When Tennessee was searching to fill its safeties coach position in early March – just weeks before spring practice – it needed someone that would be able to adjust quickly and remain focused.
Fitting that bill to a power `T’ was Josh Conklin, who the Vols hired on March 9.
“I think for my personality, I’m always ready,” Conklin said. “I always look forward to a challenge. I look at this as a challenge. It’s an environment I’ve never been in before, obviously. I’m learning every day as I go through this process. Was I ready? Absolutely.
“Football is football. You can package it, you can do the concepts any way you want to, but when it comes down to it, you’re coaching football. It doesn’t matter if it’s a junior high level, high school level, college level, or the NFL. Now, the schemes and some of those things may change, but if you understand the basic fundamentals and the basic concepts of it, I think you’re in good shape.”
Tennessee is a unique place where media attention, facilities and the bells and whistles are unmatched, but the magnitude of Rocky Top hasn’t fazed the Vols’ newest coach.
“Right now, I’ve actually tried to block a little bit of it out,” Conklin said. “Just stay focused on what you have to do, and it’s no different for our guys out here. When they step out between those lines and they’re playing on Saturday, they understand that what matters is in front of them.
“Obviously it’s different; the media coverage is different. The exposure is different. It’s a positive. It’s kind of neat to see, but, for me, when you get out there. I have a job to do and that’s to coach those safeties and try to make them as good as I can every single day and invest in them as people as well.”
Although it’s still too early to get a read on what Conklin has within his unit, he likes the potential of what it could develop into. “I love the way they come to work,” Conklin said. ” I love the way they practice on the practice field. They want to become better football players, and guys that want to become better football players, you want to invest in them more as a football coach. In turn, they’re going to invest more in you and get to where you want to go.”
RIVERA PROVIDES STEADY HAND
After posting a solid junior campaign, tight end Mychal Rivera is hoping to be even more productive as a senior in 2012. After just a week of spring practices, his new position coach Charlie Coiner is already impressed, but he still sees even a number of ways for the Valencia, Calif., native to continue to improve as a player.
“He understands the system and is doing a good job,” Coiner said. “He has ways that he can improve. Some of the things I’ve talked him about are being more stout in the run game and being a more disciplined middle-to-short route runner.”
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is quick to point out the difficulties of playing tight end in his system, often calling it the second-most difficult behind only the quarterback position. Although Coiner is in his first few weeks with the offense, he agrees with the sentiment.
“You have to get lined up and then the tight end is involved in the run game with all the run blocking, any formation that you make is usually made with the tight ends so you’ve got that and then you are involved in pass protection,” Coiner said. “Sometimes there are times where you ask them to go in the backfield for pass protection and that’s a different feature and then you have the route running, three-step, five-step, seven-step routes, whatever you are doing. It’s just how many different type things that they do formationally and assignment wise that makes it difficult.”
Those intricacies make Rivera’s role that much more important for the Vols. As a senior who is entering his third year in the system, his ability to act as a coach on the field will only shrink the learning curve for his trio of talented young understudies, Cam Clear, Brendan Downs and Justin Meredith.
“I like Mych because he provides leadership in the room,” Coiner said. “He’s helping Cam, he’s helping Brendan, he’s helping those young guys and he’s a pro. Every day he comes to work and takes notes and that’s what I like about him.”
BIG PIC PRENTISS
After tying the Tennessee record for interceptions returned for touchdowns with three as a sophomore in 2010 and almost returning one to the checkerboards against South Carolina last season, defensive back Prentiss Waggner’s INTs are usually memorable.
But his ability to turn interceptions into highlight-reel plays isn’t his only way of “getting the big pic.”
“It helps a lot because he can see the big picture,” cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said of Waggner’s experience at both corner and safety. “He can see everything that is going on around him. He knows where he is supposed to be at. He knows where he can overplay or where he can guess a little bit. He is a proven guy. When you get a guy that has played at multiple roles, those guys tend to see the big picture.”
Waggner has made Ansley’s adjustment to Big Orange Country easier.
Leading the entire team with 27 starts, Waggner has used his big-picture mentality to help the other Vols in the secondary.
“It just shows you leadership,” Ansley said of Waggner staying after practice to work with the younger guys. “You always want to promote positive things, but when he comes out here and does that kind of thing, it lets me know that he is hungry and that he is pulling those younger guys with him. It makes my job easy when you have a guy that can kind of be the coach away from the coach.”
That kind of attitude should serve Waggner well in his football future.
“Prentiss is really bright,” Ansley said. “He is one of those guys who has played a lot of football here and he is a veteran. He has great ability at the corner position, so getting him in there and being a leader and a good communicator is great for us. He wants to be a coach when he is done here, so the guys that want to be a coach are the ones that soak it up a little bit faster.”
