Oct. 9, 2013
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Coming off the near upset of #6 Georgia on Saturday, one thing is evident among the Vols: their confidence is up. Some of the Volunteers' playmakers have taken a major leap forward in the category, which has led to more success on offense.
With 153 yards per game over his last two contests, tailback Rajion Neal is playing the best football of his college career. His 148 yards vs. Georgia were the most by a Vols' back vs. an SEC opponent in four years. Why is Neal playing at a higher level?
"Confidence," according to his position coach Robert Gillespie. "I think he is starting to really understand what is going on in the play. Confidence in the guys around him. He is starting to see that his teammates trust him a little bit more and he is starting to see that the coaching staff is trusting him more. It is just maturity."
Pig Howard continues to make major strides as he showed on Saturday with a career-high 116 all-purpose yards. His position coach points to an increase on confidence for Howard, which leads to success.
"Confidence comes with preparation," receivers coach Zach Azzanni said of Howard. "Confidence comes with training a little bit harder and when I'm a little bit hard on them. Hopefully that came out and helped us the other night."
Can you practice confidence? You can have confidence while you practice. That is where offensive coordinator sees Tennessee's players taking steps in building their habits to form a winning attitude.
"It is a process of becoming champions," said Bajakian. "Every day and every week we have improved. We need to continue to improve. There are a lot of details and a lot of habits that we need to continue to work on that could have made the difference in that ball game.
"We are getting better and we will continue to improve. We have said that since day one that it is a process and we are embracing the process."
REEVES-MAYBIN MAKING A STATEMENT
At the halfway point of the 2013 campaign, 14 true freshmen have seen the field for the Vols. Included in that is linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
With a team-high six tackles on special teams and a punt block that led to a Devaun Swafford touchdown last week, Reeves-Maybin is leaving a lasting impression on the Tennessee coaching staff.
"He's made some plays; he is really coming on," said defensive coordinator John Jancek. "He's done a great job in special teams in the games. He's made a bunch of tackles. He covers a kick or the punt and he is making the play. He is really starting to improve."
Assistant coach Mark Elder believes the simplicity of special teams to be a great place for young guys to start and really prove themselves.
"He's a good football player; he's got a knack for playing the game," said Elder. "That's where I think you see guys that have a good feel for the game. They'll make their plays out there on special teams, where there's a little less thought process than maybe on offense or defense, where there's a lot of ins-and-outs to it.
"There's really not much thought to running down the field. So a guy like him - great knack for the game and a special player - he can run down the field on kickoff and make some plays or he can be on the field on punt and tackle a guy or block the punt. He's been remarkable as far as what he's done for us the last handful of weeks. His role has been huge on special teams."
While Reeves-Maybin continues to step up in the third phase of the game, Jancek may look his way when it comes to establishing depth at linebacker.
"We are looking for some guys that can provide us with some depth and pull some weight on defense," said Jancek. "He is certainly guy that we are going to consider and get him more in-tune with what we are doing and bring him along as quickly as possible."
NEAL STEPS IT UP IN HIS SENIOR SEASON
Against his home state of Georgia, senior running back Rajion Neal was on the field for 70 snaps, getting 33 touches during the game.
For Neal, 28 of those touches came on the ground as he churned for 148 yards and two touchdowns, while he also made five catches for 19 yards.
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie is proud of Neal for his effort but stresses that 70 snaps is too many for any back.
"We probably should have gotten Tom Smith in a little bit," said Gillespie. "I don't like for a guy to play 70-some odd snaps. But, the fact that he was able to carry that load and play that many snaps definitely says a lot about him and how he is maturing as a football player."
Neal is coming into his own in his senior season running for back-to-back 100-yard games against South Alabama and Georgia. Gillespie attributes that to his mental approach to the game.
"The hitting yards, creating yards for yourself, is what great backs do," said Gillespie. "You always have to fall forward. [Rajion] has always had the strength and the size, but it's just the mental approach. Getting into his psyche a little bit more."
Gillespie is not a coach afraid to get in the faces of his players, and it seems to be working this year.
"Challenging him one-on-one on a man-to-man level, I think he is trying to respond to that and really change the perception of himself," said Gillespie "So far, midway through the year he is doing that."
Gillespie also believes that the improvement of the offensive line in conjunction with the running backs has made a difference.
"The offensive line is really good," said Gillespie. "Those guys keep getting better and the better they get, the better we get behind them. There is not a magic pill or light switch. When you watch the film and we look back at the early runs in the year, those linemen were doing the same things, it is what we are getting to those holes."
The ability of Neal to get to those holes and hit them for big gains has given his coaches the confidence to call out his number when big plays are needed.
"We stress all the time that you have to give us confidence as a position coach and as a play caller during practice," said Gillespie. "Obviously those are things that we ran over and over again in practice and they worked and we gained confidence in him. The guys knew the plays and they were calling for them."
"That is always a confidence booster when you know your team is focused into the game plan."
Defensive Coordinator is pleased with the way that the Tennessee defense has improved through the first half of the football season, though he knows there are still areas of improvement.
"I think we are a work in progress," said Jancek. "I think we are a group that has a great attitude and seems to be very focused. I like the attitude and mentality of our older players and as it is starting to transpire down to our younger players. We are just working hard every day, getting better every day."
The Tennessee secondary might be one of the most improved areas of the team holding Georgia QB Aaron Murray to under 200 passing yards on Saturday.
"They have just been very consistent," said Jancek. "There is a learning of the ins-and-outs. The thing that is amazing is that there are so many variables on defense. From the tempo of the offense, to the formation, to the personnel. It takes a while to get acclimated to everything, but they are being really consistent and doing a good job."
"I am really pleased with Cam's demeanor," said Jancek. "I have said every week he is just a guy that is really steady, he understands the defense as well as I could expect for a freshman."
"He does a great job, is very smart and doesn't make the same mistake over and over," continued Jancek. "If he does something during the game, makes a mistake or isn't using the proper technique, he corrects it."
IT'S A PROCESS
Team 117 will use the off week to get back to the basics on all sides of the ball.
For offensive coordinator, it is just one step in the process of the 2013 season.
"It is a process," said Bajakian. "It is a process of becoming champions. Every day and every week we have improved. We need to continue to improve. There are a lot of details and a lot of habits that we need to continue to work on that could have made the difference in that ball game."
"We are getting better and we will continue to improve," continued Bajakian. "We have said that since day one that it is a process and we are embracing the process."
Like any coach, Bajakian can pin point areas of the offense that need to improve upon and the Vols are taking the steps to do so during their free week.
"The important thing is that we continue to build on [the win]," said Bajakian. "We can't take one step forward and two steps back. We have to continue to progress each week and maybe some of the things that we didn't execute we need to execute, we were still only 7-of-17 on third downs. There is definitely room for improvement in a lot of areas and we will just continue to get better."