KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – In an effort to assist with the Vols’ continued search for solutions on the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley switched meeting rooms and mindsets this week.
Instead of taking his normal seat among the offensive staff, Dooley moved over to help prepare and install the defensive game plan for UT’s upcoming contest against Missouri.
Even though it has only been a few days, Tennessee safeties coach Josh Conklin has already seen a positive impact from Dooley’s presence.
“The way we presented it to our guys and what they have to understand is that what we are doing right now is not the way to continue to go,” Conklin said. “One answer right now is that [Dooley] is going to put another set of eyes on it, [he is] going to get more involved in it, [he] wants to make you guys understand that the defensive side matters to him, which it does, and he has been active all season long.
“Our guys understand that, they know that, and I think they have found a little bit new energy because he brings a fresh way of teaching it at times and a fresh way of getting our guys to respond to an adverse situation, which we find ourselves in right now.”
Although Dooley’s background is primarily on offense, looking at the UT defense from that perspective has allowed him to see some things in the film room that the defensive staff might have overlooked before.
“Bringing Coach Dooley over and having him be another set of eyes on it and say, ‘Offensively, here is what we are looking at and here is what might give you issues and what might not give you issues,’ has helped us I think,” Conklin said. “It has given us maybe a different perspective. You get into that day-to-day grind and you lose perspective sometimes. I think we maybe have a little better perspective on it and we’ll just keep working through it.”
The Vols hope that fresh look at the defense helps provide some answers as they know there is still a lot of football left to be played and want to finish strong.
“I think Coach Dooley coming over to the defensive side, which he talked about, has been really beneficial for us and we are making steps in the right direction,” Conklin said. “I really do think that and this thing is not over for three more weeks and our goal right now is to go out and continue to put the best product on the field that we can. It’s hard, you can’t deny that. It is tough and you get frustrated, you get aggravated and you don’t understand why things are going the way they are, but you just keep looking and keep finding the solutions.”
FAMILIARITY WITH MIZZOU
With Missouri being a newcomer to the SEC, there are not many connections between the Vols and Tigers.
One member of the UT staff that does have intimate knowledge of Mizzou both recent and in the past, however, is offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
Pittman coached against the Tigers in the teams’ 2011 season finale in the Independence Bowl while at North Carolina. Mizzou opened an early lead and went on to a 41-24 victory in what was Pittman’s final game with UNC.
In preparing for this week’s UT-Mizzou game, Pittman shared his thoughts on the Tigers’ defense.
“All those guys that I had watched last year are back this year, and they’re really good at defensive end,” said Pittman, who joined the Vols in January 2012. “They have three guys who have really good moves and high motors.”
Pittman was quick to point out Sheldon Richardson, who leads all SEC interior lineman in tackles with 63.
“Obviously, Richardson is one of the best in the country, let alone the SEC,” Pittman said. “The thing that separates him is his athleticism. He can really run and he has a high motor. Missouri’s whole defense is high motor guys.”
In addition to his recent action against the Tigers, Pittman himself used to be a Tiger, as he spent the 2000 season as Mizzou’s line coach.
“I was really fortunate to work with Larry Smith at Missouri,” said Pittman of that 3-8 season, Smith’s last before current coach Gary Pinkel was hired. “Of course, it was just a one-year stint. They love their football there. I was a high-school coach in the state of Missouri, also, at a couple of schools. I have fond memories of Missouri and obviously, I’d like to have really fond memories after the game and see some of the guys, but we certainly want to win.”
After recording just nine interceptions in the 2011 season, the Vols matched that total in the first five games of the season thanks to a four interception effort in the season opener against NC State and a three interception day vs. Akron.
However, in the last four games, Tennessee has only managed one interception, a Herman Lathers pick near the end of the South Carolina game.
Last time out, Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw four interceptions against Florida in a 14-7 loss to the Gators. The Vols hope to take advantage of Franklin, who has battled injuries in 2012, this week when the Tigers come to Neyland.
“I think he is a good quarterback,” said safeties coach Josh Conklin. “But every week you want to go in and get some picks, and I think the guys understand maybe where his weaknesses are at or where his strengths are at a little bit better when they see him go against a team like Florida which is similar scheme-wise with what we do.”
There are many factors that go into the process of an interception.
“To get an interception a lot of things have to happen right,” said cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley. “The D-Line has to pressure the quarterback, the quarterback has to throw to the wrong guy, and the receiver has to run not the exact route that they are supposed to run. We have to be in position to make the plays.”
Every week, Tennessee has kept the mentality that they are going to be in position to make those game changing plays.
“We go into every game thinking we are going to make plays,” said Ansley. “Every week we go into the game wanting to get three interceptions, sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. We feel good about going into this game and playing our style of defense and getting the ball out there.”
Against Troy, freshman Daniel Gray was thrust into the spotlight earning the start at right cornerback over redshirt senior Prentiss Waggner.
