KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee is about to embark on a five-week gauntlet in which it will face four ranked teams, including three currently ranked among the top six teams in the nation. First up is No. 5 Georgia in Athens this Saturday (3:30 p.m. CBS).
With the Bulldogs leading the SEC in both scoring offense and total offense and a defense full of talented playmakers, the Vols know they have quite the challenge in front of them.
“We all know about Georgia,” UT head coach Derek Dooley said. “There is no sense in me talking about how good they are. They are probably playing as good as I’ve seen them in a long time. The quarterback is averaging 10.5 an attempt, the runner is averaging 9.2 an attempt, [they are scoring] 48 points and only giving up 16. They are probably one of the most talented defenses in the country, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. Hopefully we can take a lot of the lessons we have learned in the first four games and try to go play as good as we can play in Athens and see how it turns out.”
Saturday’s game will be the first true road contest for the Big Orange this season. While the hostile atmosphere at Sanford Stadium is tough for any team to play in, the Vols feel prepared and excited about the opportunity.
“It is [a concern],” Dooley said. “The good news is that a lot of our guys have been in these environments, so it shouldn’t be as overwhelming as it has been in the past, at least I hope it isn’t. You look on offense and I think everybody except CP [Cordarrelle Patterson] and Tiny [Richardson] played at Georgia two years ago. Defense probably not as many but we had a lot of hostile games last year, so hopefully you learn from it. You have to learn to enjoy playing in that kind of environment.”
Much of Georgia’s success this season has been due to their ability to run the ball with true freshman Todd Gurley leading the way as the SEC’s leading rusher (101.5 ypg) and scorer (42 points). To stop him will require a total team effort from the Orange and White.
“We have to win at the line of scrimmage first, play good scheme discipline and then have a lot of hats to the football because one guy isn’t going to bring him down. It’s very hard when he breaks through the first seven to bring him down with those little guys in the back. Scheme discipline, winning at the line of scrimmage on your man and then a lot of hats to the ball. Then you have to do it every play. That’s what happens.”
Gurley isn’t the only weapon the Bulldogs have on offense though as junior Aaron Murray has established himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the nation.
“He is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Dooley said. “He has a very strong arm and a lot of snaps under his belt. They don’t change a lot offensively in what they do, so it is that deliberate practice where he’s had a lot of work at getting good at what they do. You can just see him triggering the ball a lot quicker than he ever has, he’s a lot more accurate than he has been and that just comes with experience.”
The list of playmakers carries over to the UGA defense as well, where the Big Orange will have to find a way to slow down SEC sacks leader Jarvis Jones.
“If you are not aware of where he is he can just wreck your game plan because of his athleticism and ability to win on pass rush and be disruptive in the backfield,” Dooley said. “He just has one of those playmaking personalities. He wants to make a game-changing play and they move him around a little bit. You just have to be very aware of where he is and you have to be very disciplined on how you block him, so we’ll try to do both of those.”
The son of former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley, Derek Dooley will be making his second trip back to Athens as the head coach of the Vols. Although Georgia emerged with a 41-14 victory back in 2010, Dooley feels that his team is much more prepared for the challenge this time around.
“We are a lot more prepared and we are certainly a lot better than we were two years ago,” Dooley said. “We didn’t play very good down there and obviously need a lot better effort than what we put on two years ago.”
FROM DAWG TO VOL
Growing up 30 minutes from Athens, Ga., A.J. Johnson was a fan of the Bulldogs as a youngster.
His high school uniform was even modeled after UGA, red and black with the famous Georgia G on the helmet.
Being a fan, Johnson thought it would be great to play his college ball in Athens, but the Georgia staff didn’t feel the same way and the Freshman All-American wasn’t highly recruited.
“Growing up I was always a Georgia fan,” said Johnson. “They didn’t really recruit me in high school but I am ready to go out this week and play and get a win. I guess I am thinking [this is for not recruiting me] in the back of my head, but I am just going to go out and play it like any other game and try and get this good win.”
