“It’s that time of year again and I know everyone is excited. I know that we are as a football program. Talking to our staff this morning, there’s a lot of time and effort that you put in to prepare for your one guaranteed game. It’s the first game where you get to see the time you put in with your players in January, February, spring ball, summer conditioning and fall camp. To me, one of the most important things is that you have to enjoy it. I was thinking back today and told our staff about the first time I got a football helmet. It was in the back of a truck in Pisgah, Alabama. My dad was mowing the grass out on the football field and the guy pulled upon in the pickup truck and before you knew it I was out there in headgear and shoulder pads and didn’t have to sign any agreements or anything like that. I’m playing ball and out there doing ‘bull in the ring.’ That’s why these kids play the game, and lots of times we’re coaching them and telling them they have to do things this way or that way, but you think back to the purity of the game when you first started and that’s why we do play the game.
“You look at our opponent this week in Georgia State, a team very similar to us. They have lots of players coming back on both sides of the ball. Shawn Elliott is a guy that I’ve coached against over the years when he was at South Carolina – he was a fantastic offensive line coach. When you watch this team play, you see the same things that I’ve always seen going against his offensive line. They’re tough, they’re smart, they play hard, they’re very well coached and they do lots of things on offense. Their quarterback is coming back and he was also the leading rusher last year, so they have a dual threat guy that can present some issues there. Tra Barnett, the running back, is a guy that has breakaway speed that can score at any point in time. They also have two of their leading wide receivers back. On defense, the leading tackler last year is back, Ed Curney. Up front, they have two guys that when you watch the tape, just stick out to me — No. 52 and No. 55, they’re all over the field. And they’re good in the back end as well. They have their specialists back, so it will be a tremendous challenge for us.
“I know for us to start with, everybody is always going to ask about Trey Smith. The plan has not changed with Trey. Our doctors and medical folks will continue to work hard to try and find a way to allow him the opportunity to play. He has had a chance to participate in a couple of practices this camp and we’ll just kind of stay the course there and it’ll really be a game time decision with that.
“Aubrey Solomon is another topic that always comes up, same thing there. We haven’t heard anything yet, and we’re going to continue to practice like he’s going to play. All our guys take a lot of reps in practice and we’re going to continue to do that to create some depth on both sides of the ball.
“One thing that coming into this camp we wanted to do was to create an identity of what we want the 2019 Tennessee football team to be, and Saturday is one of the first opportunities we get to do that. We’ve had a really good camp, we’ve had really good leadership out of our seniors and we have lots of new guys, lots of unknowns and that’s the excitement about college football. We have a lot of guys that came here because they felt like they had the opportunity to play early at a big-time program, and a lot of them have put themselves in position to do that, so we’re excited about Saturday and having an opportunity to get this thing going.”
On DB Bryce Thompson:
“I released a statement today, and that’s all we’re going to talk about for right now. We’re going to focus on this game and, for us, that’s what we can focus on.”
On the cornerbacks listed on the depth chart:
“We’ve worked a lot of different combinations in the secondary. Alontae Taylor has played star and corner, Warren Burrell has played corner, Shawn Shamburger has played star and corner. We’ve got a bunch of guys there. Kenney Solomon is another guy. We have a bunch of different combinations and we’ll continue to work those combinations. We’ll probably play all those guys. They all deserve to play, so we’ll probably play them all.”
On what he is looking to learn on Saturday:
“To me, one of the most important things is, when things are going good they have a little pep in their step when things are going the right way. Well, things don’t always go the right way. One of the most important things is how we’re going to handle adversity as a team. Do you have a penalty? Do you make a mistake? Do we have a second-and-12? Do we get behind? There’s a reason that it’s a 60-minute game, and its one play at a time, so I want to see how we handle adversity and how we respond. I think that’s a huge part of the maturity and growth from where we were a year ago.”
On Jerrod Means’ progress since switching to the secondary from receiver:
“It has probably not been talked about a lot, but Baylen Buchanan is not going to play right now. First of all, we are trying to create some depth in the secondary, so one of the first things you do is run 40s or whatever is out there, testing numbers. You need to be fast if you are going to play corner on our team and (Jerrod) is a fast guy. He is also a big guy. He didn’t play a lot in high school, but just talking to him, we asked him if he could help us for a year to provide some depth. He would obviously like to play wide receiver and he will do that one day here at Tennessee. He is a team guy. He has worked hard on what to do in the back end. He got a little banged up in camp and had a few days that he didn’t get to participate, but he has had a good camp and a great attitude. He is a guy that will play on special teams and a guy that I think has a bright future here at Tennessee.”
