Typically, you’d see a big ol’, 300 pound lineman wearing no. 91. Like Doug Atkins. Or Robert Ayers.
But instead, on Thursday during Tennessee’s last practice before spring break, there was a tall, lanky figure streaking down the sidelines sporting 91.
Paul Harris, the early-enrollee freshman WR and native of Accokeek, Md., was assigned the awkward number by the coaching staff.
“Coach Jones is the master of motivation,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “Wearing No. 1 at the University of Tennessee is a privilege. Think about all the great guys that have worn that jersey… We were just sending a message to Paul that, in certain parts of his game, he needs to pick it up.”
WR coach Zach Azzanni echoed Bajakian’s feelings on the subject, and said while gesture was meant to send a message; it was more of a fun and gentle prod encouraging the young wideout to perform better.
“Paul wasn’t playing deserving of No. 1. And around here it’s real easy, we reward achievement,” Azzanni said. “It was kind of a little bit of a jab at him. He needs to play faster; it was kind of a fun type deal. But at the same time, we reward achievement. If you want to get treated well around here, then play real good, play real hard, play with a lot of effort and we take care of you. If not, your food’s a little worse, your jerseys a little bigger, that’s just how we do it.”
Harris appeared to be on his way to eating good again, as he caught a long bomb down the sidelines at one point during the team session of practice.
While some freshman might not take such a gesture ‘in stride’, Azzanni wasn’t concerned with how Harris would respond.
“He’s a great kid,” Azzanni said. “He’s going to be just fine. He didn’t like that and that was the point. If he liked it, we’d be in trouble. But he didn’t like it. He’s got pride, he’s not going to say anything, he’s going to come out here and work his tail off. He’s going to be right up there in my office for the rest of the day watching every bit of his film. That’s how he is. He’ll get better.”
SURPRISE! NOW KICK A FIELD GOAL
One thing Butch Jones and the Tennessee football coaches have been trying to do with the Vols are to make them extremely uncomfortable.
The purpose? To be ready for anything that could be thrown at them during the season.
Jones’ main target? Michael Palardy.
But Palardy has taken it all in stride.
He’s so focused that when he was asked to line up for a field goal Thursday, and Jones’ yelled his name over and over into the microphone, Palardy didn’t react to what he was saying until he nailed the kick through the uprights.
Then he turned around and asked ‘What?’ to Jones, who laughed and ran away.
“He has done a nice job,” said Palardy’s special teams coach Mark Elder. “We put those guys in pressure situations as much as we possibly can. It is a lot different, as I always say; it is like a golfer being out there on the course when it matters is way different than at the driving range. I look decent on the driving range every now and then but I will tell you what, I cannot score under 100 to save my life.”
“It is the same thing with (kickers). When there is no pressure and nothing involved as that is concerned there are a lot of guys that can look good. What we are trying to do is put those guys in pressure situations and see how they are going to perform under pressure.”
Another pressure situation Jones puts Palardy in is a “surprise” 20 second field goal.
“You can be in a two minute drill and you make a long play and it is going to be the last play of the game and you are going to have to sprint out there and kick a ball when you did not get to slowly take your steps and get set and feel the wind,” said Elder. “We are going to expect you to put it through the uprights and win the ballgame for us. That is the guy that you want out there, the guy who thrives under the pressure.”
ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Of all the position groups on Tennessee’s roster, the most experienced, and perhaps most talented, is the offensive line.
The Vols return four of the five starter from last season’s group that finished fifth in the country in sacks allowed, giving up just eight in 12 games. This number is even more impressive when considering Tennessee finished in the top 30 for pass attempts in the country.
However, despite the numbers and the returning talent, offensive line coach Don Mahoney has a very simple message–last year wasn’t good enough.
“We have to play better. We didn’t win enough in the past,” Mahoney said. “We have to play better with more depth. Yes it is experience, since I’ve got here it’s been ‘how many guys are back’ and we do. They’re solid players. But they have to play better than they did a year ago. Last year wasn’t good enough. It’s a challenge for me, it’s a challenge for them. I hit it home to them every chance I get. It wasn’t good enough and we have play beyond that. We have to work that much harder to do things better than we did a year ago.”
With a group as talented as this line is, sometimes hype can inflate egos. But Mahoney has a solution for that.
“Oh, we remind them that they’re not (that good),” Mahoney said. “It’s just the reality, last year is last year. It wasn’t good enough. It just wasn’t and it needs to be better.”
“The thing is, and it’s what I enjoy about this group–they like to be challenged. They’re not satisfied. And my emphasis to them is that every day is a chance to get better and again, it wasn’t good enough. We gotta keep working to be as good as we can be individually and then collectively as a unit.”
Individually, Mahoney pointed to several players that have been making strides so far in spring practice. Mack Crowder and Kyler Kerbyson got nods from the coach for their improvements, both on the field and in the weight room. Ja’Wuan James also received praise from his position coach, regarding his role as a leader on the team.
“Ja’Wuan James has stepped up as that voice,” Mahoney said. “He’s done a really good job of leading the group, as well as take it upon himself to lead the offense.”
