Oct. 23, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Although it is still looking for results on game day, Tennessee has been a model of consistency in practice all season with the players displaying a willing attitude to work and get better each and every day.
The Vols are confident that the results will come if they remain true to the process and took to the practice field on Tuesday with the same mindset to improve they have had all year.
"I think that their practice habits and routine have been very consistent," UT head coach Derek Dooley said. "From fall camp to NC State week to Florida week it has been pretty consistent. This team has been like this all year. That doesn't mean we aren't all hurting a little bit, but we have to dust it off and get a little confidence going."
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter noted that Tuesday's effort was especially spirited with the Big Orange ready to put its losses behind them and get back into the win column.
"Today's practice was way better than yesterday's and last week's," Hunter said. "I know the coaches liked it a lot. They said we ran the tempo really fast, everybody made their assignments and everybody caught the ball really well. After the game [on Saturday] coach had a good talk with everybody, saying that if we are tired of losing we should practice with a really good purpose today and show it on the field."
Playing in the best conference in the nation means that you have to play the best teams in the nation. Unfortunately for the Vols, they are in the midst of a particularly grueling stretch in which they will face four consecutive ranked teams, capped off by Saturday's showdown against No. 17 South Carolina (Noon on ESPN/ESPN3D).
Having faced ranked teams in each of the last three weeks as well, the Gamecocks can understand Tennessee's plight and the toll it can take on a team.
"I can't speak for them, but I think it is a great example," Dooley said. "When you hit those games back-to-back, South Carolina is a good football team and they played three good ones in a row. They strapped Georgia pretty good and had LSU beat but didn't pull it out and then they made a bunch of mistakes against Florida. That is what happens when you play these good teams."
The key to surviving a stretch like Tennessee and South Carolina have gone through in recent weeks is being able to bounce back from adversity, something both teams ran into last Saturday.
"The hardest part is when you don't win," Dooley said. "It's tough physically, it's tough mentally and emotionally, but that is life in the SEC and everybody goes through some stretches. The toughest thing is your energy and your spirit is a little bit better when you can get a W and we haven't been able to do that yet."
JUSTIN HUNTING FOR CONFIDENCETennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter is trying to move past his recent struggles.
After a record-setting start to season, Hunter has nine catches over the last three games. Much has been made of Hunter's drops and the junior knows how much miscues are magnified.
"Everybody expects you to catch every pass, even the hard ones and the ones that go out of bounds," Hunter said. "I think I've been doing everything mostly right on the field but one drop is what everybody is going to look at."
Hunter opened the year with 17 catches in the first two games, equaling the Vols' record for catches in the first two games of the season, and had 30 receptions through four games before his recent drop-off.
Derek Dooley is aware of Hunter's difficulties.
"Let's go out there and perform to our abilities," Dooley said in reference to both Hunter and his quarterback Tyler Bray. "Justin had a great swagger coming into the year and we have to get that back."
Hunter is maintaining a positive attitude for himself and as an example for his teammates.
"I think that's where I have to keep a good attitude on the sidelines so nobody panics and nobody gets mad," Hunter said. "We all stay together and have a positive attitude."
Hunter is in constant communication with his signal caller and they two talk regularly about the team and their confidence levels.
"Basically, (we) just talk about it all the time," Hunter said. "We talked about it this morning. We try to keep each other up. I know every time if I drop a pass, he will come to me and say something about it. And, if he throws a bad pass, I go say something to him. We are pretty even with our attitudes."
BULLARD, JACKSON READY TO GO
When a player is next-in-line on the depth chart, he must be ready to go at any moment in the game. Both linemen Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard got some extra playing time on Saturday after teammate Zach Fulton was injured in the second quarter against Alabama.
With Fulton listed as "doubtful" by Dooley, his big shoes are left to fill as the team approaches No. 17 South Carolina on Saturday.
"It's really good having depth this year," Jackson said. "We can rotate guys in if somebody does happen to go down."