On if the star position is more difficult to play than corner and if he wants his best guy to cover star or corner:
“That is interesting. You probably get different type routes inside as opposed to outside. The star position plays much closer to the fray, so they have to be able to support the run. You want to have good blitzers there. So, it is a unique body, it needs to be physical enough to play the runs, but at the same time, on third-and-three (they) can guard the best athletes in the SEC. When you look there at corners, it is a little further away from the ball. The game has changed a little bit over the last couple years with all the perimeter stuff out there, so it is a little more physicality involved. But the main thing for me I look for in a corner is cover skills.”
On which backup quarterback would go in if Jarrett Guarantano couldn’t play:
“That is one of the places that we don’t have an answer yet. Nobody has really separated themselves from the other guys, so we have repped both guys with the twos and we will continue to do that. This might be a two-week deal, or it may be a six-week deal. You do have to decide on who to put in, so that is probably going to be dictated on who has performed the best this week until somebody has separated themselves there.”
On the growth of the defensive line:
“Those guys have really worked hard and improved from where they were at in spring ball to where they’re at today. It’s really been positive, and they’ve got to continue to do that every single week. We have, really, an inexperienced football team when you look at the two-deep or three-deep, so we’re going to continue to improve this season, and we’ve got to focus on that every day. We can’t take a day off. We’ve got to work hard to improve and we’ve got to be much better in week two then we were in week one, and each continuous week of the season. So, our defensive line, along with the rest of our team, has got to work hard to do that.”
On if it is confirmed that Maleik Gray is transferring:
“Right, Maleik has transferred.”
On why building relationships with players is important:
“It was probably around Christmas, like I said, when the season was over with – the first thing you do is you go back and you’ve got to look back and say, ‘Okay, what did we do really well? Where did we not do so good at?’ The first thing that I looked at is I looked in the mirror at myself. I’ve said this before, if you look at the teams that I’ve been a part of over the years, specifically the groups that I have coached, they play together, play with toughness, play smart, never quit, relentless, and it’s something that I’ve kind of prided myself in and the guys that have played. And, now, as you’re in charge of the entire team, what was the identity? Did we play that way the entire year? There was a point in time, in several games last year, where we were on the cusp of playing the right way. Did we sustain that? No, and if you look, we lost some games because of mental errors and we lost some games because of, to me, just the willingness to fight. Well, that all goes back to me, right? And, I know that’s last year and we’re moving forward, but a direct question for me is to me, that goes back to relationships, and I’ve said it before. The first six months here on the job, everything was focused on fixing the weight room, the training table, recruiting staff, whatever it is, setting up a foundation, and I missed the most important part, which is my favorite part, the players. So, I’m sitting there last night, and it’s like midnight, and my wife wakes me up and I’m like, ‘What do you want?’, and she goes, ‘Hey, I’m going to feed some guys this week, who do you want me to feed?’ So, it’s been just kind of continuous, just going throughout the season, just to build relationships, get to know guys, and have an influence on them.”
On first three games being at home:
“I’m worried about this week, but I know our players are excited. How can you not be excited when you get a chance to pull up in that bus for the Vol Walk, when there is standing room only. You feel the passion and the energy of the fan base when you run through the ‘T’ and there’s lots of guys on this team that will get to do this for the first time, so they will get to experience something that will stick with them for the rest of their life.”
On the key to being “clean” from a game management standpoint with a younger team:
“I think as a coaching staff, it starts with us as coaches, we have to be able to keep our poise. We are not going to be completely clean, nobody ever is. So, to me, having poise and having confidence you can rep it a bunch of times and you want to do it until you don’t get it wrong, so that’s what we’ve been working on.”
On how many freshmen he anticipates playing and if Daniel Bituli will be ready:
“I think Daniel will be pushing for him to be ready this week. He’s not going to be able to practice today. He’s right there but we’ll make sure we do what’s in the best interest of him. As far as freshmen playing, I don’t know I haven’t looked.”
On how many mistakes will be accepted for the younger guys:
“I think us as coaches, we are always looking for the perfect game. The number one maxim is the team who makes the fewest mistakes will win. So, first what you got to do is don’t beat yourself, so I don’t think you sit there and say, ‘hey, we tolerate mistakes’, but they happen, so when they happen you got to be able to keep your poise and minimize them and learn from them and don’t let them happen again.”
On if the unknowns of the first game are exciting:
“When you have turnover in coaching staffs (you wonder) are you going to get what they did at this last school or are you going to get kind of what they were before? So, there are lots of unknowns. We’re going to be simple on both sides of the ball and give our kids a chance to play fast and try to win each play in itself. We have goals offensively for every play and defensively, so we are going to take it one play at a time and play together and have fun while we’re doing it.”