Oct. 30, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - As the 2012 football season enters the home stretch, Tennessee's senior leaders have been stepping up both on the field and off, knowing it is now or never with their collegiate careers quickly coming to a close.
"It has definitely entered my mind," wide receiver Zach Rogers said. "I have four games left here, probably five with the bowl game. It is dwindling down here and I realize that, so I am just trying to give it all that I've got. It is my last time around here. You can't leave anything behind and I'm just giving it all out on the field every Saturday."
Throughout his years in coaching, UT head coach Derek Dooley has seen similar improvement from seniors over and over.
"It is hard to really minimize what those last years do to a player when you are on your last leg and you have been around," Dooley said. "You just start getting it. It's just development."
Both Rogers and fellow senior Herman Lathers showcased that development at South Carolina last week, posting two of the best efforts of their respective careers. Rogers tied the school record with three receiving touchdowns while Lathers recorded a career-high 15 tackles, an interception, a sack and two TFLs.
Neither of the performances surprised Dooley who attributes their success to years of repetition and the confidence that comes with that more than anything else.
"Zach has always had the tools, it just takes time to [develop] that confidence," Dooley said. "Now, all of a sudden, `I've been here, I've done that, I remember that, I remember that,' it is muscle memory. I've run this route now a million times. It is the deliberate practice that you get over time and you get better and better and better and better."
Lathers simply sees success as his responsibility as he tries to set a good example for younger players.
"[The senior leaders] are just trying to be consistent [throughout] the year," Lathers said. "We know we have a bowl game to play for and that's what we're trying to do. We're just trying to motivate our team. Our main job is to encourage these guys and get them to eliminate the big plays and then we'll be right where we want to be."
Right where they want to be is in a bowl game. To do that, the Vols will have to win at least three of their final four games of the season.
After not playing in a bowl last season, Rogers is adamant that this year's senior class will not go out without one.
"Last year was the last of that business," Rogers said. "That was a bad taste in our mouth and still is so that is not going to happen again here. I think this group of seniors that we have right now is not letting that stuff fly this year. Last year we had some ups-and-downs and some people who maybe didn't think we were going to do so well at the end of the season, but this year is a totally different mix-up.
"I know we haven't had the success that we want, but we are going to finish strong. We have four games left and a chance to go to a good bowl, so that is what is on our mind right now."
RAJION READY TO COME BACK
After suffering a sprained ankle during the Mississippi State game, junior tailback Rajion Neal is nearing a return to the field to help his team this Saturday.
"I'm feeling really good and doing a little bit more week-after-week and day-after-day," Neal said.
Neal and the athletic training staff have been doing everything they can to get him healthy as quickly as possible.
The Vols' running game hasn't completely suffered with the loss of the starting tailback. Marlin Lane has started twice, averaging 55.5 yards against No. 17 South Carolina and No. 1 Alabama.
"Marlin [Lane and the other tailbacks], they're doing good," Neal said. "They're running hard and trusting the O-line. They're just coming into the game and soaking it all in and just taking advantage of their opportunities."
Derek Dooley feels that Neal's return to the lineup would add an extra edge to the run game.
"We were running the ball pretty well," said Dooley. "I don't know how much of a difference it would have made for the last two games (having Rajion). Certainly, we were running it really well (prior to his injury) and didn't run as well without him."
Neal says that running backs coach Jay Graham has helped him throughout the injury and on the road to recovery.
"He's been a big part of my injury, especially mentally," Neal said. "He just has been telling me what to expect and how things are going to turn out.
With the comeback, Neal says it has been frustrating not being able to play, but he prepares the same whether he's on the sidelines or on the field with the ball.
"I just go into every game like I'm going to play," Neal said. "I go to meetings regularly, go to [practice], move around and just prepare myself as if I'm still playing. You just never know. I get a little emotional right before the game when they tell you that you're going to sit this one out, but it's just tough. I try to stay positive and give all the support I can to my team."
ZACH'S BACK, SOON
Another Vol that missed Saturday's game against South Carolina with an ankle injury was offensive lineman Zach Fulton.
Fulton came off the field at the end of the Alabama game and despite trying, just couldn't go against South Carolina.
"I wasn't close at all this past Saturday," Fulton said. "I tried to go in warm ups and it hurt. I had a high ankle sprain, and I sprained my MCL and had a bone bruise on my knee. It was tough, it hurt. I wish I was out there the whole time but Bull [Alex Bullard] and Marcus Jackson did well out there."
Fulton was replaced in the starting line up by Alex Bullard who started all 12 games last season for the Vols. But number 72 should be back out manning right guard at Neyland this Saturday against Troy as the Vols look to earn their fourth win of the season.
"We just take it week-by-week and every day you try and learn something and try and get closer to that win," Fulton said. "I think we are close, we are very close every time."
PLAYING FOR EACH OTHERTennessee football's past offseason was a little different than years past.
The team participated in a variety of team-building activities, culminating in the trip to Milligan College to help the Vols bond together as one unit.
Whether it was whitewater rafting, building houses for Habitat for Humanity or just hanging out during free time, this year's team has become a brotherhood.
And that has translated onto the gridiron.
"I think we are close to getting there," wide receiver Justin Hunter said. "A lot of us hang outside of football so we know each other really well and I think that is going to carry on to the field every game because everyone is fighting for each other."
This past weekend the Vols saw three touchdowns come from an unexpected source, senior wide receiver Zach Rogers.
The three TDs were more than his first three years combined and he was just the ninth Vol to achieve the hat trick of sorts in a single game.
It was possible due to Rogers' ability and because of the relationship he has developed with quarterback Tyler Bray over the last three years.
"A lot of it comes from that [friendship] on the field and off the field," said Rogers. "We hang all the time out off the field too. We are just kind of developing a good bond right now and it is working for us. We are clicking pretty well right now."
The team-building exercises bonded units together, for example OLP (Offensive Line Pride), but also saw strong relationships develop between the offense and the defense, another aspect that translates to the field on game day.
"They motivate us, we motivate them," defensive lineman Mo Couch said. "If things aren't going their way, we all support each other as a family, nobody is frustrated or telling each other to step it up. Everybody pretty much keeps their composure and motivates each other. There is no finger pointing."