KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Although it is still looking for results on game day, Tennessee has been a model of consistency in practice all season with the players displaying a willing attitude to work and get better each and every day.
The Vols are confident that the results will come if they remain true to the process and took to the practice field on Tuesday with the same mindset to improve they have had all year.
“I think that their practice habits and routine have been very consistent,” UT head coach Derek Dooley said. “From fall camp to NC State week to Florida week it has been pretty consistent. This team has been like this all year. That doesn’t mean we aren’t all hurting a little bit, but we have to dust it off and get a little confidence going.”
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter noted that Tuesday’s effort was especially spirited with the Big Orange ready to put its losses behind them and get back into the win column.
“Today’s practice was way better than yesterday’s and last week’s,” Hunter said. “I know the coaches liked it a lot. They said we ran the tempo really fast, everybody made their assignments and everybody caught the ball really well. After the game [on Saturday] coach had a good talk with everybody, saying that if we are tired of losing we should practice with a really good purpose today and show it on the field.”
Playing in the best conference in the nation means that you have to play the best teams in the nation. Unfortunately for the Vols, they are in the midst of a particularly grueling stretch in which they will face four consecutive ranked teams, capped off by Saturday’s showdown against No. 17 South Carolina (Noon on ESPN/ESPN3D).
Having faced ranked teams in each of the last three weeks as well, the Gamecocks can understand Tennessee’s plight and the toll it can take on a team.
“I can’t speak for them, but I think it is a great example,” Dooley said. “When you hit those games back-to-back, South Carolina is a good football team and they played three good ones in a row. They strapped Georgia pretty good and had LSU beat but didn’t pull it out and then they made a bunch of mistakes against Florida. That is what happens when you play these good teams.”
The key to surviving a stretch like Tennessee and South Carolina have gone through in recent weeks is being able to bounce back from adversity, something both teams ran into last Saturday.
“The hardest part is when you don’t win,” Dooley said. “It’s tough physically, it’s tough mentally and emotionally, but that is life in the SEC and everybody goes through some stretches. The toughest thing is your energy and your spirit is a little bit better when you can get a W and we haven’t been able to do that yet.”
JUSTIN HUNTING FOR CONFIDENCE
Tennessee wide receiver Justin Hunter is trying to move past his recent struggles.
After a record-setting start to season, Hunter has nine catches over the last three games. Much has been made of Hunter’s drops and the junior knows how much miscues are magnified.
“Everybody expects you to catch every pass, even the hard ones and the ones that go out of bounds,” Hunter said. “I think I’ve been doing everything mostly right on the field but one drop is what everybody is going to look at.”
Hunter opened the year with 17 catches in the first two games, equaling the Vols’ record for catches in the first two games of the season, and had 30 receptions through four games before his recent drop-off.
Derek Dooley is aware of Hunter’s difficulties.
“Let’s go out there and perform to our abilities,” Dooley said in reference to both Hunter and his quarterback Tyler Bray. “Justin had a great swagger coming into the year and we have to get that back.”
Hunter is maintaining a positive attitude for himself and as an example for his teammates.
“I think that’s where I have to keep a good attitude on the sidelines so nobody panics and nobody gets mad,” Hunter said. “We all stay together and have a positive attitude.”
Hunter is in constant communication with his signal caller and they two talk regularly about the team and their confidence levels.
“Basically, (we) just talk about it all the time,” Hunter said. “We talked about it this morning. We try to keep each other up. I know every time if I drop a pass, he will come to me and say something about it. And, if he throws a bad pass, I go say something to him. We are pretty even with our attitudes.”
BULLARD, JACKSON READY TO GO
When a player is next-in-line on the depth chart, he must be ready to go at any moment in the game. Both linemen Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard got some extra playing time on Saturday after teammate Zach Fulton was injured in the second quarter against Alabama.
With Fulton listed as “doubtful” by Dooley, his big shoes are left to fill as the team approaches No. 17 South Carolina on Saturday.
“It’s really good having depth this year,” Jackson said. “We can rotate guys in if somebody does happen to go down.”
The second-string sophomore started five games last season, but he says he has learned more this year and has improved as a player because of the circumstances. After finding out where he would stand in the start of this 2012 season, Jackson said he just worked on being more consistent every day in practice.