“Everybody in my family was a Georgia fan,” said Johnson, “people around you were Georgia fans; it was just 30 minutes away from my high school and town.”
Johnson, who started playing football as soon as he could run, officially started in the parks and rec leagues of Gainesville at the age of nine imitating the likes of NFL running backs and later modeling his game after a Tennessee legend.
“When I was growing up I was a running back type of guy like Marshall Faulk,” said Johnson. “I used to run the ball a lot. As I have gotten older, Leonard Little and Ray Lewis are who [I model my game after].”
Johnson will have a lot of support this weekend as he steps between the hedges and likely plays on both sides of the ball in Athens. So much support that he isn’t able to provide all his family and friends with tickets to the game.
But Johnson, who is laid back by nature, isn’t putting too much pressure on himself for his `homecoming’.
“I would say no pressure on myself,” said Johnson, “you are just going out and playing another football game.”
CONFIDENCE BREWING FOR NEAL
Saturday night was a breakout game for tailback Rajion Neal. The junior went over the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career with a personal best 151 yards on 22 carries. It has been a long path for Neal to get to the point where he is the number one back for the Vols.
Last season Neal was bounced back and forth between tailback and receiver. He has made major strides on the field with his skills and off the field with his mindset in being the team’s top back
“I have confidence in myself and I just get more and more confident in the guys around me that are helping me,” said Neal, who has rushed for 356 yards this season. “It is big, because you know in the perimeter; those guys are going to do what they have to do. So, if we get the running game started, it’s going to be a long game.” The line in front of Neal can tell the difference for the man they are blocking for.
“I have really seem him progress, going all the way back into camp,” said center James Stone. “He is getting more downhill. He is breaking arm tackles more and more and I hope he continues to build on that.”
Neal dishes the credit right back at his linemen and other members of the program.
“Coaching, offensive line, fullbacks, my guys on the perimeter and just staying under these coaches,” said Neal. “They’ve given me a good opportunity and given me great coaching and my guys up front are steady believing in me, and I’ve got guys around me that want to see the run game and myself and others see the run game.”
CARTER’s ROLE GROWS
Former walk-on Jacob Carter has been a valued member of the Vols’ receiving corps early in 2012. Carter, who was a scrimmage sensation last spring and during this season’s training camp, has been given a chance to contribute during the regular-season and he has taken full advantage of this opportunity.
Carter earned a scholarship prior to the opener vs. NC State then proceeded to make his first college catch — on his 21st birthday. This past weekend in the Akron game, Carter scored his first college touchdown on a 24-yard grab.
“[Bray] just threw it up and I couldn’t stop smiling the whole time,” said Carter, a native of Nashville. “I definitely had a few texts after the game and everybody was happy for me. It was a good time.”
Dooley gives Carter a lot of credit as he came in unrecruited coming out of Ensworth High School.
Carter’s role has continued to expand to where he is backing up starter Justin Hunter. All of the increased action isn’t something he expected.
“I didn’t really expect all this. I was just told when Justin Hunter gets a little tired, just sub in whenever you can,” said Carter. “So, Justin called me over to go in for him. Luckily, we were in the red zone so I was able to score. But I wasn’t expecting this much. My role kind of right now is like the fourth or fifth guy.”
IF YOU CAN’T GET UP FOR IT, SOMETHING IS WRONG
This Saturday marks the first true road game of the season for the Vols.
Tennessee will return to the state of Georgia, where the football team played its first game of the year on a neutral site at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
After three home weekends, and three homer crowds, the Vols have a tough test ahead of them between the hedges in Athens.
But they aren’t too worried, they are just prepared.
“I know it is going to be a good environment,” said sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson. “I have never played there before but I have been to games there and they are going to be really rowdy. We are going to go down there and be ready to play. Going in you have to be prepared. Wednesday or Thursday we will have a sound system we will do to simulate the crowd and we work at that each week in practice.”
Beginning the season with a tough contest against NC State at a neutral site and playing under the national spotlight against Florida has helped the Vols build confidence heading into this game.
