KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The Tennessee football team opened its off-campus portion of training camp with a practice at Science Hill High School in Johnson City on Friday afternoon.
The Vols packed up and traveled the 115 miles to upper East Tennessee on Thursday, a move which head coach Derek Dooley said went off without a hitch.
“We had a heck of a move,” Dooley said. “It was an incredible operation what our support staff was able to pull off because it looks like we moved the entire city of Knoxville over here. We woke up and didn’t miss a beat. Kudos to the equipment staff, the training staff, the ops and the video staff on the incredible job they did.”
Although the operations portion of the trip was a success, Dooley was not pleased with his team’s effort once it hit the field for the first time outside of Knoxville.
“Part of the reason we came here was to kind of change the environment, make it uncomfortable, get them out of their comfort zone and we didn’t handle that very well,” Dooley said. “That’s what we have to learn to do because we are going to be out there in games and different environments and how are we going to handle not being in that comfort zone? We were a little lethargic today which was disappointing but we have a scrimmage tomorrow and will be ready to amp it up.”
Saturday’s scrimmage will be the first for the Big Orange since the opening of training camp. For Dooley and his staff it will serve as a test of where the team is in its understanding of the schemes implemented over the last eight days as well as an evaluation tool for some of the younger players.
“Obviously, I want to see us play with a level of intensity the entire scrimmage which we didn’t always do last year and certainly you want to execute and have all your playmakers go out there and make plays,” Dooley said.
“It’s going to be a great level of evaluation for some of these guys that want to get in the mix and try to help the team.”
In an interesting side note, the Vols practiced on Steve Spurrier Field, named after the current South Carolina head coach who was a three-sport letterman with the Hilltoppers, earning all-state honors in football, basketball and baseball.
“I think he is a generous man to give back to his high school, so I commend him for what he has done,” Dooley said. “It’s a tribute to the fact that he was a great player, a great coach and made a lot of money. When that happens, you get your name on the field.”
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
As one of, if not the most, experienced offensive lines in the nation, the Tennessee offensive front knows what they are doing. It is getting the message out that is the hard part. Antonio Richardson knows that.
“On the O line the biggest thing is communication,” said Richardson. “We know what we are doing, but getting the message out there. It’s like a wire or power line that the signals have to go through; we have to get the message to go all the way down the line. [We need to] get it out so everyone can hear it.”
When asked the other day, Ja’Wuan James had the same reaction recalling that even though everyone knows what they are doing they are reminded by Coach Pittman that they need to speak.
Despite the vocal issues, Richardson believes that the big men are ready for 2012.
“Watching the film we have been really pleased with what we have seen,” said Richardson. “There are some mental errors here and there that we could clean up. But overall, it has been great and we just have to keep it going.”
Saturday will see the first scrimmage of the fall season for the Vols and Richardson is looking forward to it.
“Any scrimmage is like game day,” said Richardson. “Three more weeks we have to go to the Georgia Dome and perform. So we have to come here with the right mindset and be ready to go. We have to come off the ball and just play.”
FROM THE PLAYERS’ PERSPECTIVE
Although they are less than 24 hours into their experience at Milligan College, the Vols seem excited about the chance to get away from the typical daily grind of training camp and have embraced the opportunity to focus on getting better as a football team.
“It is a good opportunity for us just to focus on staying focused outside of our comfort zone and outside of the normal schedule like in Knoxville,” sophomore tailback Devrin Young said. “It is fun. It is a good experience. Even in high school we never went away for camp so it is different for me. The food is really good at Milligan too.”
The food has clearly been a bright spot with multiple Vols commenting on it Friday, including sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson who agreed with Young’s assessment. His priorities were elsewhere upon the team’s arrival Thursday night, however.
“They have a nice cafeteria, nice dorm rooms and the bed was comfortable,” Johnson said. “That was the main thing.”
Not everything has been perfect though.
“The last 24 hours have been pretty crazy,” senior defensive back Prentiss Waggner said. “When we moved into the dorms, everyone was trying to find an area for (cell phone) service. I know I couldn’t find service for the first two hours, but I found me a little spot where I could get some bars.”
After settling in at Milligan College, the Orange and White made the short trek to Science Hill High School for its first off-campus practice.
“Practice went really good,” Waggner said. “We had a little polish day before our first scrimmage tomorrow. It was a little bit of an adjustment for us from not practicing at our complex, but I thought we adjusted pretty good.”
QUARTERBACKING THE DEFENSE
In his fifth season as a Volunteer, Herman Lathers is one of the most vocal leaders on the field and has been denoted the unofficial captain of the defense for 2012.