“It was tough to swallow, but you have to get used to it and push hard,” Jackson said. “It’s life and you can’t get mad over things that you have no control over. What I do have control over is that I can get better every day and push.
“It’s just a little more pushing and then I’ll be there. When my number is called I`ll be ready.”
With the same mindset as his fellow offensive lineman, redshirt junior Alex Bullard feels similar in stepping up into a new spot. Focusing on right guard but also playing at tight end this season, Bullard just wants to help his team.
“I thought I did well [in the Alabama game],” said Bullard, who saw the majority of time after Fulton’s injury. “I picked up the slack. I’m the next man in so we don’t go down or anything. Alabama was a great team, I wasn’t perfect by any means, but we always have to be ready.”
Though some other parts of Tennessee’s game might be struggling, the offensive line has been quite impressive so far this season.
“We’re far away from being perfect, but you can definitely see the improvement,” Bullard said. “We’re still first in the country when it comes to giving up sacks. We just have to keep plucking away and keep working to get better and that’s all we can do.”
The O-line typically doesn’t receive a lot of attention, but Bullard is quick to point out their passion.
“Anyone that knows football knows that the offensive line is the heart and soul of the offense,” Bullard said. “We feel like if we do well, the offense does well. We don’t really care about all the publicity and credit, but if we all work together to get it done, then we push through to lead our team to victories.”
Curt Maggitt has been battled injuries throughout the 2012 season, and has still been a force in the middle of the defense for the Vols.
Maggitt has accumulated 19 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack and two forced fumbles this season for the Vols, but what might not show in the numbers is something that head coach Derek Dooley feels is game changing.
His presence on the field.
Maggitt acquired turf toe in the first game of the season against NC State and has been rehabbing multiple times a day ever since.
“I did it making a block when Prentiss got an interception in the NC State game and I’ve been treating it every day consistently,” said Maggitt. “In the morning, after practice, after class, at home sometimes. I’m going to continue to do that and I think that will help.”
Maggitt missed the following game, Tennessee’s home opener against FCS opponent Georgia State, but missing another game this season is not on his mind.
“I hadn’t really even though about rest or sitting out of games,” said Maggitt. “I’m just trying to rehab it and get better. I just need to go and play. I feel like I’m not where I want to be, but I’m just doing the best I can do and giving my all while I’m out there.”
CONTAINING THE POCKET
The Tennessee defense has a tough test ahead in trying to defend the mobility of Connor Shaw.
Not only does Shaw have a completion percentage of 65.6 in 2012, throwing for 982 yards and nine touchdowns, but he is also the second leading rusher for the Gamecocks behind Marcus Lattimore, registering 278 rush yards and a TD on the ground.
“He’s a mobile quarterback that can use his legs,” said UT defensive back Byron Moore. “He has a lot of speed in that zone read type of offense when they get that going and he has a great running back behind him, so we just have to try to minimize those guys and try to shut them down.”
In addition to Shaw’s mobility, the Gamecocks also have one of the top running backs in the country playing directly behind him in Marcus Lattimore, something the Vols will certainly have to account for.
“It’s difficult because they have a real good running back and a real good quarterback doing the read zone and read option and what not,” said linebacker Curt Maggitt. “It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Defensive lineman Maurice Couch echoed those sentiments.
“We can’t rush how we want to and be more aggressive because as soon as he sees an opening he is going to take it,” Couch said. “We have to do a good job of rushing and keeping our eyes on the quarterback. This week in practice we have been doing a good job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket and keeping him in front of us so he doesn’t break out of the pocket.”
The Vols have their game plan set and have been practicing this week with the ability of Shaw in mind.
The plan? Containment.
“We have to contain him,” said Maggitt. “Rally to the football when he does break the pocket and we just have to keep going and get him down when he does break the pocket.”
“We watched LSU and Florida and those guys did a great job of keeping Shaw in the pocket and limiting him in the passing game,” added Couch. “That is something that we have to do and I think it will help out our defense a lot.”
HEAD COACH DEREK DOOLEY
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“We are trying to create ways to get him the ball. We didn’t anticipate him dropping the toss sweep.”