“First game of the year we came out,” said senior tight end Mychal Rivera. “We were in a dog fight and we came out on top. That just shows us that we can do that every time and going into Georgia we know that we need to come out and execute and play like we did against NC State.”
Rivera noted that playing on the road will be different than anything the team has experienced this year.
“It’ll be a change,” continued Rivera. “We experienced a lot of adversity in the Florida game. We just have to get ready for that in this Georgia game and just to prepare and fight through.”
One of the senior leaders on defense, Prentiss Waggner believes this 2012 Vols are confident in this matchup.
“I think our confidence is real good,” said Waggner. “We have a veteran group of guys with a lot of senior leadership on the team, and I know we’re going to be pumped about the game this week.”
“We love it,” said RS junior defensive back Byron Moore. “That’s why you come to SEC to play these big games. If you can’t get up for it, something is wrong. We are just worrying about ourselves, trying to get our minds right, and when Saturday comes just let it all hang out.”
SOPHOMORE LB A.J. JOHNSON
(On Georgia’s running game)
“They are a good strong team that is very sound and they will run at you. That is the biggest problem people have with them. I love playing pro style teams that want to run it at you and pound it. It is all on the defense and people keeping their rush lanes and containing. That will stop that. They are a little bit different than Florida. Florida was trying to break it out to the outside a little bit more, but Georgia will try and run inside and we will be ready for them.”
(On preparing for Georgia in practice)
You are going to get reads in practice and work on the play-action plays. I will be ready for them in the game. Our scout team will give us good reads and play-action. We have been watching a lot of film to know when they will run the play-action. Last week it was really good, all of the checks and stuff were right. We are just ready for this week and we will have the checks right for this week too.”
(On Todd Gurley)
They have some good running backs, one of them is rushing nine yards a carry and we are going to stop that. There won’t be nine yards a carry for him. He is a good running back with good speed and good power. We have to contain him though. Everyone has to get their gap and shut it down.
(On playing five ranked teams in a row)
It is a good opportunity to be in a position to get good wins. I don’t really look at the rankings, I just look at beating the team you have up next. I don’t keep up with the teams being ranked. I go to practice, have a good practice and get ready for the next game.
JUNIOR TB RAJION NEAL
(On avoiding personal pressure)
“Stay within the game plan. Stay under the coaches, just really take coaching. I think that’s the big thing, because once the coaches just stay on us and just keep it in our mind to just play the game, and don’t try to do too much and get away from what we’ve been coached to do, we’ll be fine.”
(On importance of ground game)
“We just have to continue to do what we do. We have to stay on top of the O-linemen, stay under these coaches, watch film to see what they do, see what we can do to try and exploit things. We just have to stay downhill, stay with the O-linemen and believe in them.”
(On addressing short yardage)
“You just have to understand getting down there and understand that we need that yardage. You have to understand where you are on the field and that comes back to watching film and knowing what they do and where guys are going to be. There’s definitely a mindset. You have to tell yourself that you’re getting those yards, those one or two, because those are the kind of plays that change games.”
RS SOPHOMORE WR JACOB CARTER
(On today’s practice)
“Today’s was a lot better. It was a lot more polished and everything. We went over the correction and then worked on some stuff for Georgia. It went really well.”
(On how the scoring play developed)
“It was a little out route by Zach Rogers. We had been running it the whole time. The corner kind of bit on that and the safety was close to the middle of the field. So, no one was around me. Bray was able to get it to me and I was able to come down with it.”
(On his play giving Bray more confidence in him)
“I think so a little bit, but we’ve been doing stuff like that in practice. Everybody is making plays in practice, so I guess it wasn’t too big of a surprise.”
RS SENIOR TE MYCHAL RIVERA
“They have some game wreckers, they have some explosive guys. No. 29, he’s really good. They have a lot of guys on the inside that can Rambo back. We have to play a really solid game.”
(On no huddle)
“It definitely helps. As much less communication you can have on the road, it’s better.”
(On the “us against the world” mentality)
“For me it is. I know the team goes out there and we have a chip on our shoulder. We want to prove to people that we’re better team than what’s written out there.”
