KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Though he is a Vol for Life, Tennessee running backs coach Jay Graham will return to a familiar place this weekend when UT heads to Columbia for a meeting with No. 17 South Carolina.
Graham spent three years inside the confines of Williams-Brice Stadium from 2009-11 while serving as the running backs and tight ends coach under Steve Spurrier.
He is excited to get back and see the players he coached, especially one he helped recruit to South Carolina, Marcus Lattimore.
“When I went to a game you could see his focus and attention to detail in the way he played,” Graham said. “You could see he was going to be a special player, and getting to know him, you can see in his approach to everything on and off the field you knew he had all of the ingredients to be something special.”
Graham, who played six seasons in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers, came to South Carolina after one-year coaching stints at Chattanooga, San Diego, Tennessee-Martin and Miami (Ohio).
Having the opportunity to establish his coaching career under Steve Spurrier is something that Graham is grateful for.
“It helped me out a lot,” Graham said. “The opportunity to be around one of the best coaches in college football, Coach Spurrier and his influence on me was big for me in my career.
“There is so much [about him]. Just the way that he interacts with his players, the way he game plans, his style of coaching. He was a lot different [than I thought]. He is more of a player’s coach. Just being around him and the way he goes about his business every day and prepares for the game.”
Though he coached on the offensive side of the ball while at South Carolina, Graham knows that his running back corps at Tennessee will have its biggest test of the season facing a South Carolina defensive front that is third in the country with 29 sacks, which ranks behind only Tulsa (35) and Utah State (30) in the entire NCAA.
Graham has been spending this week getting his running backs ready with pad leverage and blocking drills, to go along with their normal weekly routine.
“You are going to get some blitz and those guys do more than just run through a gap and blitz, they know how to shed blockers and get to the quarterback,” Graham said. “It is going to be important for us to have your head up and pass protect and finish. It is all about the last two seconds of the play. They strain really hard to get to the quarterback.
“We are getting better. It has been pretty close to sound. We have done a good job, but this week is going to be a big challenge for us. It is the challenge of the technique because the better the player is, the better the technique has to be.”
SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE
Saturday’s SEC showdown in Columbia pits one of the nation’s top offensive lines against one of the top defensive lines. The Vols come into the game having allowed just three sacks, the second-fewest in the nation while South Carolina has racked up 29 sacks, the third-most in the country.
Tennessee’s offensive line coach Sam Pittman is well aware of the challenge at hand, and how South Carolina has been able to dominate the line in its games.
“I heard Coach (Lou) Holtz say it on ESPN that nobody has dominated, ever since that group of guys got there, South Carolina on the defensive front,” Pittman said. “Obviously it takes more than one guy. There’s just not a weakness in there. You wish there was, and then that way you could turn it away from the weak guy and put him man-to-man. They just don’t have it. If you want to double climb it, they’ll get in a pair of threes and not allow you to double him. They know what they’re doing and are really well coached. I have a lot of respect for them and am excited about Saturday.”
The focal point of the SC defensive line is sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who has 7.5 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss to rank second in the SEC in both categories. UT’s Antonio Richardson will be given the task of trying to shut down the midseason first-team All-American.
“He’s really fast,” Pittman said. “He’s big, he’s tall and he can move his hips. Some guys that want to club you and can move their hips laterally, Clowney can move his hips laterally and forward. There aren’t many people that can do that. Obviously he has great speed so he’s going to get you up the field and make you want to come under.”
Clowney’s co-star on the defensive line is senior Devin Taylor, who is also someone Pittman had high praise for.
“Well again, Devin is long too,” Pittman said. “You have to pick your poison. You can’t double both of them. You can chip both of them, which is obviously something that we want to do. You also want to get guys out in a route, so there’s a fine line in everything. Bottom line, you don’t want your quarterback to get hit, so we’re going to do everything we possibly can to have a scheme that will help us keep our quarterback clean.”
When it comes to the matchup, Pittman points to the statistics that show how well Tennessee’s line has performed.
“Let’s face the facts, three sacks in seven games is pretty good,” Pittman said. “I don’t care where you are. They’ve probably exceeded it in that case, but I knew when I came that we had good ball players and again, sometimes you get credit for things you don’t deserve. We have good players. If we had bad players, trust me we wouldn’t have three sacks.”
