Oct. 4, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Vols head into their annual open date Saturday with a trio of games against ranked teams on the horizon. Derek Dooley was happy with the team's performance during the week knowing they will have some time away from the football field before returning for Monday's practice.
"We had two really good physical practices," Dooley said of this week's sessions. "They were long, they were hard, they were tough, kind of like training camp. We gave a lot of people an opportunity to grow and develop. I could use a whole other training camp, so it's never enough. I think we accomplished what we needed to. We are going to lift and run them tomorrow and then they get a 48-hour hall pass. They need to manage it the right way so they come back fresh and ready to go."
An off week gives teams time to heal, regroup and recover from nagging injuries, but Dooley also thinks time off can take away from a team's edge.
"Sometimes it's better to keep going (with games) and your body just adjusts and you keep pushing," said Dooley. "Sometimes you need (rest). I don't know if it's going to help us or not. We will find out.
"Sometimes a lot of rest before a lot of physicality doesn't help you. Usually when I give these guys a couple of days off, the first day they come back they are terrible. But if you just keep hitting them all the time, they don't even know and they just keep going. Your body adjusts to the amount of stress you put on it. If you lay around for two days, your body adjusts and just says, 'I want to lay.' When you hit for two days, your body adjusts and says 'Let's hit.' That's how you build muscle."
The Vols started installing their game plan for Mississippi State on Thursday.
"It was like a Monday practice," said Dooley of Thursday. "Introducing what they do. Their fronts, their base runs, their throws, their personnel, their (special) teams. We will come back on Monday go get after it pretty good."
THE REASON HE BECAME A VOLThe Tennessee offensive line has lived up to the expectations placed on it heading into this season and a big part of that is because of offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman, who spent the past five seasons coaching at North Carolina, came to Tennessee to start anew.
"I took the job because of the players in that room," said Pittman. "One, I wanted to come to Tennessee and two, I knew who I was coming to Tennessee with; (Coach) Chaney and the guys in that room. I knew they were really good players and for some reason they just had not gelled yet. I certainly had recruited a lot of those guys and lost in the recruiting battle on a lot of those guys so I knew they were good players and that is why I wanted to be a part of it."
Through five games, the players in that room have allowed just three sacks, with two coming on technicalities - an intentional grounding call and a fumble behind the line of scrimmage -- rather than hard hits on the quarterback.
Those three sacks allowed rank 11th in the nation, but sit fifth in the category `pass attempts per sacks allowed' as the Vols have given Bray enough time in the pocket for 202 pass attempts in 2012 (67.00 PA/SA). For comparison, one of the four teams ahead of the Vols, Air Force has not allowed a sack this season, but has attempted just 44 passes.
Though the line was already experienced, entering the year with a combined 106 starts, Pittman took a group of seasoned athletes, fit them together into a unit and taught them to believe in themselves.
"I think when I came in we tried to turn them loose and get them some fits where we wanted them to fit and play fast," said Pittman. "That takes a little bit of pressure off of you and it showed that it worked. I think the experience of (the offensive line) plays into it. Obviously `Tiny' Richardson is new so it has been a transition getting him in with those guys. I think they are playing better just because they have seen more game time and the other reason is that they have confidence. You cannot play this game if you are not confident, you just cannot do it. Now all of the sudden they believe they can."
NEVER SATISFIEDIf there is one thing that running backs coach Jay Graham is, it is never satisfied.
At least when it comes to his running backs.
Graham expects the most out of his group of athletes, and it shows in practice. Where the competition never stops.
"It is competitive every day in practice and the guy that practices the best should get that opportunity to get in the game," said Graham.
One of the most competitive players on the team is Rajion Neal who has put up some big numbers against good competition in his last three times on the field.
"The thing that [Rajion] has done is that he is always competitive in practice," said Graham. "He has done a good job of competing in practice, the effort level has been high for all the guys and it always has been a close competition and still is."
Graham is not satisfied with Rajion's recent efforts, however, and knows there are still things to improve on to make both him, and the rest of the running backs, better competitors.
"Once again we are just working on breaking tackles," said Graham. "I am never satisfied, but those guys aren't either. I think they want to work hard and the effort has been there to get better every day in practice. It is good [what we did against Georgia]. It is one more step in the right direction, but we have to keep improving. That is what this week was about. Working on the little things, attention to detail to get better."
RENEWED CONFIDENCE FOR MCNEILPressed into a more active role last Saturday against Georgia, freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil stepped up for the Vols, recording five tackles, all in the second half.
As with any true freshman stepping on a college campus for the first time, McNeil has been working to increase his confidence level. He got a major boost after his performance against the Bulldogs.
"It's valuable because you see a renewed confidence in him," safeties coach Josh Conklin said. "He kind of questioned himself for the first three or four weeks because he wasn't getting the reps he thought maybe he should be or didn't feel comfortable taking the reps he was getting.
"[Against Georgia] he got in there, made some plays and was pretty productive. I think he had five or six tackles, coming downhill and getting guys on the ground, especially those two good running backs. It was really valuable for him because he came out there and you really saw a renewed confidence in him."
McNeil has worked hard to learn and understand the playbook early in his career, but what gives him the ability to contribute so quickly is something that can't be taught.
"I was pleased with where he was schematically, as far as understanding what he needed to get done, but I think you saw his instincts," Conklin said. "His instincts, when they take over, he is a very good football player. Combine that with what he knows and I was pleased with him."
After the Vols allowed a number of big plays in the first half against the Bulldogs, McNeil was inserted into the lineup and made an immediate impact in slowing down the running game.
"Where we had some issues was in the ball busts in the open field," Conklin said. "It's kind of a three-fold problem, the last fold of that is the safeties and the DBs getting the guy on the ground. He can squeeze the air out of plays and he can get to the ball carrier in a hurry. Number one is he is instinctive and number two he has good speed. He's probably one of the faster guys we have back there and if he isn't faster, he plays at a faster speed."
Part of the challenge of developing young players is bringing them along at a pace they can handle. So far, so good for McNeil who is currently the only freshman on the defensive depth chart for the Big Orange.
"He has responded really well," Conklin said. "He is gaining some confidence. Any time you take those first few reps out there you don't know how you are going to hold up, how you are going to be able to make plays against two good running backs, how are you going to make plays in the SEC, but he did. I think he came back this week and he is still live, he is still really confident in how he is executing so he is getting better every day."
DINGED UPTwo Vols missed practice on Thursday after getting a little "dinged up," according to Derek Dooley.
"[Dallas] is just kind of dinged up, a senior, has played a lot of snaps, so we put him in the tub and rehabbed him," Dooley said.