a challenge and an opportunity for other players to step up.
"It means a lot to lose him because Brian was a steady guy, a really dependable guy," assistant coach Derrick Ansley said. "He knew the defense really well and he was a vocal guy back there but this is SEC football. You are going to sustain injuries and you have to have enough depth to not let it kill you. It is a big blow, though. We have a lot of young guys back there. Brent Brewer has to answer the challenge this week, as well as Rod Wilks, LaDarrell McNeil and Geraldo Orta. We have a lot of guys we feel good about and that we can put in the game."
One aspect of the UT defense that will help ease the blow is the fact that the team uses its two safeties interchangeably. Instead of one safety that plays down and one that plays up, they play left and right, adjusting to the opponent's formation and location of the ball on the field.
The combination of Moore and Brewer is one the Vols have no problems with putting on the field.
"I'm really comfortable with it," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "It's unfortunate that you have an injury, but what you try and tell guys and make them understand is that you have to go to the next guy and you always have to be ready. You try to impress that upon them early. You never know when it's going to happen and you're going to have to be the guy that comes in and make the plays. Right now, Brent's time may have been limited with the money in our dime-wrapped package in passing situations, but he's a good based safety and he can do that for us. He can be a physical presence, so now he has to step that part of his game up."
MIXING MCNEIL INAnother player that is likely to see increased playing time due to Randolph's injury is true freshman LaDarrell McNeil.
Bumped up to be Brewer's backup at strong safety, McNeil is the only true freshman on the defensive two-deep for the Vols, a testament to his makeup and talent.
"LaDarrell is a very focused guy," Conklin said. "He's an extremely focused individual and he's a very conscientious guy. It's just a matter of giving him live reps. I think the reps he's taken on special teams has helped his confidence on getting out there this week. What I want to see from him is to put the extra time in and continue to develop as a football player and continue to gain confidence. When you get out there and your mind doesn't go blank and you're ready to play football when the ball is snapped."
Hailed as an instant-impact type player when he signed last February, McNeil has demonstrated the ability to play at this level. That was best evidenced by his open-field tackle to stop Florida short of a first down on a fake punt play last Saturday. The only thing he has lacked is experience, something he will continue to get more and more of over as the season progresses.
"LaDarrell is a very instinctive guy," Conklin said. "He's very explosive, what we call a `twitch' guy. He can make plays and show up when you don't think he's going to make up. He's very explosive to the point of attack. It's just getting him going in the right direction, but he's as advertised, the type of guy that you want to play at the safety position, especially in the middle of the field."
WHEN PIG FLIESLast week marked the return of Alton "Pig" Howard to the gridiron.
The heralded freshman recruit had surgery on his foot in the middle of July and worked hard all fall camp to get back on to the field, like he did against Florida.
"When you say he's 100 percent, he missed camp," said Hinshaw. "It's really hard. We've got to practice him into shape. He's been running. He's been working hard, but it's not the same as going full speed and running a route, coming back, running a route, coming back, running a route. He's done that this week."
Howard, a four star recruit from Orlando, Fla., brought more speed and elusiveness to the Tennessee wide receiver corps. He will look to get that speed back, and get more in-game snaps, as the season continues.
"He didn't play very many [snaps]," said wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw. "A few. Again, he didn't have a ton of reps last week in practice. This week, he's had a lot of reps in practice. It's easier to trust a guy who's been practicing a lot, so we're going to put him out there and let him go play."
THE BETTER YOU FEEL, THE BETTER YOU PLAYUT defensive line coach John Palermo has had to prepare his players for a different offensive style each week so far this season, a significant task as attempts to keep the calls simple and versatile enough for his charges to play fast and be successful.
Last Saturday, the Tennessee front three played well enough to contain Florida's base offense, but there is plenty of room for improvement.
"When they let us play base defense, I think the three inside kids did a nice job on Saturday," Palermo said. "Can we get better? Absolutely. I think we definitely left some plays on the field. We had a couple of chances to sack them and we lost contain, we didn't wrap up or things like that, but I saw a bunch of guys competing their tails off."
The problem is, you aren't going to have the same base offense every week, so the defense needs to be prepared for something different week-to-week, or in the case of Florida, throughout the game.
"I think it does drive you a little crazy when you have to go back-and-forth between a standard offense and a spread offense," Palermo said. "Although when Florida lined up in their base offense, we didn't have any issues. It was when they went to their wildcat and some of their spread stuff that we got hurt. We just have to prepare for all of those things."
And that is what the Vols will do and have been doing each week in practice. Making improvements.
"I think any time someone makes an improvement it is encouraging, whether you are coaching them or whether you are the player," Palermo said. "With players, the better they get fundamentally, the better they feel about themselves. The better they feel about themselves, the better they play."