THE THREE T’s
Butch Jones and his staff put a lot of emphasis on playing hard for every second of practice.
For the linebacking corps there are three things that they need to focus on every day.
The Three T’s if you will.
Tackling. Turnovers. Third Downs.
In order to achieve these three every day in practice you have to play hard and sacrifice your body. Something that Thigpen sees in his players, especially in recently appointed linebacker Brent Brewer.
“He is one of the more consistent guys,” said Thigpen. “He is one of those guys that doesn’t care about his body. He’s not afraid at all to stick his helmet in there. They all play physical and they all are trying to be physical.”
“Brew’s still learning the position but all he does when he goes out there, he goes 110 percent,” continued Thigpen. “One thing I do like about Brewer is his maturity. He’s a whole new guy. He carries himself like an older player and he asks questions like an older player.”
Another hard hitter is someone who has donned the Big Orange and White for less than two years, but has played like a veteran for his first two seasons on Rocky Top, A.J. Johnson.
At middle linebacker, Johnson led the SEC in tackles last season, an impressive feat. But Thigpen is trying to get his playmaker to add to his career stats in other columns.
“Oh he’s got to do better,” said Thigpen. “I mean again, he made a lot of tackles but we emphasize production. You know, tackles are tackles but sacks, tackles for losses, caused fumbles, fumble recoveries, that’s what we want out of him this year. He told me he had one sack his whole career, so we got to get that up. There’s always room for improvement.”
“For that position, to gain the respectability of your teammates, you have to go out there and know your job then know everybody else’s job and that’s what we challenged him for.”
SMITH STEPPING UP
Rising senior Jacques Smith has received praise all week for his play from both defensive coordinator John Jancek and defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
Smith, who disrupted SEC offenses last season as a JACK linebacker in the 3-4 defense; will likely be seen more on the line this year as the LEO.
“I will say this about Jacques, he has adapted quickly,” said Stripling. “He was the player of the day in Tuesday’s practice when we grade the film and reward a player. He has been especially quick to pick up the techniques, the checks, all of those things. His transition has been phenomenal. He has really stepped into it.”
Pass rushing is highly emphasized in the defense this season. And getting to the quarterback is a priority.
“Our philosophy is to get to the quarterback with a four man push, that really helps defensively,” said Stripling. “We are going to ask a lot of our players. We are going to ask a lot of our D-Linemen to make plays.”
ASSOC. HEAD COACH/D-LINE COACH STEVE STRIPLING
(On how the D-Line has taken steps forward on Tuesday and Thursday)
“Playing hard. I think the young men are finding out that the Butch Jones style of playing hard and playing energetic, playing physical, it does not happen overnight and Tuesday they took a step forward in that. You can evaluate it on film so we will wait and see, but that is what we are looking for. We are just trying to play hard and sound right now, and do the little things right.”
(On how Daniel McCullers is performing this spring)
“Well Dan is a typical D-Linemen in that he is getting better. He looks better on film, but he has no idea how far we have to go or how good he can be. That is kind of our whole room. We just need to keep pushing ourselves, pushing the threshold. playing harder every down, so that is what we are working on.”
(On how the fast paced offense has forced the defense to get into better shape)
“There is no question about it. Coach Jones calls it organized chaos. It is forcing us to get in better shape, it forces us to communicate in a hostile environment, so all of those things paid dividends. At some point there is going to be a situation down the line where it is going to be happening; a loud crowd, their offense is going fast. That will be normal to our kids because we practice that way.”
(On which defensive linemen he sees as emerging pass rushers)
“Right now we are working on our pass rush mentality. We do not really have a pass rush mentality. There is a little bit of ‘FBI’- Football Intelligence involved knowing seven pre-snap indicators, knowing if it is run or pass, knowing the down and distance being one of those seven, so what it is, is that I have to turn on that switch and be a pass rusher. We are still learning how to do that.”
ASST. HEAD COACH-DEFENSE/D-BACKS COACH WILLIE MARTINEZ
(On how the team is progressing)
“I think that there’s some things that we’re doing better. I think that the terminology, they’re starting to grab on to. The tempo of the practice, what the expectations are and they are getting some kind of an idea of that. We’re still making way too many mistakes. Some of the things that we pride ourselves on as far as football position, footwork, hand placement, and those things that we work on everyday, it’s still got to improve.”
(On if there’s any player that has stepped up)
“Without saying one or two guys. You’re looking for consistency and one guy that has shown up in the secondary that has been very consistent is LaDarrell McNeil. I like the way he’s approaching practice, his demeanor, and consistency. That’s the one guy that sticks out right now after six practices.”