The Trojans went right after the rookie and early in the game Gray was called for a pass interference, followed by a personal foul in the second quarter, both 15-yard penalties and both blows to the confidence of most young cornerbacks.
But not Dan Gray.
When asked about whether he was worried about what that game would do to Gray’s confidence, his coach Derrick Ansley shook the question off.
“I do [get worried] when it is somebody that is not Dan Gray,” said Ansley. “Dan Gray has no problem with confidence. He wanted to get back in there and we had to calm him down a little bit.”
“He is not down on himself, he is just a little under the weather this week and we are trying to manage him a little bit,” continued Ansley. “He wanted to get back in there and he got back in there in the third quarter and he did well. He gave up some plays but he is a freshman and he’s going to be good.”
Waggner will likely return to the starting role, where he was for 32 straight games before last week, but Gray will be back out there gaining experience and making plays.
MISSOURI HEAD COACH GARY PINKEL
(On the Tennessee game next week)
“We now are preparing for Tennessee. They’re a very good football team, and it’ll be another great stadium to play in like it was last week, another great opportunity for us. They’re a very, very impressive offensive football team, the quarterback is very talented; they’ve got great receivers. They’ve had a few struggles on defense, but we’ve had a few struggles on offense. They’re a great football team. We’re going to work real hard, and prepare well and hopefully go out and play with a great intensity level and focus on Saturday.”
(On Tennessee’s impressive offense)
“They’re running the I-formation around pro sets. They spread out, they do multiple things. They’ve got a great offensive line, good running backs, they pull in the receivers and tailbacks sometimes. They do a lot of different things. He’s very impressive throwing. He’s got great accuracy, he can extend the play, he can get rid of the ball. He’s a very impressive player. It’ll be different because they actually get the ball downfield. They put a lot of yards and a lot of points down against a lot of people. We’ve been playing a pretty good defense, but it’s going to be a challenge from a different type of offense.”
(On James Franklin’s performance last game)
“I thought he did a lot of good things, I mean look how we moved the football against one of the best defenses in the nation. Him being James and quarterbacking the way he does, he extends the play, finds people open, gets a seem, hits a crease, even though he’s a little bit limited running. All those things put tremendous pressure on defenses and it was certainly nice to see that. That’s just the way he quarterbacks. Mostly the mistakes he made were simply missed throws… I believe in him.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On the defense against Troy)
“I don’t think it was anything mental and I don’t think it was anything physical. I think they did a good job of throwing and catching. I think a couple of times we were blanketing the guy and he made a good catch and a couple times he had us beat by a couple times and outran us a couple times. I don’t think it was mental or physical I just think they made more plays that we did.”
(On the defense’s mindset)
“I think one, they want to win and they believe they can win all the way through. In this league you are going to give up some plays and some points but obviously we can’t give up the amount of points that we have been giving up. If you have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter, that is really all you can ask. We have had a chance to win against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia, and then Troy and we finally got over the hump and won one of those ‘grind it out grit’ kind of games. That is encouraging going forward. With a young defense those guys think they can go out there and get some stops when they need to and get the ball back to our really good offense. As long as you have a chance to win in the fourth quarter that is really what you want to get done.”
(On Prentiss Waggner)
“I think it took him a little while to get going there late in the second quarter but when he got in there he started making some good plays. He had two really good tackles for losses and played the deep ball fairly well. He gave up one because he didn’t know where his helper was but I thought he did good. He was kind of sour because he didn’t start and he is a competitor. But he went out and acted like a fifth year senior should do and came in and played a good game.”
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH CHARLIE COINER
(On the coverage unit)
“You all talk about how good our coverage unit it is, immediately as a coach that is the first thing I think about. We are only as good as our last our last cover. If we let this number 6 start changing direction on us and we don’t get down there you aren’t going to be walking up here next week and talking about how good our coverage unit is. That is the life you live in the SEC. Every week there is someone back there that can hurt you with their talent if you are not where you are supposed to be, if you don’t get off the blocks and you don’t hustle. Now, credit to our kids, they get it, and credit to Coach Dooley, we spend a lot of time on that and trying to make sure that those guys don’t get us.”
(On making up for Devrin’s absence)
“We were really proud of Justin Hunter. In fact, Justin Hunter was our special teams player of the week. Just because of how unselfish he was about it. And we have people every week that do a good job and probably have played more than Justin but at a moment’s notice Justin went back there and fielded punts. Our whole mantra that last week was that we wanted to keep the ball off the ground. We had CP as a short returner and we had Justin back there who did a magnificent job of keeping the ball off the ground. We brought him in as a jump guy, a leap guy on the block, he went down and he was the gunner on the punt team. He did a great job and that was a big part of it.”