VOLS READY FOR PLAYGROUND BALL
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw’s ability to make plays with his feet definitely has Tennessee’s attention as it prepares to square off with the Gamecocks Saturday.
“It is a huge challenge,” Tennessee safeties coach Josh Conklin said. “He adds an extra dynamic. You have those pro-style quarterbacks who are sitting back there reading their first read and reading their second read, he is going to read his first read and then if he doesn’t see it, he is going to pull it and try to make something on his own.”
It isn’t just Shaw’s ability that makes those “broken” plays so dangerous, however, as every player on the South Carolina offense is taught exactly what to do in those situations.
“Everybody is coached up on their primary route and once that primary route breaks down, now they can go to their secondary [route],” Conklin said. “All of those guys are coached up on where they are going and to what part of the field. Are they going deep? Who is the intermediate guy? Those broken plays are what is scary because he is a definite threat with his feet. We have to make sure that we are all alert to that. The underneath droppers in zone have to make sure that they are driving on the quarterback when he crosses the line of scrimmage and we have to stay back in coverage.”
In order to defend against what UT head coach Derek Dooley described as a play within a play earlier this week, the Vols will have to stay disciplined but also be ready to rely on the instincts they developed on the playgrounds of their childhood.
“What you have to be disciplined in is your rules that you match up different patterns,” Conklin said. “When they break, the rules are kind of out the door and now you have to lock down, be as deep as the deepest and make sure the quarterback crosses the line of scrimmage before you attack. All of those things become a major factor and it becomes the old school playground ball, ‘go to the light pole’ type-of-speak.”
Some new faces saw significant playing time in Tennessee’s game against No. 1 Alabama, including redshirt freshman Trevarris Saulsberry has moved up the depth chart on the defensive line and saw the most playing time of his short career.
The Gainesville, Fla., native has impressed his position coach, John Palermo.
“I think he’s always been a guy that does what you ask him to do,” Palermo said of the former Florida All-State selection. “He’s never late for meeting, he’s never late for practice, he always goes to class. He does all the things; you know it’s time to give kids like that the opportunity to see what they can do on the football field.”
Saulsberry was anxious to see how he would perform after not playing as a true freshman in 2011. The season didn’t start the way he expected, but that didn’t discourage him.
“After my redshirt year, I was thinking okay, this is my year,” said Saulsberry, who made the first five tackles of his career against the Crimson Tide. “I can come out and start playing. Things didn’t go how I planned, so I just sat back, waited, kept practicing hard, kept giving the team looks. I felt like I was ready to step up and take the role on the defense.”
In addition to his work ethic on and off the field, Palermo is impressed with Saulsberry’s stature.
“He’s the body type that you want and he’s the future of our defense right now,” Palermo said. “If you’re playing with 6-5, 296-pound defensive ends that have relatively good movement, then that’s how you build a good defense.”
One of the biggest areas that UT wide receivers coach Darin Hinshaw has focused on in preparing for South Carolina is how the Vols run their routes in an effort to get open for the quarterback.
“That is exactly what we have talked about this week from the very beginning, discipline and route running,” Hinshaw said. “You have to run everything that we run, you have to understand when to punch and pivot, when to make your cuts, when to flip the DB, all those situations and then be able to go make plays when the ball comes out.
“There are going to be situations where there is going to be pressure on Tyler (Bray) or whoever is at quarterback and we have to sit there and go make plays.”
One man Hinshaw has been working with more extensively this week is junior Justin Hunter, who has been limited to just nine catches in the last three games after starting the season with 30 receptions in the first four weeks.
“Justin has been practicing extremely hard and working hard,” Hinshaw said. “We work after practice on some of the catching. We have worked on deep balls, we have worked on those situations and just clean up those deep ball catches. Justin has been working hard at it. Justin is special and we have to make those plays.”