(On if he is teaching different techniques than what they have been taught previously)
“I don’t really know what was being taught. I think if anything, you’re always trying to create better habits. Coach them better fundamentals and technique. I was just telling him a little while ago that we’ve still got to improve our football position, we’ve got to improve our footwork, our hand placement is bad when we are trying to defeat a blocker. Those are the things that we are concentrating on. By the end of Spring you want to feel like guys have made strides in doing that. We’ve only been at six practices. I can see that in some guys there is more consistency. I had said something about LaDarrell McNeil and he’s the one guy that I can say, on a consistent basis of six practices, you can see his improvement in grabbing on to our scheme and also of what the things that we want to get accomplished here from a fundamental standpoint.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH ZACH AZZANNI
(On the focus after the break, still effort or more scheme)
“It’s never going to be about scheme with us. This program will never be about scheme. It’s going to be about us playing harder and more physical and wearing our opponent down. It’s how you run the play and how hard you play that play. So that’s what we’re going to be about here.”
(On any stand outs in scrimmage or team sessions)
“I thought Saturday Cody Blanc took a big step. He had some nice catches. He’s trying to work the position. He’s trying to work the position and be better. I thought he took a big step. [Jason] Croom and Paul [Harris] both made nice catches, Vincent Dallas made a nice catch today. That’s progress. It’s the plays after those catches, where we’re just not in shape yet to twist the knife, we’re just not there yet. That’s disappointing but we have high standards here and we’re going to keep them high. There were some improvements here and there. You can see some talent from some guys–Alton Howard and Devrin [Young], you can see what they can do with the ball in live situations.”
(On how beneficial summer workouts will be)
The way that I coach them, I want them to spit back everything, so when they come here in the summer they can coach the bejeezus out of each other. They can spit the language we spit in that room, and they can coach and coach and coach and they can get better. I don’t know if there’s a bigger time in this program than this summer. How they prepare this summer will be a direct result of how we play this fall. Right now, they have no idea how they need to attack a summer. So that’s one more thing we need to educate them about.
TIGHT ENDS/SPECIAL TEAMS COACH MARK ELDER
(On how versatile the tight end will be in the offense)
“We ask a lot of our tight ends and they do all of the above. We will flex them out as wide receivers, they will be off the ball as H-backs or fullbacks, and they will also be grounded next to the tackles as a tight end or a true Y-tight end.”
(On Brendan Downs’ progression)
“Downs is doing well. Every day he is straining more, he is getting more physical and that is part of the process just getting back into playing shape. The guys had a long time period off from their last game till spring ball started. Playing shape is certainly a big part of it. He has gotten better every single day, he is pushing hard, he is becoming more and more physical, he is playing harder every single day, which is what we are asking of him.”
(On Alex Ellis)
“He is doing a great job. All winter long he did a really nice job in our winter conditioning and all of our skill development stuff and he is certainly coming along. He is athletic, I think he has a good skill set, I think he will be able to help us in a role this fall.”
(On whether or not the offense is where they would like for it to be as a staff)
“I think they understand where we want them to be but they are not there yet. I will say this, we have done a really nice job, the players have done a really nice job progressing every single practice. We see a better product on that field every single practice. They are buying in, they are 100% giving effort, they are giving everything they have got, but we are not there. We have a long way to go, but the progress has been tremendous.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH DON MAHONEY
(On how much it helps having a line with so much experience)
It’s good because what’s happening now is guys are starting to spit back the language of what we expect, the language of what we talk about up front as an offensive line because of their experience and because of their understanding of offensive line play in general has been a lot faster.
(On staying in shape over the break)
“Take care of their bodies and be smart. Fortunately the group as a whole, they’re either staying here or they’re going home, which is good. Just using their time wisely. It gets back to trust from day one. Everything I stress to them is built on trust. It’s making good decisions. Its making decisions that Coach Jones stresses are about being a champion every day in what we do, how we live, how we train ourselves. It’s important that they’re getting rest for their bodies and their minds and still getting a chance to get some workouts in.
(On anybody stepping up)
“Mack Crowder. He’s had a heck of an offseason of lifting and training and so forth. And to this point in spring ball has really stepped up his play. I’m pleased with the progress he’s making. The way he’s attacking the days mentally, the way he’s attacking the practices physically. Kyler Kerbyson is making some strides. Marcus Jackson and Alex Bullard competing right now for that spot. Jackson took some strides today. I was really encouraged by him. We’ve got to, each and every day, demand more and more and you know what? The payers are responding. It’s a group that responds to the challenges put before them, to the demands that are put before them, in terms of us and our expectations of practice.”
LINEBACKERS COACH TOMMY THIGPEN
(On what he is looking for in the drills with the linebackers against the tight ends or running backs)
“That’s a hard drill. I mean open field tackling is a specialty and you never get to work that. A lot of times when you’re caught out in space you don’t know how to approach and most guys like to go down the middle of them which gives the running back a two way cut. We like to make sure we pick an angle and give the running back one cut. So the main emphasis was taking up their space and making tackles in the open space.”
(On how much he works with Curt Maggitt off the field to keep him in the loop)
“Right now he’s in the weight room because he’s trying to get all of his rehab, but we all are in the meeting rooms all the time. So he can play the game in his mind just as easy as when we come out here on the football field.”
(On how much they are challenging A.J. Johnson to be a leader)
“A bunch, a bunch. Again, it’s a privileged position and guys respect knowledge of the game. So you can be as big and strong and make as many tackles as you want, but the players want the knowledge. They want to know you’re tough and they want to know you’re smart.”