The second-string sophomore started five games last season, but he says he has learned more this year and has improved as a player because of the circumstances. After finding out where he would stand in the start of this 2012 season, Jackson said he just worked on being more consistent every day in practice.
"It was tough to swallow, but you have to get used to it and push hard," Jackson said. "It's life and you can't get mad over things that you have no control over. What I do have control over is that I can get better every day and push.
"It's just a little more pushing and then I'll be there. When my number is called I`ll be ready."
With the same mindset as his fellow offensive lineman, redshirt junior Alex Bullard feels similar in stepping up into a new spot. Focusing on right guard but also playing at tight end this season, Bullard just wants to help his team.
"I thought I did well [in the Alabama game]," said Bullard, who saw the majority of time after Fulton's injury. "I picked up the slack. I'm the next man in so we don't go down or anything. Alabama was a great team, I wasn't perfect by any means, but we always have to be ready."
Though some other parts of Tennessee's game might be struggling, the offensive line has been quite impressive so far this season.
"We're far away from being perfect, but you can definitely see the improvement," Bullard said. "We're still first in the country when it comes to giving up sacks. We just have to keep plucking away and keep working to get better and that's all we can do."
The O-line typically doesn't receive a lot of attention, but Bullard is quick to point out their passion.
"Anyone that knows football knows that the offensive line is the heart and soul of the offense," Bullard said. "We feel like if we do well, the offense does well. We don't really care about all the publicity and credit, but if we all work together to get it done, then we push through to lead our team to victories."
BATTLING THROUGHCurt Maggitt has been battled injuries throughout the 2012 season, and has still been a force in the middle of the defense for the Vols.
Maggitt has accumulated 19 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack and two forced fumbles this season for the Vols, but what might not show in the numbers is something that head coach Derek Dooley feels is game changing.
His presence on the field.
Maggitt acquired turf toe in the first game of the season against NC State and has been rehabbing multiple times a day ever since.
"I did it making a block when Prentiss got an interception in the NC State game and I've been treating it every day consistently," said Maggitt. "In the morning, after practice, after class, at home sometimes. I'm going to continue to do that and I think that will help."
Maggitt missed the following game, Tennessee's home opener against FCS opponent Georgia State, but missing another game this season is not on his mind.
"I hadn't really even though about rest or sitting out of games," said Maggitt. "I'm just trying to rehab it and get better. I just need to go and play. I feel like I'm not where I want to be, but I'm just doing the best I can do and giving my all while I'm out there."
CONTAINING THE POCKETThe Tennessee defense has a tough test ahead in trying to defend the mobility of Connor Shaw.
Not only does Shaw have a completion percentage of 65.6 in 2012, throwing for 982 yards and nine touchdowns, but he is also the second leading rusher for the Gamecocks behind Marcus Lattimore, registering 278 rush yards and a TD on the ground.
"He's a mobile quarterback that can use his legs," said UT defensive back Byron Moore. "He has a lot of speed in that zone read type of offense when they get that going and he has a great running back behind him, so we just have to try to minimize those guys and try to shut them down."
In addition to Shaw's mobility, the Gamecocks also have one of the top running backs in the country playing directly behind him in Marcus Lattimore, something the Vols will certainly have to account for.
"It's difficult because they have a real good running back and a real good quarterback doing the read zone and read option and what not," said linebacker Curt Maggitt. "It's going to be a challenge for us."
Defensive lineman Maurice Couch echoed those sentiments.
"We can't rush how we want to and be more aggressive because as soon as he sees an opening he is going to take it," Couch said. "We have to do a good job of rushing and keeping our eyes on the quarterback. This week in practice we have been doing a good job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket and keeping him in front of us so he doesn't break out of the pocket."
The Vols have their game plan set and have been practicing this week with the ability of Shaw in mind.
The plan? Containment.
"We have to contain him," said Maggitt. "Rally to the football when he does break the pocket and we just have to keep going and get him down when he does break the pocket."
"We watched LSU and Florida and those guys did a great job of keeping Shaw in the pocket and limiting him in the passing game," added Couch. "That is something that we have to do and I think it will help out our defense a lot."