SOUTH CAROLINA HEAD COACH STEVE SPURRIER
“It feels good to get back home. We’re home for three straight. One of our goals is to win all the home games. We’re still in the position to achieve that if we can regroup a bit, start playing smart and start playing up to our potential. Tennessee is a good team that’s lost four games, I think to all ranked opponents. Their offensive has been very good. Their defense has struggled a little bit. They’re going to come in here and throw it around probably as well as anybody we’ve played. They’ve got a good running game also. They’ve made yards against everybody they’ve played. Even Alabama last week, but it didn’t work out for them.”
“All of our guys are pretty much healthy. Connor Shaw is healthy. We need him to play well. We need Marcus Lattimore to run the ball more. Our formula for winning hasn’t occurred much the last few weeks. We know what it is. We will hope and try our best to get back to that. We’re looking forward to a noon kickoff. I know our fans are too.”
(On facing Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson)
“He’s a good player. He came out of junior college. I don’t know how much we recruited him to tell you the truth. Not too much. What we’ve got to be concerned about is kickoff coverage and punt coverage on special teams. He’s an excellent return guy and receiver. They’re going to throw it around. They’re defense is going to be ready. We’ve got to play much better if we’re going to have a chance to beat these guys.”
(On the offensive woes)
“We just haven’t performed very well. We hope to perform better. Like I said we know Marcus needs to run more. We are going to try our best to get it to him ore. Stay on the field for first downs. We know we can’t run him every play, but we know how our wins have occurred in the past and we’re going to try to get back there.”
(On Connor Shaw)
“Certainly he hasn’t performed as well as he was earlier in the year. We don’t have all the reasons for it. We’ve had games we’ve attempted to pass more than we intended to. This is his game. If he skunks it up the first half, he’s going to skunk it up the second half. This is his game. Dylan was sick yesterday and didn’t show up. I’m sure he’ll be okay by the weekend. We’ll try to play to Connor’s strengths and give him the opportunity to be successful.”
UT TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH CHARLIE COINER
(On Mychal Rivera)
“I am happy with Mych. He showed up with the big play the other night (vs. Alabama). He gives you good effort in the run game. Sometimes he gets overwhelmed by defensive ends and bigger outside 3-4 (line) backers, but he fights and that’s what you need to have out of a tight end.”
(On Brendan Downs)
“Downs brings you a little bit more weight and more heavy-handedness in the blocking game. He’s rough in the pass protection area. We are constantly working on that. He’s still fighting through that knee a little bit. He’s ready when it comes to Saturday and that’s what matters.”
(On Cordarrelle Patterson)
“Returners make you special, players make you special and he’s special. You like to get the ball to his hands. We went and looked at it and you are like wow, CP made five people miss, that’s all that happened. But if you really look particularly on kickoff returns, you see a lot of people on the ground. There are a lot of people working for him, a lot of people go their people down. There were some people who missed their blocks, got up and got back in the play. I will also say, it gets you excited about working when you have a cat back there that can make people miss.”
(On Ace Sanders of South Carolina)
“He dangerous like (Patterson). We have addressed it as such, I’m not going to talk a lot about how we are going to try and stop him, but he puts that foot in the ground and he just makes people look silly. He’s a got a little wiggle about him. We’ve got our hands full. We are taking great pride in our kickoff unit. We think we are getting better each week. We had a punt get away from us a little bit last week. We are taking a lot of pride. In the SEC, you have another great one (week after week). I will say, I have not seen anybody in the league better than Ace Sanders.”
UT SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On coaching against Steve Spurrier)
“We played him last year when I was at The Citadel and I had a chance to play him when I was at Wofford College. He stays really consistent as far as what he wants to do. There are a lot of intermediate routes when he is in 11 personnel. When he gets into 21 personnel, he has two backs back there and two tight ends, now you are going to see some stuff over the top. We have to have great play from our post safety for sure, because he will take shots deep and he’s not afraid to take shots deep. I think with the quarterback that he has right now, that may be one of his greatest assets, throwing the ball. He has a good arm and he throws the deep ball pretty accurate.”
(On what Spurrier does to create mismatches)
“I think he can do some things formationally to you, he does do some things conceptually that can get you into some tough situations. What we have to do a great job is go back and look at what has hurt us in the past and how we can maybe adjust and adapt to that going forward because you know he is a good football coach and their staff is going to look at those things and try to expose you.”
