Oct. 2, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Vols may not have a game on Saturday, but head coach Derek Dooley wants to make sure that each player has a defined purpose when they hit the practice field each day this week.
"We really want to have a defined objective for every player and for every unit," Dooley said. "It is so important that these guys learn how to have a purpose every day. I told them, everything happens before it happens. You have a goal, you know what the challenges are to reach that goal and then you prepare to do certain things to overcome those challenges. If we can all stay focused on defining a purpose for this week then we will come out of it a lot better football team."
To that end, each player on the Tennessee roster spent time with their position coach defining two goals for self-improvement during the team's open week, a technique Dooley has utilized before.
"It's just something I have always done, even as an assistant," Dooley said. "You can't really accomplish anything if you don't have a purpose, if you just go practice without an objective. During game week, your purpose is the game plan and you are working the plan. Whether it is red area or third down, you are really focused on what we are working on.
"When you go out there in an open date, it is really easy to say, `How long is this practice going to be?' You just get through it and don't really accomplish anything. And you get worse when you do that. We're just trying to be really focused on self-improvement. The practices aren't as bad when you are focused on something like that."
As a team, the Vols will spend their time getting back to the basics and work to improve in a number of areas, none more important than tackling on defense.
"The open week is always a time to go reevaluate your fundamentals and what you aren't doing as well as you need to," Dooley said. "Of course, the tackling, the open-field tackling and the space tackling is a real major concern where we need to make some significant improvement."
Just because it won't play a game this week doesn't mean Tennessee is going to take it easy on the practice field. The Vols will get some rest on the weekend. For now, it is full steam ahead.
"How physical they are is going to be up to what their mindset is and how physical they want to be," Dooley said. "We'll have a chance to recover later in the week, so we are really looking for recovery later but right now we are hitting and we are moving on."
LATHERS TAKING PRIDE AND RESPONSIBILITY
The obvious focus of attention after Tennessee's loss at #5 Georgia on Saturday is moving forward. Fifth-year senior Herman Lathers knows that focusing on a loss isn't helpful, but he has been taking responsibility for the mistakes and taking it upon himself to correct them.
Lathers says this team is nowhere near done - improvements have been visible everywhere. Coming into the Vols' bye week, the team is planning on capitalizing on the time to make changes for their next road trip.
"Our team has a bright future," Lathers said. "I think our whole team, this organization and the fans realize that. We set goals yesterday - two goals a person, one fundamental and one technique goal - so we went out today to work towards those goals and just get better as a person. I think we got better today as a team. We have two more work days to get better and then we get a little rest period."
With experience on his side, the Louisiana native knows that practice habits make better game habits leading to more wins.
"We're just keeping each other accountable at practice and practicing good habits at practice, trying to carry over practice into games," Lathers said. "It doesn't matter who you're playing - fundamentals are everything in the game. We have a great defense and we're a great team so we're just trying to clean those up this week."
Lathers says he takes responsibility for the defense and if they're doing what they need to be doing. Along with his teammate, A.J. Johnson, logistically, the defense is in their hands.
"As one of the linebackers on the inside who makes calls, it's mine and A.J. Johnson's job to get our defense going and get us aligned right," Lathers said. "It's something we take pride in and something we're studying all week to get better at."
"We've been watching a lot of film, trying to make the adjustments and make them work," Lathers said of his and Johnson's work this week. "[Tackling] was a big emphasis today. It was a goal for the whole team, trying to get guys to the ball. If one guy misses, then you have to have another guy there to make the tackle. Pursuit was really a big emphasis, so that's what we did today and we did a great job at it, just trying to get better."
As an experienced player, Lathers knows that it's not one single player's fault or job to win the football game, but he said there were plenty of positives in their 7-point loss to Georgia.
"We did some great things in the second and fourth quarter," Lathers said. "But, when you dig yourself into a big enough hole like we did, sometimes you get the results we got. We had a chance to win the game and we didn't, so that comes back on the whole team with the mistakes that we made early on."
Moving forward past the Vols' open week and into the next, Lathers knows what other teams will be looking at when they face the big orange.
"In the SEC, teams are going to try to run on you," Lathers said. "Especially when they watch the Georgia film, they're going to think they can run. But we just have to clean up our fundamental alignment errors that we made and I think that will give us the chance to stop the run."
Not to lose hope, this defense is ready for a comeback.
"We're working to improve every day," Lathers said. And they continue to, with one week off, then it's back to the field in Starkville, Mississippi.
BRAY LEARNING LESSONS
Coming off one of his toughest days as a Vol, junior quarter Tyler Bray is focused on making a positive out of the negatives from his game at Georgia. The signal caller was intercepted three times and lost a fumble in the final minutes of action.
"Just being smart and not trying to press," Bray said of improvements he will be looking to make late in games. "Towards the end, I was pressing and trying to make that big play again. It didn't work out.
"Just throwing the ball that's there. Not trying to force it downfield. Hitting the check down or even throwing it away. I mean a throw away is never really a bad pass."
