Oct. 3, 2013
KNOXVILLE -- The state of college football and the SEC is changing. Week in and week out the points continue to pile up. But Tennessee offensive line coach Don Mahoney stands his ground on one thing - this is still a line of scrimmage league.
Heading into this week's matchup against No. 6 Georgia, the Vols' veteran offensive line will be locked in a battle over the line of scrimmage.
"They are an active front; they get after it," said Mahoney. "Their two inside players are extremely solid and their two ends have speed and quickness. They keep getting better each game. We have to be clicking on all cylinders, communication is of the utmost importance and our technique and effort have to be at an all-time high."
With 143 combined starts under their belts and having played some of the nation's top competition in Oregon and Florida already this season, the Vols' front five won't be caught off guard by the Bulldogs.
"We have an opportunity - having played Oregon, having played Florida - we have seen some of it," said Mahoney. "It's not like it is a new week of that. It's really going back and working to correct some of the mistakes we made in those two games."
Georgia's defensive front may be young, but through talent and coaching they've impressed Mahoney in 2013.
"It's that time; guys are replacing guys and stepping into roles where they have to mature faster than they are really ready to," said Mahoney. "They are a really well-coached team. They are getting better and improving. They are playing team defense together.
"You've got to be right on the offensive line to stop it. Each week the level of talent that we're facing gets better and better. We have to playing and clicking on all cylinders."
NORTH TO SOUTH
Senior running back Rajion Neal had a career game last weekend against South Alabama rushing for 169 yards, the most by any Vol since 2009.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian was proud of Neal's effort, and proud of the way that he has improved this season.
"It was great to see," said Bajakian. "Rajion played a tough football game. He was dinged up, he didn't relent. He came out in the second half and still ran very physically, finished his runs. He was good in pass protection. I am very happy with the process and progress that he has made throughout the season."
During the game Neal took what looked like might be just three or four yard gains, bounced off and raced down the field, including a career long 53-yard rush in the second quarter that set up a UT touchdown.
His effort also impressed head coach Butch Jones.
"We felt Rajion played his most complete game since we have been here," said Jones. "That is a tribute to our offensive line, and a tribute to him. We have challenged him of learning how to run north and south, behind his pads and getting four yards first."
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie concurs with his coworkers and believes not just Neal, but the entire running back corps has taken strides this season.
"I think as a team everybody is getting better week by week," said Gillespie. "I just think he is one of those pieces that continue to get better with every rep. But there are a lot of things to work on. I do think we were better last week then we were week one."
"Earlier in the season, Rajion was trying to bounce everything and he was always looking for a big play," said Jones. "I think the mark of a great back is getting four yards first. We have challenged him to do that and he has responded. He is a work in progress with his pass protection and has taken tremendous strides. Rajion's mentality and his attitude has been great since the minute we walked in the door."
With two true freshmen, one redshirt freshman and two sophomores listed on the Vols' current two-deep at wide receiver, the ceiling looks high for Wide Receiver U.
As he does every week, positional coach Zach Azzanni evaluates the performance of his players' previous game. While doing so, Azzanni came across a photo that grabbed his attention.
"There was a picture of Marquez (North) and Josh (Smith) chest-bumping in the end zone Saturday," said Azzanni. "I put a big thing together for both of them, circled it and wrote `The Future.' Just the look in their eyes was `wow,' because there were two true freshmen chest-bumping."
Azzanni is seeing consistent improvement and knows the potential is there, but continues to stress patience.
"It's peaks and valleys; these are 18 to 22 year old kids," said Azzanni. "The maturity might pop on overtime and all of a sudden from this year to next year you might see a different kid. But that is over six and seven months, spring, summer and winter workouts.
"It doesn't just snap on one day. It takes some time. You are starting to see habits creep up, good habits, and the bad habits are going away. It's fun to watch them grow."
Developing receivers is not new for Azzanni. As head coach Butch Jones has emphasized repeatedly, there's none better in the country at developing talent on the outside.
Azzanni has developed the likes of Pittsburgh Steelers star Antonio Brown, former Central Michigan standout Bryan Anderson and current Wisconsin Badgers senior Jared Abbrederis.
"I think the good coaches know when to pull off and put on," said Azzanni. "You have to be positive and you have to show them they can do it. If I didn't have relationships with my kids and if I didn't do different things to build the chemistry, then I wouldn't be able to coach them like I do. They would shut off. But they know I care about them. I am invested completely."
With Azzanni leading the way, it appears the future is bright at Wide Receiver U.
BOOST OF CONFIDENCE
For the third time this season, a Tennessee tight end caught a touchdown pass.
For the first time in his career against South Alabama, it was true freshman A.J. Branisel that hauled in the six-point grab.
Tight ends coach Mark Elder was proud and happy for the rookie.
"It was a neat deal for him to get a touchdown since he is a true freshman," said Elder. "It was a meaningful one and a big one in the game. It gave him a little bit more juice going into this week. He is fired up."
Branisel notched the Vols first touchdown of the day turning around in the back of the endzone and corralling a two-yard strike from Justin Worley to give the Vols a lead they would not relinquish.
The touchdown was a demonstration of the progress that Branisel has made this year, in his first few months on Rocky Top.
"He is coming along, absolutely," said Elder. "As a freshman he is grasping the offense better. Every single day he is getting better. As far as the ins and outs of everything, it is easy when it is on the boards but when it is moving parts, that is when it gets a little bit tougher."
"Every single day he is learning with the reps he is getting, he is improving," continued Elder. "He is focused and locked in which is good. He is improving as a receiver obviously with his nice catch over the weekend and he is getting better as a blocker as well."