KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The Vols head into their annual open date Saturday with a trio of games against ranked teams on the horizon. Derek Dooley was happy with the team’s performance during the week knowing they will have some time away from the football field before returning for Monday’s practice.
“We had two really good physical practices,” Dooley said of this week’s sessions. “They were long, they were hard, they were tough, kind of like training camp. We gave a lot of people an opportunity to grow and develop. I could use a whole other training camp, so it’s never enough. I think we accomplished what we needed to. We are going to lift and run them tomorrow and then they get a 48-hour hall pass. They need to manage it the right way so they come back fresh and ready to go.”
An off week gives teams time to heal, regroup and recover from nagging injuries, but Dooley also thinks time off can take away from a team’s edge.
“Sometimes it’s better to keep going (with games) and your body just adjusts and you keep pushing,” said Dooley. “Sometimes you need (rest). I don’t know if it’s going to help us or not. We will find out.
“Sometimes a lot of rest before a lot of physicality doesn’t help you. Usually when I give these guys a couple of days off, the first day they come back they are terrible. But if you just keep hitting them all the time, they don’t even know and they just keep going. Your body adjusts to the amount of stress you put on it. If you lay around for two days, your body adjusts and just says, ‘I want to lay.’ When you hit for two days, your body adjusts and says ‘Let’s hit.’ That’s how you build muscle.”
The Vols started installing their game plan for Mississippi State on Thursday.
“It was like a Monday practice,” said Dooley of Thursday. “Introducing what they do. Their fronts, their base runs, their throws, their personnel, their (special) teams. We will come back on Monday go get after it pretty good.”
THE REASON HE BECAME A VOL
The Tennessee offensive line has lived up to the expectations placed on it heading into this season and a big part of that is because of offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman, who spent the past five seasons coaching at North Carolina, came to Tennessee to start anew.
“I took the job because of the players in that room,” said Pittman. “One, I wanted to come to Tennessee and two, I knew who I was coming to Tennessee with; (Coach) Chaney and the guys in that room. I knew they were really good players and for some reason they just had not gelled yet. I certainly had recruited a lot of those guys and lost in the recruiting battle on a lot of those guys so I knew they were good players and that is why I wanted to be a part of it.”
Through five games, the players in that room have allowed just three sacks, with two coming on technicalities – an intentional grounding call and a fumble behind the line of scrimmage — rather than hard hits on the quarterback.
Those three sacks allowed rank 11th in the nation, but sit fifth in the category ‘pass attempts per sacks allowed’ as the Vols have given Bray enough time in the pocket for 202 pass attempts in 2012 (67.00 PA/SA). For comparison, one of the four teams ahead of the Vols, Air Force has not allowed a sack this season, but has attempted just 44 passes.
Though the line was already experienced, entering the year with a combined 106 starts, Pittman took a group of seasoned athletes, fit them together into a unit and taught them to believe in themselves.
“I think when I came in we tried to turn them loose and get them some fits where we wanted them to fit and play fast,” said Pittman. “That takes a little bit of pressure off of you and it showed that it worked. I think the experience of (the offensive line) plays into it. Obviously ‘Tiny’ Richardson is new so it has been a transition getting him in with those guys. I think they are playing better just because they have seen more game time and the other reason is that they have confidence. You cannot play this game if you are not confident, you just cannot do it. Now all of the sudden they believe they can.”
If there is one thing that running backs coach Jay Graham is, it is never satisfied.
At least when it comes to his running backs.
Graham expects the most out of his group of athletes, and it shows in practice. Where the competition never stops.
“It is competitive every day in practice and the guy that practices the best should get that opportunity to get in the game,” said Graham.
One of the most competitive players on the team is Rajion Neal who has put up some big numbers against good competition in his last three times on the field.
“The thing that [Rajion] has done is that he is always competitive in practice,” said Graham. “He has done a good job of competing in practice, the effort level has been high for all the guys and it always has been a close competition and still is.”
Graham is not satisfied with Rajion’s recent efforts, however, and knows there are still things to improve on to make both him, and the rest of the running backs, better competitors.
“Once again we are just working on breaking tackles,” said Graham. “I am never satisfied, but those guys aren’t either. I think they want to work hard and the effort has been there to get better every day in practice. It is good [what we did against Georgia]. It is one more step in the right direction, but we have to keep improving. That is what this week was about. Working on the little things, attention to detail to get better.”
RENEWED CONFIDENCE FOR MCNEIL
Pressed into a more active role last Saturday against Georgia, freshman safety LaDarrell McNeil stepped up for the Vols, recording five tackles, all in the second half.
As with any true freshman stepping on a college campus for the first time, McNeil has been working to increase his confidence level. He got a major boost after his performance against the Bulldogs.
“It’s valuable because you see a renewed confidence in him,” safeties coach Josh Conklin said. “He kind of questioned himself for the first three or four weeks because he wasn’t getting the reps he thought maybe he should be or didn’t feel comfortable taking the reps he was getting.
“[Against Georgia] he got in there, made some plays and was pretty productive. I think he had five or six tackles, coming downhill and getting guys on the ground, especially those two good running backs. It was really valuable for him because he came out there and you really saw a renewed confidence in him.”
McNeil has worked hard to learn and understand the playbook early in his career, but what gives him the ability to contribute so quickly is something that can’t be taught.