RS JUNIOR DL MO COUCH
(On playing a traditional team like Georgia)
“ Georgia has pretty much been with the same offense they had the past few years. They’re pretty much like a traditional offense, like a pro offense. They just run downhill. It’s nothing complicated that we have to study. We just have to put the best personal in that is going to execute.”
(On personal pressure)
“Georgia is a great team. They’re one of the top teams in the nation. For us to win this, it would be great. A lot of guys have the right mindset. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a great practice; very physical preparation. I think we’re going to go in and do what we have been coached to do.”
(On being an underdog against Georgia)
“It’s different. We had a bunch of external factors during Florida week. This week, we don’t mind being the underdog. It just motivates us. Too much worrying about anything and how it’s going to affect us, we’re just all going to stick together and focus.”
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On preparing for dual-threat QB Aaron Murray)
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s different. The one thing is it puts a lot of stress on the D-line in containing the pocket, collapsing the pocket and keeping that guy contained and just breaking away from blocks and making plays.”
(On Georgia’s wide receivers)
“They have a good core group of guys, guys that can beat you deep. Their quarterback likes to push the ball vertically. Their whole offense is a timing offense, sort of like Akron. If you let them run free, they can make big plays on you.”
(On Tennessee’s next four ranked opponents and keeping focused on Georgia)
“We know this this is Tennessee-Georgia, it’s a rivalry in our eyes. It’s going to be a big game. Guys on the team who have played in Athens already know it’s a hostile environment. You go down, and it seems like you see red everywhere. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
(On Georgia’s run game)
“One thing we’ve got to do on the back end is if that guy breaks free, we’ve got to bring him to the ground. Last week, we let a big one get away from us. The main thing is getting off blocks on the back end and bringing him down.”
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On the improvement in the run game)
“I feel like the difference is they were more seen and the running backs were hitting them down here and they were breaking a lot of arm tackles on the first level themselves to get into the secondary.”
(On Rajion Neal’s improvement)
“Yeah I have seen him progress going all the way back into camp. I feel like he is getting more downhill and he is breaking arm tackles more and more each week. I hope he continues to build on that.”
(On no issues with snapping the ball)
“I feel like it is really good. It is something you can’t take for granted but it is really good that we haven’t had any mishaps with it.”
(On protecting Tyler Bray)
“I think we have been protecting him but we haven’t given up too many sacks. I feel like there has been too many hits on the quarterback, where they are hitting him after the play, after he releases the ball. That is something we are really trying to eliminate so we can keep him clean.”
(On improving from last year’s game)
“Last year we ended up with negative yards and I think this year it is something we have really harped on all offseason. It is something we are really focusing on, to have a running game against these guys.”
(On competing with Georgia)
“I feel like we are a different team and they are a different team. But knowing we will be able to stick in there with them is going to be something. We feel like we can go head to head with anybody in the league. I know it is going to be a whole new game so we really aren’t thinking about last year. We just want to remember the mistakes we made and not repeat them.”
RS JUNIOR DB BYRON MOORE
“We’re facing a really good team, that’s just one of the plusses that you get when you come to Tennessee. You get to play in these type of games and we just have to come out this week, prepare like we’ve been preparing each day and work on our craft and technique and we should be fine when we get there.”
(On stopping the run)
“It effects the whole defense out there. We have to get all 11 hats to the ball this week, no matter who has the ball. We just have to gang tackle and make sure we get these guys down. It’s going to be a good challenge for us and we’re looking forward to it.”
(On Georgia’s receivers)
“We definitely feel like we can match up with these guys. We know that they have a big guy in Malcolm Brown. He is a big, possession receiver. They have a few quick, speedy guys, too. So we just have to get our hands on them, interrupt the timing with their quarterback, and just make sure we play tight coverage the whole game.
(On the confidence boost from the two interceptions last game)
“It’s gives you a lot of confidence. Anytime you get that many turnovers, it’s always going to give you confidence. But that’s something we are expected to do this year is to get turnovers. It’s nothing we are surprised about.”