(On Michael Palardy’s performance on Saturday)
“If you mean upfront, I thought we were good. I think he was pushing it a little bit. I think we have ten different PAT/field goals – a combination of the two. He pushed one of them. All and all I thought he had a good day. If you sit there and look at his overall performance on Saturday, in a lot of the things, what he did a tremendous job of was that kickoff after the penalty. That could have hurt us. We were sitting there kicking off from the 20-yard line and you are thinking this is such a field position game and he goes back there and bangs that thing down there and AJ goes down there and tackles the guy on the 27-yard line. That was a huge play. And he had the two punts, he pinned inside the 10-yard line, huge plays. All in all Mike had a good day. I don’t want him kicking the ball out of bounds, he doesn’t either. And I don’t want him to miss a field goal but nobody is perfect.”
SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On Coach Dooley providing a calm and steadying presence)
“As a leader, I believe you are the face. Obviously, Coach Dooley is the face of Tennessee and when he gets up in front of those guys if they see confusion and they see anger then that creeps into them, but our coaching staff and him especially, I’ve just been really impressed that when guys come in [he says], ‘Here is the problem, here is what we have to fix.’ The face is confident that we can get it fixed and our guys see that. We reassure them of that and you have to be the face of it as a leader. That is your responsibility and I think we have done a good job of that as a staff. We’ve kept these guys going in the right direction. [Wednesday] was probably one of our best practices all season. It was clean, our guys were into it, we were competitive with the offense, so those are good things to see.”
(On becoming more involved in practice)
“It has helped it out quite a bit. I’ve tried to make myself be more aware big-picture of what is going on, how we are putting it together, how we are structuring it. It’s not anything I’ve been asked to do or anything like that, I am just trying to get a better handle on how things are kind of fitting in there from top-to-bottom. Coach Dooley being over there and giving us input has been really beneficial.”
(On stopping Missouri’s offense from getting to the edge)
“You have different coverages that you can do and one of those things is you can drop another guy. You bring three-man pressure and you drop another guy to try to expand the field. What we would say in football terms is you cover the field instead of man-matching everything all the time. We have our man-match stuff which we have been really successful running at times, but you have to cover the field and to do that you have to change and tweak some of your coverage stuff.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On Rajion Neal)
“He’s looked better than last week. I think that’s the thing- the steady improvement, you’d like for him to improve really fast, but with ankle injuries and things like that, it takes a while. So he’s feeling a lot better this week and he’s practiced better.” We’ve upped the reps; that’s the thing, getting the reps in practice and trying to balance that with being ready for game day.”
(On Marlin Lane)
“I think it happened actually before Rajion was out. I think it’s been about a month or so, but he’s practiced really well since the open week and he was ready for his opportunity. I think it’s pretty good. It’s been good. Even before he got the chance, his confidence level was pretty good, because he’s practiced really hard. That was the key. I think so. I think doing things the right way in practice sometimes it, it’s good you see it in the game. I think that’s the good thing when you can practice hard, it shows and then you can get to the game and good things can happen.”
(On Rajion Neal’s confidence)
“I think his confidence level has risen a little bit from last week. That’s the thing- getting tackled, getting hit, all that stuff you’re worried about with the ankle, I think it was good for him to get in the game last week and get some reps and feel that after I get hit I’m okay.”
(On splitting playing time)
“It just depends. I try to divide the reps, but when I feel like a guy is pretty much into the game and doing pretty well, then I’ll let him take over the game. That’s pretty much how it goes.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
“Exactly and that’s what we talk about all the time. You guys, you go work your tail off and it’s going to happen in the game. There were some opportunities in that game too where we had some touchdowns and it was a big game but we also have to clean those up. I told Vince and Dallas, I said, you never know when you’re number is going to get called and it was called. You have to be ready for it. That goes with Jacob Carter, it goes with all the receivers, they’ve been practicing their butt off all week. Everybody has to get ready for their number to be called and go out there and execute.”
(On players being in a groove)
“Yes, exactly and that’s what we talk about. Guys, you take one play at a time, you go bust your tail, and get ready to go execute that play, go ready to make your play and then come back, and when it’s time to go again, you go again and you go again, and you run and run and run and if you get tired, I’m going to get you out. You give everything you have, every single play, and it’s going to pay off on Saturday. That’s how it works in practice and that’s how it’s going to happen on Saturday.”
“They’re a solid defense. No. 22 in the country. They’ve played a lot of good teams. They’ve shut down a lot of good offenses and they’re really good against the pass. We have to do a good job, our details of our routes are extremely important. You can’t ever sit there and take a play off and think you’re not getting the ball, because you are, and Tyler Bray will find you. So, we’ve been working that all week and you’ve got to be able to go run great routes in the different coverages. There’s going to be sometimes where they’re going to put hands on you. There’s going to be sometimes when they’re off and then they’re going to run and put hands on you. They mix it up in the backend to create confusion and stop our vertical speed. We have to be able to run and run through all the times they put hands on us and be able to catch the ball and get vertical afterwards.