“I was pleased with where he was schematically, as far as understanding what he needed to get done, but I think you saw his instincts,” Conklin said. “His instincts, when they take over, he is a very good football player. Combine that with what he knows and I was pleased with him.”
After the Vols allowed a number of big plays in the first half against the Bulldogs, McNeil was inserted into the lineup and made an immediate impact in slowing down the running game.
“Where we had some issues was in the ball busts in the open field,” Conklin said. “It’s kind of a three-fold problem, the last fold of that is the safeties and the DBs getting the guy on the ground. He can squeeze the air out of plays and he can get to the ball carrier in a hurry. Number one is he is instinctive and number two he has good speed. He’s probably one of the faster guys we have back there and if he isn’t faster, he plays at a faster speed.”
Part of the challenge of developing young players is bringing them along at a pace they can handle. So far, so good for McNeil who is currently the only freshman on the defensive depth chart for the Big Orange.
“He has responded really well,” Conklin said. “He is gaining some confidence. Any time you take those first few reps out there you don’t know how you are going to hold up, how you are going to be able to make plays against two good running backs, how are you going to make plays in the SEC, but he did. I think he came back this week and he is still live, he is still really confident in how he is executing so he is getting better every day.”
Two Vols missed practice on Thursday after getting a little “dinged up,” according to Derek Dooley.
Both freshman cornerback Daniel Gray (concussion-like symptoms) and senior offensive lineman Dallas Thomas were held out.
“[Dallas] is just kind of dinged up, a senior, has played a lot of snaps, so we put him in the tub and rehabbed him,” Dooley said.
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On younger player performance this week)
“For some (players), it is keep proving you should be in there over the other guys and for others it’s just adding good depth so we don’t have to play the other guy so much. Those guys are progressing and it’s good for the old guys to clean up a lot of the mistakes they have made.”
(On readiness of the team)
“I didn’t come off any day saying (the team) wasn’t ready to go. This team has been that way the whole year. They are a good group, they are a focused group. It doesn’t mean they are coming out there and can’t wait to practice on an open date. They were very workmanlike.”
(On working with the kickers)
“I am (the kicking coach). I have been that, I haven’t admitted that because I have been waiting for us to perform well to say it. I meet with them and I learn more each year. I spend a lot of time with kickers and have my whole career. I don’t profess to be an expert, but getting some basic fundamentals and trying to help them mentally, being of the right mindset and then trying to help them perform.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On practice this week)
“Coach Dooley’s philosophy is that we are kind of starting over as far as installing some of our base stuff. We are basically getting to teach these guys again from day one from camp. They are hearing the fundamentals of each coverage and each defense and will be able to go out there and perform a little bit better in the game.”
(On Deion Bonner and Daniel Gray)
“They are both still developing. They make some good plays and then sometimes they go out there and don’t know what to do. We have to get them better on the front end of that and have them play more physical and fast all the time. They are both coming along pretty nicely.”
(On the Georgia Game)
“We took away that we can compete. For two quarters we competed pretty good with those guys. It is a talented football team that is well coached and they were ready to play. I think at some times we left some plays on the field that we could have made, we are capable of making, and that is the difference between winning and losing.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On what the running backs are working on in practice this week)
“Every guy has something different, the thing that we have been working on overall is working on ways to break tackles. Working on our game, finishing drills, things to get us an extra yard.”
(On Devrin Young playing more against Georgia)
“I thought he earned it in practice. He did a good job in playing with a sense of calm and he did that in the game.”
(On what the Georgia game means)
“Hopefully it will carry over, we had a consistent mindset and although we didn’t come out with a win, and that is the most important thing, the effort level was there to do some things. We just have to work on the little details and get better in practice and I think it will show in the game.”
(On making catches out of the backfield)
“All of our guys have done well out of the backfield. Rajion has really good hands, he is good at running routes so he can put them in some mismatch situations on linebacker some times. He is a good route runner.”
(On the fast-paced offense)
“That is the effect of our fast-paced offense. You get a lot of plays and the defense starts to get tired and we did a good job, the offensive line, of opening those holes and pushing guys off the ball. That is the biggest effect.”
(On this week’s practice)
“We went back into camp mode. Some of the younger guys that have been in the scout field it was good to see them come back over and they have improved and have been working hard. It was good to see this week, there were a lot of good things.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On having younger players playing on the line)
“I think we had three or four starters who started two years ago that are still here and some of them will still be here next year. I think it is a big deal and it is very similar to (his situation at) North Carolina where we had to play some younger guys. The experience part of it all is a huge deal.”
(On being able to rotate seven guys in on the line as opposed to just the starting five)
“I think it has helped us out a bunch on Saturday. It was hot, we took 85 snaps, we were able to get Marcus Jackson in there, and of course Alex Bullard has been playing as a heavy tight end and he played tackle the week before. I just think it has helped us stay fresher and will help us in the future if we ever have an injury or anything of that nature it will be good for us. We would like to get to eight if we could and have another one involved in that if we can. Obviously the number one thing is that we have the right people on the field to win.”
(On the O-line’s focus during the bye week)
“We just have to get better. This week our focus is to get better at the inside zone, the tight zone and we are trying to eliminate all pre-snap penalties. That is our goal for this week.”
(On success breeding success)
“It brings confidence. You can only beat someone so much and eventually he is going to try and get up and fight you back and that is a little bit of what is happening with us right now.”