Oct. 8, 2013
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- The first open week for Tennessee came at a nearly perfect time, the midpoint of the season.
While the second half of the schedule has an extra week on the calendar, the Volunteers are six games into the 12-game regular season slate, and the open date gives the team a chance to step back and take stock of where the first six games have taken them.
Jacques Smith sat out the first two games of the season after a thumb injury in preseason practice. From watching those first two games from the sideline, Smith has seen the improvement in his team after getting back to putting his hand down on the defensive line.
"Just want to get better," Smith said of his unit's practice mantra. "We're focused on the details of getting better. We've always had our confidence in the way we train and the way we conduct ourselves. It showed last Saturday, we've been telling everyone and it finally showed. We're a good football team and people are finally believing."
The Vol defense has been a big part in getting people believing. The defensive backfield has arguably been the unit that has shown the most improvement from a season ago. Through the six games, Tennessee has 11 interceptions, just one away from the season total in 2012 and stands second in the NCAA rankings behind Virginia Tech.
LaDarrell McNeil has started all six games at safety and has one of those interceptions, his first-career takeaway against South Alabama. He said the way defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive backs coach Willie Martinez have taught the unit to prepare for games has been the key factor in their development.
"Studying our opponent, knowing every move, every route, every read," McNeil said of the elements of success. "We make sure we're one step ahead of them."
In the most recent game before the open week, Tennessee held Georgia to 34 points, the fewest the Bulldogs have scored in 2013. The Vol D held UGA to 434 yards, 120 under its average of 554 and 60 fewer than Georgia's previous low of 494 against LSU.
Coming into the season, much of the attention on the offense was the strong group returning on the offensive line. The solid group up from for Tennessee has allowed the rest of the offense to gel and improve around it.
Quarterback Justin Worley has used the time his line has given him to get more comfortable making reads and finding receivers in favorable matchups downfield. It is a skill that Worley found developed more in games than in practice, and recent improvement suggests that the best is to come.
"I think being in the flown of games has helped," said Worley of the difference between the opener and game six. "We've seen our defensive schemes from Coach Jancek every day, so going out there and adjusting to different defenses."
That progression has been even more evident with the steps the young receiving corps has taken through six games. Sophomore Pig Howard leads the way with 218 receiving yards while starting alongside freshmen Marquez North, Josh Smith and redshirt freshman Jason Croom.
"I think we've progressed in the pass game from week one to now, even though stat-wise it may have been up and down," Worley said before turning his attention to his running back. "I think Rajion has really stepped up and been consistently great for us the past two or three weeks."
Neal leads UT with 616 rushing yards on 108 carries. He has run for a team-high seven touchdowns, two better than his total from a year ago. The senior ran for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia, the second straight game that he ran for 100+ yards.
"That's something we want to continue to build off of," Neal said of his stat line and the team successes against the Bulldogs. "I think it came at a great time with us being at a bye week; getting our fundamentals down again, getting our mind right, putting that behind us and moving on to the second half of the season."