Nov. 21, 2013
KNOXVILLE -- There is a lot at stake for Tennessee this Saturday as they faceoff against in-state rival Vanderbilt at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 in Tennessee's Neyland finale.
But the Vols are looking at Senior Day the way they have looked at every game this season, as the next game.
"It is a big game, it is a critical game because it is the next game on our schedule," said head coach Butch Jones. "We are working to get to win number five. That is the way we approach it. It is big because it is the next game."
NOT QUITE DONE
This whole season Neal has felt the need to push harder week-in and week-out to earn the respect of Gillespie.
Exactly what Gillespie wanted, and what Neal needed in his final go around on Rocky Top.
After Neal's touchdown run vs. Auburn, Gillespie is ready to handout those compliments. Because that run encompassed everything Neal has worked on in practice this season.
"Putting your hand down, throwing your head back and your hips will follow," said Gillespie describing the run. "Stiff arming guys, picking up your legs on the free safety trying to make a tackle at the end. There are a lot of good things; he was wanting to make a play."
The run was what the Vols needed, and what Neal needed.
"It was a toughness run. It was a statement run," said Gillespie. "It was one of those runs where he was just determined to make a play and it was at a point in the game where we really needed one. I was excited for him. I am always excited for any kid that makes a play, but obviously one of the guys that has come as far as he has come, it is an exciting run."
Neal will run through the T one final time this Saturday at Neyland Stadium after a career that has seen 1,934 rushing yards, 621 receiving yards, and 22 touchdowns, with more to come.
Gillespie knows there is still a lot more football left in Neal's career.
"He is not done yet," said Gillespie. "I think it has been a work in progress and he has done a really good job of changing the perception of him and the legacy that he will leave here at Tennessee. That was our ultimate goal when he and I first met and talked."
"We still have a couple chapters to go in this book but so far he has done a good job of just trying to become a Tennessee tailback and try and do things the right way," continued Gillespie. "I am a fan of his right now and hopefully he finishes strong, we need him to finish strong as a team."
REEVES-MAYBIN TO GET MORE BURN
As the Vols continue preparation for Saturday's must-win matchup with in-state foe Vanderbilt, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen is focusing on the Commodores' run game.
Known to run out of multiple sets, Vandy's offensive attack presents challenges for any defense.
"They give you a lot of different formations," said Thigpen. "They run the ball out of a lot of formations - they have the wildcat, they've got an empty [backfield set] and a plethora of plays.
"Out of one personnel group they can run five different formations and five different schemes at you. They do a good job with the personnel they have. Our challenge this week is to make sure we can stop the run."
Thigpen plans on digging deeper into his linebacking corps to do that this weekend, and mentioned freshman Jalen Reeves-Maybin as the likely beneficiary.
Reeves-Maybin has made his presence felt in his rookie season, racking up a team-leading nine special teams tackles. He also saw a great deal of defensive action last time out, posting three tackles - all on defense - against Auburn.
Thigpen believes it to be Reeves-Maybin's makeup off the field that has translated into success on the gridiron.
"He's a smart kid - he really is," said Thigpen. "He takes a lot of pride in what he does and is probably one of the most cerebral kids we have on our football team. He's never on the list - never late for anything and always shows up for his appointments. That will always tell you - if he's on time for everything he's supposed to do as a young freshman - that will carry right over to the field.
"He doesn't miss many assignments. He talks in the room with a bunch of older guys and feels really comfortable in the room. So I'm looking forward to watching him grow as a young player."
COMPETITION INCREASES ON SPECIAL TEAMS
After giving up a pair of special teams' touchdowns two weeks ago against Auburn, assistant coach Mark Elder and his specialists are looking to rebound in a big way.
Echoing what Coach Jones said on Monday - the possibility of placing defensive starters on special teams - Elder has been looking at other personnel options over the past two weeks.
The biggest benefit of doing this has been an increased level of competition at practice.
"There has been a lot of competition," said Elder. "There are still a couple days to go before we decide who is going to be out there. But we have amped up the competition in some of the spots."
Obviously disappointed with the performance against Auburn, Elder said the open week came at a good time to increase the competition and get things corrected.
"It gives you an opportunity - if you are going to create some competition for some spots - it gives you a little bit bigger snapshot of which guys should be playing based upon more than just two days of reps," said Elder. "We had a couple more days of reps where we amped up the competition and guys had to fight for the spots."
Personnel aside, special teams always comes down to the fundamentals.
"We've been emphasizing the issues that we had as far as making sure we are keeping the ball inside and in front of us and making sure that we are emphasizing tackling," said Elder. "We just have to get those issues corrected because for the most part we've been decent on those teams. We're working hard on those teams, making sure we have the right personnel in there and making sure we are correcting the issues."
A STRONG SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
The NFL's league leader in receptions is none other than a source of inspiration for the Vols' receiving corps.
No it isn't anyone with a flashy, transformer inspired nickname, or someone from one of the "elite football conferences."
It is actually a familiar face for wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni, in Pittsburgh Steeler and former Central Michigan Chippewa, Antonio Brown.
"Antonio Brown is such a great example [for our team]," said Azzanni. "He leads the NFL in receptions, he played that exact position, that exact terminology, got coached by the exact same guy."
"Yes we are going to compare our slots to Antonio Brown and that is what we expect," continued Azzanni. "He is one of the best players in the NFL, we expect that."
Brown didn't just show up and see success. His success is based on hard work and dedication to the game. The same thing Azzanni expects of the Vol wide receivers.
"That didn't happen overnight either," explained Azzanni. "That was a process. We are trying to teach Pig [Howard] and the rest of these guys that it is a process to becoming that. We aren't going to let you not do the things to try and become that."
"We are never going to let these guys get complacent at anything they do."
GETTING THEM WHAT THEY DESERVE
Saturday's senior game will largely affect the offensive line, one of the more experienced groups on Team 117. Senior starters Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James will all be playing under the lights of Neyland Stadium for the last time.
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney sung the praises of his position group and commented on what he'd like to achieve as a group while they've still got a chance.
Mahoney equated parts of this season to when one light bulb on a Christmas tree is out.
"There's one light out and well it doesn't look so good," said Mahoney. "That's been on different occasions this year where we've had that happen where couple guys on a given play and it's not executed the way it should and it's not the physicality that we want to play with but the guys have responded in coming back and working to correct things and stuff so the mindset has been what it needs to be. The execution hasn't been there like we need it to."
Mahoney said that even though he's only been in Knoxville since December, he knows what his group of seniors has been through and wants to send them out on a high note.
"I think it's without a doubt deserving for a group of guys who from December to now I've had the chance to be around," he said about getting a bowl berth. "They're special in a number of ways from how they play the game to the character, for the families, for what they've been through."
It will undoubtedly be an everlasting moment for the seniors who, together have combined for 145 starts on Rocky Top.
"I've had the chance to coach for quite a while now and to really have a chance to step back and see what they've had to go through, through the course of time and change and all that, it's something for them - knowing them and their character and their work ethic and all that I think rewarding them for their efforts is something I'd love to see happen," Mahoney said. "I think it's deserving for them."