(On giving Patterson more leeway to return kicks from the end zone)
“We have some parameters that we go through. I’m sure that teams are going to start kicking away from him. We were doing some things back there to try to read the kicker and we were pretty successful in getting him the ball last week. I was a little concerned going into last week so we tried to give them some indicators back there and read it on the run to get the ball in his hands.”
(On Patterson’s progress as a wide receiver)
“This will be an important week for him to progress. These guys probably have the most disruptive front-four in the league, especially from a pass-rush standpoint so your routes have to be fast and clean so the quarterback can get rid of it. If it’s not, it’s either an interception or a sack.”
(On the possibility of Alex Bullard starting at RG with Zach Fulton hurt)
“He has played every game, him and Marcus [Jackson]. I’ve said it all year that we felt like we have seven starters. You never want one of your five to go down, but we have a lot of confidence in him and Marcus to play that right guard spot. It’s important to have depth because you are always going to have injuries. I say it a lot but if you get a lot of depth and guys playing a lot, you don’t miss a beat. We are there in a lot of positions but we aren’t even close to there in some and it has hurt us.”
(On South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw)
“He has made a lot of explosive scrambles. You can tell that they work a lot on when he breaks the pocket. All the receivers take off and it’s like a new play. It’s like they get to run two plays. You cover him pretty good and then he scrambles and then it is a whole new play that you have to go play. The best way to avoid that is to keep him in the pocket.”
(On the mindsets for Bullard and Jackson after learning they would not start at the beginning of the year)
“They were competing and doing well, but that is the nature of competition and being on a good team. We told them that if they play well, you are going to play. Guys handle competition differently. The good competitors, when things don’t go their way, they keep working at it and good things come to them. The ones that aren’t good competitors, they want to take their ball and go home.”
(On Marlin Lane against Alabama)
“He did a nice job. He ran the ball well and had over 100 yards of offense against Alabama. Not many guys can sit there and say I had 100 and something yards on Alabama that isn’t a quarterback. Pretty good effort.”
JUNIOR OL JAMES STONE
(On focusing internally on getting better)
“You can’t focus on it. You have focus on in house. What is going on outside can’t help us get better inside the organization; we just have to look in the mirror and work on ourselves and try to get ourselves better. We can’t let the negativity come in because it is not going to do anything but hurt.”
(On his personal improvements)
“I feel like I have gotten a lot better, my leverage and controlling my body. It is something that I am just continuing to work on and continuing to get better to become a better center and a better leader on the offensive line.”
(On the offensive line’s growth)
“We feel like we have been working together well and it is something that we want to continue to grow and build on and make sure we don’t come complacent or stagnant in our growth.”
(On Tiny Richardson taking on Jadeveon Clowney)
“I feel like Tiny will do pretty good. Tiny is an athletic guy and he has a real hard motor that works. I feel like it will be a great match up to watch and he will come out doing pretty well.”
(On holding South Carolina to no sacks)
“I feel like our goal always is to keep the quarterback clean so that will remain our goal no matter who we are playing. Keep those guys off of our quarterback so he will be able to throw the ball.”
JUNIOR WR JUSTIN HUNTER
(On Coach Dooley’s comments yesterday)
“Everybody has their own opinion. That’s my coach. He sees me every day so he knows what I am doing or what I’m not doing right. I can say that I think I’ve been practicing pretty good and [played] in the games pretty good, but I know the two drops I would like to have back. We are men, so I don’t take anything personal. You just go out and work every day.”
(On whether dropped passes stick with him)
“It does for a second but I just have to clear that out of my mind because if you think about that you will drop another one. I just try to think about the next play and focus on the next play.”
(On teams frustrations)
“Especially when the team is playing bad, I just want to work harder for them. Just so we can bring the tempo back up and put points on the board. I just try to work hard for them.”
(On what frustrates him)
“The most frustrating thing is when the ball’s not coming your way. I think you try to work your hardest to get open if the ball’s not coming to you.”
(On the tough schedule)
“I think the [games against] ranked teams are the best, exciting teams. Going into a big environment, going there or coming in here, it’s always competitive. I get really excited when we play them. It’s best on best so you are just out there working your hardest. I don’t think it’s too bad, I love it.”