It is only right that he and Tyler Bray, the de facto offensive captain, are roommates on the trip to Milligan College.
“It is fun,” Lathers said. “We both go to sleep late. We talk about stuff going on with the team and we just discuss things about coaches as well as what we have to do as far as leadership and expectations. It helps a lot since we are the captain of the offense and captain of the defense. It means a lot to the both of us.”
His teammates constantly preach about Lathers’ leadership and how he is a `big brother’ and mentor to the majority of the defense. His hours of preparation and have made it easy for him to be this way.
“I am real comfortable,” Lathers said. “I am the type of guy that studies a lot and meets with the coaches. We’ve discussed a lot and Coach Sal [Sunseri] gives me a lot of options what I can do as quarterback of the defense. It helps me a lot and if I know it I can teach it to other people. It is my job to learn and I embraced the defense.”
Lathers is ready to demonstrate his leadership in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“You just go into the scrimmage knowing that you have to do your job,” Lathers said. ” You let your work and actions on the field speak for itself. If you go out there and play to the best of your abilities, then you won’t have to worry about the depth chart.”
NEAL TAKING THE LEAD
The Vols have a lot of depth at tailback heading into the 2012 season, but they do not have much experience at the position. Junior Rajion Neal is the only member of the corps that has more than one year of college experience. That has led him to become a leader in the backfield without even realizing it at first.
“It actually hit me this summer when Coach Graham asked me to take the younger backs under my wings and show them around and get them in the playbook,” said Neal. “Kind of see where their heads were at and help them out as much as I could. It jumped on me quick.”
In his two seasons with the Vols, Neal has gained 331 on the ground. He is battling with sophomores Marlin Lane and Devrin Young for the starting role, knowing all three will see time this season.
Neal is feeling strong about his performance early in camp.
“I just want to be sound,” said Neal. “I just want to stand out to the coaches that know every phase of the game and that I am stepping up and taking on this role and showing that I can do this for the entire season.”
As a group, Neal knows the running game needs to step up after a poor season in 2011 as Tennessee averaged just 90.1 yards per game, last in the SEC.
“The confidence is high,” Neal said of the backs during camp thus far. “We are showing guys that we are going to hit these lanes that the o-line is creating. The o-line is blocking hard and definitely believing in us. We are showing the team that we are going to bring a different element to the game and we won’t have to rely so much on the passing game. It will be a more even flow game, as far as running and catching the ball.”
BIG ORANGE HOMECOMING
East Tennessee natives Brendan Downs and Mack Crowder returned to their roots as the Vols wrapped up their first day of training camp at Science Hill High in Johnson City.
“It’s really cool to be back here to show my team kind of where I’m from and where I grew up,” Crowder said. “A lot of people haven’t seen this kind of countryside before, so I’m glad they’re getting to see this.”
Both graduates from Tennessee High in Bristol, Tenn., the duo gets a homecoming as they take action on a familiar field.
“Just walking in the stadium and being in the visitors’ locker room,” Downs said. “I got some good memories here so it’s cool.”
The pair each experienced their own big moments at Science Hill, but are looking forward to make more that will be beneficial to their Volunteer counterparts.
“I made some good plays here in high school but I’m definitely trying to make some better ones here with this team,” Crowder said.
From donning the Viking uniform to wearing the Tennessee letters, Crowder knew the transition from small town to the Big Orange was going to be a challenge, but he was prepared for it.
“Nothing really surprised me, Tennessee is a big school and there’s a lot of hype with it and it’s definitely lived up to my expectations,” Crowder said. “I’m having a great time so far, really enjoying myself.”
But the high school teammates know the trip back is strictly for business.
“We just got to come in and look at it it’s still practice, it’s still camp,” Downs said. “We still have to come in and work.”
“This trip is all business so I won’t get to go home,” Crowder said. “We’re just using this time to bond as a team and become the best of players that we can be.”
TENNESSEE HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On if the team was excited about the change in location)
“They were excited but when it is ball time, you have to be a baller. You can’t come up here, hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’ the whole time, we have to go practice.”
(On the offensive line)
“They’ve had a good week and we’ll see if they can go do it in the scrimmage. It’s important that the defense plays with a little more aggression. Our line has been doing well but we can do better on defense too, playing with a lot more toughness, straining a little bit more and finishing to the ball. If we do that, we won’t have as much success running the ball. It’s kind of a catch-22.”
(On the linebackers)
“If those guys just maintain what they have been doing, but more than anything if they are quarterbacking the defense. We want to see them having a real nice command of the calls, making the checks, making the adjustments and see how far along they are with what we are doing.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson’s shoulder injury)
“He was a little better today. He tried to go but wasn’t quite ready. We’ll see if we can play him a little bit in the scrimmage without contact. That’s one of those where he will get better every day.”