(On LaDarrell McNeil)
“He is making a lot of progress and is getting more comfortable. He got beat on the one against Alabama because of a miscommunication error, he didn’t get the call, but like I told him, he just has to stay confident and keep moving forward because he is a good football player. You see him showing up and being productive and we are going to get him in more positions to make plays because he is that type of guy. You can’t look at a bigger test than Alabama as a freshman in that type of environment and he held up really well. He has to understand the importance that it is a game. Enjoy the game, it is fun.”
(On playing young players)
“I think it can be nerve-wracking at times, but we have a lot of confidence in ourselves as coaches and a lot of confidence in the players. I have a confidence in my ability to get a guy coached up and get a guy to play at the level that we need him to play at if he has the confidence in himself to go out there and make those plays. When you look at a guy like [Byron] Moore and LaDarrell [McNeil], being a young guy he wants to go out there and do well. Those guys are fun to coach, they are easier to coach and we can get them in position to make plays. The more confidence you have seeing them make plays out here [in practice], the more confidence you have in them making the plays [on game day].”
UT RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On Rajion Neal)
“We will see. He is doing better in practice. We will go through Thursday practice and go through pregame and see how he feels. He has [practiced more this week]. We will be ready to go regardless. I think he will be able to help us, but obviously if he can’t go and he’s not 100 percent he can’t help us.”
(On Marlin Lane)
“He did good. He did some good things and he has some things he has to work on and he is working hard in practice to improve those things that we talked about. I think the last month he has worked hard on his pad leverage and running hard and doing those things in practice. I always tell him what you do in practice is what you are going to do in the game.”
(On the Alabama defensive line)
You have to mix it up. They are long-legged, they can step right around any kind of cut blocker, they are fast. You have to be careful of how much you cut and when you cut and if they see it they can get right past you.
UT WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On South Carolina’s secondary)
“Against different teams they have been very aggressive in the secondary. With D.J. Swearinger back there, he is an older guy, he has great instincts, he is the leader in the back end and he helps lead those guys. They understand down and distance and they play the chains a lot on third down and they do a really good job of disrupting routes and doing things. They know there is only a couple of seconds here and somebody is going to go wreck the game in the back end. I am talking about on the back end of the offense. Their defensive line is really good. So they know they have to cover for some amount of time and go make plays. They do a good job of that in the back end. We have to do a good job of protecting and we have to do a good job of taking advantage of routes and different situations of when we are open and go make plays.”
(On the importance of CP polishing his routes)
“That is what we worked on. We talked about that in the beginning of the week. We said, ‘Here is a situation, you are one-on-one.’ In one-on-one’s CP does a really good job of polishing his routes because he knows the ball is coming towards him, he knows he has to win, he knows he has to get in a position to get the ball. You have to have that mentality every snap. Every snap the ball is coming to you, that is what you have to be thinking. We have really worked hard at it. We have had a really good week of practice. We have gotten better and better at receiver as far as our practice and straining and everything. Now we have to take it on Saturday and go execute.”
(On importance of protection from the O-line during deep ball situations)
“It certain routes it does and in certain situations it does. We just have to know if we are going to run deeper routes down the field we have to a good job in protection. It is pretty simple. You can’t just run short routes the entire game, you have to balls that you go press down the field, you have to be able to do that. But we have to be able to protect. Then we have to strain in our protections and then there are times when you throw the quick ball and get the ball out and of course you lessen people in protection in our protection schemes and know the ball is going to come out. They are really long too up front and they do a good job of putting their hands up. They have batted a lot of balls. We have to get their hands down.”
UT DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On getting over the hump)
“I don’t know. I wish I could put my finger on it. I know when we were at Wisconsin, we were 5-6, we were 5-6, and then all the sudden, those two years, we lost every close game we were in. Then all the sudden, the next year, you know, we started winning the close games and once we started wining close games, is when the program got turned around and we started going to Rose Bowls. I think it’s a matter of us playing hard, playing hard, playing hard and then all the sudden bam. We won a close football game. We beat a good football team in a close game.”
(On team’s confidence)
“You know, you know what, you would have to ask those guys that. I don’t know. I feel like our kids are confident. I just think sometimes when bad things happen, they just kind of, you know, I don’t know, shake their head a little bit.”