Oct. 10, 2013
By Alex Cate
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - With the 2013 Volunteer football season halfway through, Butch Jones' assistant coaches weighed in on which guys stood out as the most improved and most valuable players at their positional group.
Mike Bajakian, OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
"Well Rajion Neal has improved on a continual basis and has brought a level of physicality and playmaking ability that we knew he was capable of," said Bajakian. "It's good to see that he's had that gradual improvement and we're very confident in his ability right now, he's No. 1."
Neal has been the feature back for the Volunteers this season. The senior has compiled 618 yards so far and has seven rushing touchdowns. He also has 14 receptions for 72 yards receiving, having started every game for the Vols.
As for Bajakian's most improved?
"No. 2, Brendan Downs continues to get better and better. Both those guys, boy it's hard to pull them off the field. They're playing with bumps and bruises and playing with the mentality that we want."
Mark Elder, TIGHT ENDS
With the tight ends, Elder said that the most valuable had to be Brendan Downs, who has taken the majority of snaps so far this season while newcomer A.J. Branisel has definitely been the most improved.
Downs has 7 receptions for 42 yards and two touchdowns, which tie him with Pig Howard for the team lead. He has started in all six first-half games and is the primary tight end.
Branisel has also appeared in the first six games. A true freshmen, Branisel has three receptions for 28 yards and a score.
Don Mahoney, OFFENSIVE LINE
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney took over a veteran offensive line, but Vol fans may be surprised to hear who he says is most improved.
"Most improved I would say, just starting from fall camp to now and the having the entire spring, I'd say strides are being made with Antonio Richardson," said Mahoney. "He's playing catch up with some of the things other guys have been through and the stuff we're asking and the things we're demanding. He's worked hard fundamentally, technically and even mentally of doing things a lot better."
Richardson, a starting left tackle for the Volunteers, has helped the team accumulate 1,266 rushing yards and an average of 5.40 yards per rush. He has also been instrumental in holding opponents to only eight total sacks on UT quarterbacks.
Mahoney couldn't point out a clear MVP. Instead he said he's seen flashes of brilliance from all the guys.
"Zach Fulton has been extremely solid and consistent, he's been solid week in and week out," Mahoney said. "There have been times with Ja'Wuan (James) where there have been some flashes of doing things really well. He needs to get more consistent likewise with James Stone so you know all in all I think Tiny is making some really good strides. I think Zach's been really solid, you know what you're getting every time. There are just a few things technically that they need to be better at to play like we expect them to."
Robert Gillespie, RUNNING BACKS
Robert Gillespie, the Vols' running backs coach had high praise for two of his improved backs.
He has a little different view about naming a MVP midway through the season.
"No one, I tell Rajion and I tell all the guys, you're doing what running backs are supposed to do," he said.
"It's not a time for pats on the back. Later in the season, after the season is done, after a bowl win, at banquet time we'll sit down and figure out who made the biggest impact on our team, but as of now everyone is doing what you're supposed to do at your position."
Zach Azzanni, WIDE RECEIVERS
"Everyone has improved in different areas," said Azzanni. "Nobody has really stood out; everyone has really made significant improvement in different areas. I think from a game standpoint I think Pig obviously from making plays in a game standpoint. Probably most improved in his preparation last week, you know he - from spring time until now, how he goes about his business - he's a different guy. Then the rest of them all have little things here and there."
Howard has been a consistent target for quarterback Justin Worley. He leads the team in receiving with 218 yards on 15 receptions and has two touchdown catches.
"MVP, I guess if you were to look at a game, probably Pig because he's made the most plays for us but he also understands that the guys around him are helping him makes those plays," said Azzanni.
John Jancek, DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR
Defensive coordinator, John Jancek, was much more diplomatic when asked who he'd nominate. He says when it comes down to the Volunteer defense all that matters is them working as one unit.
"You know our most valuable player is all 11 guys on the field," Jancek said. "That's our trademark right now. When we play together as a unit we're pretty good and pretty solid. When somebody breaks down then that's when we get exposed. It's a total team defense, total team effort by everyone who's on the field and that's been my model, my theme and my message that has to carry us through the remainder of the season."
Steve Stripling, DEFENSIVE LINE
"Most improved right now would be Gregory Clark, I'm just talking about a guy who I've seen make good progress that's worked himself into playing on the field that was probably off the depth chart at the start of the season so to me he'd be the most improved," said Stripling.
He laughed when asked about MVPs, though. The veteran coach knows it's a team effort in the trenches.
"I'm not giving out any MVP's; we've got a long way to go," said Stripling.
Tommy Thigpen, LINEBACKERS
Who is Tommy Thigpen's most improved and most valuable players throughout the defense?
"I'd say either [Brian] Randolph or A.J. [Johnson], one of those two guys," Thigpen says. "It seems like every week they're getting a little better. A lot better on the communication part of it, again just in the level of effort they're giving and the conditioning so that's been our No. 1 goal throughout the season - just keep ascending and make sure we don't take any steps back."
Randolph and Johnson, both juniors, are 1-2 in tackles for Tennessee. Johnson boasts 47 total tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss. Randolph sits just behind him with 44 tackles and has recorded three interceptions in the Vols' exceptional turnover defense.
Willie Martinez, DEFENSIVE BACKS
Willie Martinez had a hard time choosing just one of his players. Who would blame him? The Vols have played there way to 11 interceptions through six games.
"Justin Coleman has played pretty good and Cameron Sutton has really stepped up his game for being a freshman, LaDarrell McNeil has played some games," Martinez said. "I think it's been a combination. Byron Moore played solid this last ballgame and then you've got JaRon Toney and Devaun Swafford. I have to use all those guys each game but I'd say the most consistent guy week in and week out has been Brian Randolph."
He couldn't pinpoint a most improved either.
"Most improved I'd say it's a week by week process to determine who that is."
Mark Elder, SPECIAL TEAMS
In the special teams unit, Michael Palardy was easily the pick for Elder's most valuable player. The senior has missed only one field goal, which Elder said was not Palardy's fault and has been outstanding on punts and kickoffs, giving the Vols' opponents little room for error.
His most improved also comes with little surprise. Jaylen Reeves-Maybin has been everywhere on special teams, recording six tackles and blocking a punt against Georgia that led to a Tennessee score.