Bray and the Vols have a week off before taking on Mississippi State on Oct. 13 in another road contest at a ranked team -- the Bulldogs are No. 20 in this week's AP Poll and 19th in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
"You always need those experiences and failing at them helps," said Bray of the loss at Georgia. "You learn from them and know next time I don't need to force the ball downfield, throw picks and fumble the ball."
With 14 days between games, Bray is going to take full advantage of the extra time to prep for MSU.
"Rest and study some film. It gives us an extra week of film to study on them," he said. "Their secondary is probably the best part of their defense so a lot of film study will help."
SETTLING INIn the last three games, Rajion Neal has led the Vols in both rushing yards and all-purpose yardage, combining for 342 rushing yards (114/gm.) and 437 all-purpose yards (145.7/gm.) during that stretch.
One might say he is getting comfortable. Neal agrees.
"I am just settling in," said Neal. "The coaches are really working towards what I do a little bit better and doing things that I like a little bit more. I just have guys around me that have helped me. The O-Line gave me opportunities, when I got to the open field I got my guys out there blocking and helping me. I am coming into my own a little bit and the guys have helped with that."
Never one to accept praise for a job well done, Neal instead gives praise of his own to those who have helped him get there.
"I was happy, the offensive line, the fullbacks and the guys on the perimeter gave me great opportunities out there in open field and got me started," said Neal. "They just put me in good situations and I am happy with the way we performed. A lot of guys played with each other and a lot of guys helped each other. It was a team effort and part of the reason that I had such a good day."
Neal is also leading in rushing attempts this season, and not just amongst Vols as he is the only SEC rusher to have over 100 carries this season. And he isn't tired.
"We played him a lot," said head coach Derek Dooley, "but it was about the right number of snaps. I think he had about 50 or so snaps and touched it about 20 times, which is good. That's a heavy workload right there, but that is 20 less snaps than he got in the Florida game and 20 snaps is a lot."
"I feel that I will be able to maintain because Coach Graham does a great job of managing my game and managing what plays I am taking when," said Neal. "He spaces it out very well to make sure I can get through the whole game."
Neal isn't worried about his workload as he has people around him helping him in every aspect of the game. He expects his snap count to remain high as the season continues.
"I almost feel that it is a compliment," said Neal. "It means that we are doing something right. It means that these guys have faith and believe in what we are doing and everyone is behind it. It feels good to know that our offensive coordinator wants to keep running and our quarterback is agreeing with him and saying he wants to do that. It is a compliment and it is exciting to hear."
GOOD, BUT LOOKING FOR MORETennessee may have run for nearly 200 yards against a stout Georgia defense last Saturday, but it felt like it left even more on the field at Sanford Stadium.
With an off week before their next game, the Vols are looking forward to the opportunity to continue to improve before they head to Starkville for a showdown with No. 19 Mississippi State on Oct. 13 (9 p.m. on ESPN2).
"I think that our O-line and running backs have a ton of potential," redshirt senior fullback Ben Bartholomew said. "It's just beginning. We did a lot of good things, but we still left some plays out there, so we're going to capitalize on those."
The process for improving the run game has been a gradual one, but the results of the hard work Bartholomew and his teammates have put in each day at practice is beginning to become evident.
"As seniors, we're definitely more responsible about everything and we have to be more technical about everything we do," Bartholomew said. "I think run blocking is something you have to work on every single day. Even if you're the best run blocker in the league, you still have to work on it because the defense is going to be doing the same thing."
That leadership and experience from Bartholomew has been extremely helpful for junior Rajion Neal in his first season as the team's starting tailback.
"Bart talks to me every series, every play, letting me know what he is doing and thinking and that helps out a lot," Neal said. "It starts with him and the offensive line. In practice and these last couple of games we know how each other works and how to set reads up to get the most production. Bart knows how Marlin [Lane] and I run, and the same goes for the O-Line. They know their backs and what are the best helps and fits for each of us. Bart is a student of the game. He has been around for a while. He knows what it takes and what is going on out there."
That trust Neal has displayed has not gone unnoticed, both on the stat sheet or by his lead blocker.
"Rajion is doing a great job of reading the O-line's blocks and I think as each play goes on he begins to trust my blocks and the O-line even more," Bartholomew said. "That's helping him out and it's showing on the field."
FAMILIAR SCENE FOR NEALThe game at Mississippi State is a big one for Rajion Neal and not just because he has been heating up on the field as of late.
Neal spent the better part of 2009 being recruited by the Bulldogs and head coach Dan Mullen, and only after a visit with Coach Dooley and Coach Chaney in January of 2010 did he change his mind and decide that he wanted to be a Volunteer.
"I think when I came [to Tennessee] it was a lot of love and fan support," said Neal. "The coaching staff and the situation that they were in, there was a lot that played a big part and I have no regrets."
Neal isn't nervous heading to Starkville next week, and is heading into this game like any other.
"It is important," said Neal. "I feel that this is just as big as any game. I am excited to go back but I am going to treat this game like any other SEC game or any opponent we faced."