(On if the team adjusted to the change positively)
“We did until practice. We actually did a great job until practice. We were just a little lethargic and didn’t flip the switch. You can’t be a ‘sometimes’ guy. You have to do it all the time, impose your will on the other guy no matter what the circumstance. We have to learn from it.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On the difference between Milligan and Science Hill)
“I know a lot of guys didn’t think it was a high school. I thought it was a JUCO. It is a nice high school and one of the nicest I have seen. It is a good place for us to get some work done and we enjoyed it.”
(On facing Tennessee offensive line)
“They are one of the biggest offensive lines we will face all year. The good thing is we will be facing them every day to help us prepare for some of the bigger lines that we will face. They are a group that works together and spends a lot of time together. They are good in the run game and putting bodies on bodies.”
(On riding the school bus to Milligan)
“A lot of the guy’s reactions were like the movie ‘Remember the Titans’. They thought we were going somewhere like that. It was great for us to get together, and when we go back it will make us appreciate what we have in Knoxville. A lot of guys don’t have what we have so we have to appreciate what we have.”
SOPHOMORE OL ANTONIO RICHARDSON
(On adapting to new environments)
“The way practice went today it seemed like it was a big deal but it’s just about going into different environments and adapting to wherever we go. When you are a great team with great players, you need to be able to adapt. Tomorrow we will have to come out and have a great practice.”
(On the offensive line play calls)
“Everybody is on the same page. It is basically the same calls as last year, just some things have been changed here and there. The calls are basically the same and those guys have been here and know what they are doing and I know what I am doing.”
(On the up tempo offense)
“There isn’t a lot of pressure anymore [during the up tempo part of the offense] because we did it in the spring and we have been conditioning so it is just a way of life. We will see how much we use it. I think it puts pressure on the defense and we will see if it pays dividends in the fall.”
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On the 3-4 defense)
“This new defensive scheme, our corners are playing a lot more man-to-man coverage. With the zone blitzes and man blitzes, Coach Sal (Sunseri) is going to dial it up. Either you can cover or you can’t, he’s going to dial it up anyway. Being on that island is going to make or break you.”
SOPHOMORE LB A.J. JOHNSON
(On goals for Saturday’s scrimmage)
“Trying to perfect the defense, you are going to have mess-ups and mistakes, we are just trying to get those corrected.”
(On playing multiple positions in the linebacker corps)
“It just opens up my variety, and I will be able to make more plays I believe. I am just trying to help the defense anyway I can.”
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On his improvement during fall camp)
“I definitely feel like I have shown well, but there is still room for improvement and there is still room for critiquing a couple of little things. Coach Graham continues to teach us and kind of point out little things that will take our game to the next level. I am definitely comfortable where I am at but still looking forward to growing as a player.”
(On maturing into his role)
“Definitely taking on the role of being a leader for the younger backs. Being a guy who has been here a while, I feel it is making me mature and it is making me learn more. I want to help out as much as I can. We are having fun.”
SOPHOMORE TB DEVRIN YOUNG
(On playing against Science Hill in high school)
“I haven’t really talked to anyone about it. I had some good games against Science Hill, but we only played them one year before they did their rezoning. It was my sophomore year. It was at the bowl, the other stadium. They had to step their game up since Dobyns-Bennett got their turf field now. It looks real nice out here and the team looks pretty good.”
(On putting up good numbers against Science Hill)
“I had a buck and some change. I think I had like three touchdowns or so, it was a good day. I think it was their homecoming, I am not rubbing it in, no one likes being the homecoming game.”
(On playing at a new venue helping them on the road this season)
“Yeah, definitely. It is a good opportunity for us just to focus on staying focused outside of our comfort zone. Outside of the normal schedule like in Knoxville. Being around the other teams fans because they are the best people to be around on gameday, which is fine. It is a good opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zone.”
SOPHOMORE TE BRENDAN DOWNS
(On being at Milligan)
“It’s a little odd. It’s still football. I’m trying to stay focused and look at it as another day coming to work.”
RS FRESHMAN OL MACK CROWDER
(On Daniel McCullers)
“He’s a big guy, he’s got about 100 pounds on me, so he’s a little hard to move, but he’s making us all better, there’s nothing better than that. [Hitting McCullers] is like hitting a wall. I fired off as hard as I could, but he didn’t move anywhere. YOu just hope to move him off the ball at least one yard, and if not then you just try to move him away from the ball. He can move, though, he’s very athletic for a big guy.”
(On being second string)
“It definitely helps you get better, knowing that you’re going to be first in line someday.”