SOPHOMORE LB CURT MAGGITT
(On if the team feels different than they did a year ago at this time)
“I think it’s a lot different, especially since all the guys are a little bit older and we’ve played with each other and we know what we’re capable of and I think that’s the key thing. The way we played last October didn’t show what we’re capable of. We just need to come together, stick together and play together no matter what and last October we didn’t show well at all, but we still have another opportunity coming up and that’s the good thing about football is that after one week you have another opportunity the next week.’
(On what some of the bright spots were in the Alabama game defensively)
“Like coach said, we always have some spurts where we do a lot of things right, fighting and getting the offense on the field with good field position but there were a lot of negatives also. But as for bright spots, we were playing hard-nosed football in some stretches.”
(On if its fatigue or loss of focus that causes the bad spots)
“I would say both. Probably fatigue and loss of focus and guys just falling asleep. Just not playing our football.”
SOPHOMORE OL MARCUS JACKSON
(On already getting playing time so far)
“It’s very helpful. You go to some of the toughest environments of SEC teams and you play a big number of snaps, so now when your number is called, it’s like nothing happened and you’re ready for it.”
(On starting in 2011)
“It was a tough situation for me. I got back on track [this year] and I got a lot better because of that situation. [The starts last year] helped a lot, but it was nothing like having this competition in the summer. I pushed myself to get better every week, knowing that I have to compete harder and harder and keep getting more reps in practice and that’s what has made me a better player.”
(On being high school All-American)
“When you’re dominant in high school, you get used to being able to giving superior effort, but you don’t give it all every play. When you come to the SEC, it’s like a first-round draft pick. You have to pick the linemen every single play. You have to know that every play has to be all-out or you’re just not going to get the job done.”
(On Rajion Neal)
“I think we have a good core of backs and Rajion is a big part of that core. We have very physical runners week to week so it would be good to have him back, but we do have guys who can get the job done, so I’m pretty confident in them.”
RS JUNIOR DL MO COUCH
(On this year’s team vs. last year’s team)
“We are a much different team from last year. Around this time last year everybody’s head was kind of down and they were going into the game thinking we had no chance of winning, but this team this year we want to give it all we got, a lot of guys are keeping their composure, and we are rallying the younger guys and keeping them motivated. We are a much better team than we were last year.”
“We have a lot of leadership this year, and last year we didn’t really have any. We had a lot of guys that stepped up. Some of them are very vocal, some lead by example by going out and working hard. We are just all around a more mature team this year.”
(On playing in the SEC)
“It takes a toll on you physically, but playing in this conference you have to be mentally tough and that is something that you have to be prepared for. After a year of experience, last year, I wasn’t that mentally tough until mid-season. But that is what I came here for, to play against the best, and I think a lot of guys are doing a good job of handling the pressure, keeping their bodies right and staying mentally sharp. It wears on your body in the long run, but mentally you should expect it being in this conference.”
RS JUNIOR OL ALEX BULLARD
(On playing tight end)
“Anything that can help us win I like to do. Playing tight end is fun, going down and blocking a defensive end or linebacker is, so really whatever is good. The technique is a little different at tight end. It’s a different type player you’re blocking – they’re a little more athletic, but I still have a long way to go to work on it, but I’m getting used to it.”
(On South Carolina pass rushers)
“We just have to get on them. Our tackles are pretty quick and some of the best in the country. They’ve seen fast defensive ends before. NC State and Georgia were pretty good. We’ve faced elite defensive ends before, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing and then we should be able to handle them.”
RS JUNIOR DB BYRON MOORE
(On how much they’ve simplified the defense and how much it has helped)
“We haven’t really simplified too much, we have a few new calls, and we’ve taken out some of the stuff but as far as cutting back a lot of stuff, we haven’t really taken out too much, we just need to play faster, line up faster and execute the calls. At the end of the day, everybody has to line up, get the call from the sideline and go execute.”
([On Marcus Lattimore)
“He looks strong. He’s been running well. He’s a powerful back. It’s going to take all 11 of us to get to him and get him down, so we have to rally to the ball. We need to try to contain him and not let him get going north and south.”
(On if South Carolina runs play action very much)
“We were probably worried about it more with Georgia, but they do it just as well, and they have that mobile quarterback so it’s even more important for us to have good eyes this week, seeing the ball, to see if they hand it off or if it’s play action and looking for run/pass keys from the offensive linemen.”