OPTIONS APLENTY FOR PITTMAN
The Vols head into 2012 with a number of options on the offensive line which is good news for new line coach Sam Pittman. Contrary to recent seasons where the Vols have started true freshmen and players with very limited experience, Tennessee has a wide array of linemen with 300-plus snaps on their resume. In fact, the Vols have six linemen who have started games and five who have started at least a dozen contests.
“Anytime you have been out there and you have seen things before they happen, seeing it before it was coming (is important),” Pittman said. “I think we will do a good job of getting that done.
“I want to play the best five guys we have but if it is close, the only way you can truly develop a guy to his full potential is to get him in the game. If it is close, we will put him in there but obviously continuity is number one.”
The veterans of the line are senior Dallas Thomas and junior Ja’Wuan James as each have started all 25 games over the last two seasons. Thomas is showing his leadership and selflessness as he could switch positions in his final season with the Vols. With the emergence of sophomore Antonio Richardson at left tackle, it is possible that Thomas will shift over one spot to left guard.
“I think it has been a great move for Dallas,” Pittman said. “A great move. He is a natural at guard. Obviously we are trying to get Tiny [Richardson] ready for the fall. Our team got better when Dallas moved inside.”
Another player who has shown extensive versatility is junior James Stone. The Nashville native has started at center and left guard in his career at UT and is currently seeing a great deal of time at right guard.
“James is so important because he is so smart and he can move around,” Pittman said. “Right now he is playing right guard for us. He can play the whole entire right side and he can play left guard. He has really had a great spring.”
With all of the experience, the Vols also have a bright future with youth on the line, most notably in Richardson, who is pressing for a starting spot in 2012.
“He looks like a big, athletic guy who has taken 40 snaps in his career,” Pittman said. “That’s what he looks like. He is very talented, very physical. There are a lot of things we need to work on with him, as well as a lot of other guys. There was a reason everyone in the country wanted him, and we’re glad we have him.”
“They are in the two-deep now, so certainly we hope they can contribute,” Pittman said. “They have great attitudes; they are working hard. We are just trying to get them to play faster and once they learn what they are supposed to do a little quicker, they will be able to play faster. We have seen them play a little faster each practice this spring.”
SAFETIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On becoming familiar and acclimated with his personnel)
It’s been different. It hasn’t been a challenge. It just takes some time to get to know how guys respond, what they can do, what they can’t do, how they learn, what the best way to teach them, what they respond to and what motivates them. Those things just take time by them understanding me and me understanding them well. When you come out here you can tell the guys that have experience, you can tell the guys that are still a little bit new and still developing.
(On the decision to move Brewer from linebacker to safety)
“We demand that every guy knows multiple positions whether you’re a corner, a safety or a linebacker. We want guys to be multiple. We want guys to have flexibility. He’s really no different than anybody else on the defense. He’s picked up safety because he understands linebacker. It’s just made that transition even easier. He’s done a good job.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On Marsalis Teague and his improvement)
“The first thing I will say about Teague is that he is a great kid. He has a really positive attitude and is a ‘Yes sir. No sir,’ kind of guy. He has really been doing a good job. He has been out here competing covering Da’Rick (Rogers) and Justin (Hunter) a lot. He has done a really good job. He is one of the better technicians we have right now, he is really buying in and we are just trying to get his technique where it needs to be right now.”
(On teaching corners press coverage)
“It’s not tough. It is just getting those guys to leave and move their feet. Everybody wants to reach and jam right now. Jam is not going to work as soon as the receiver moves, and we want to jam him as he releases the runner. One of the biggest things is getting the guys to trust their feet.”
(On deciding between who will play safety and corner )
“I think we are pretty much settled in. We have our stable five or six guys at corner and then we have our five or six guys at safety. We have some young guys we are trying to bring along and we have some good older guys already here as well. We have a good mix of younger and older guys and we feel pretty comfortable about where those guys are playing right now, so there isn’t going to be a lot of shuffling.”
(On Friday’s scrimmage)
“I’m just looking for competitive character. We are going to have a lot of calls so they will be familiar with the scheme, but I just want them to get out there and compete. I’m not worried about who is going to make mistakes because mistakes are going to be made. I’m worried about who is going to get out there and tackle people, who is going to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage and who is going to compete to the whistle. If we can do that, then we can correct the mistakes.”
SPECIAL TEAMS/TIGHT ENDS COACH CHARLIE COINER
(On Cam Clear)
“He’s a big human being isn’t he? Obviously everybody likes Cam. He’s just a big ball of clay to mold. The great thing about Cam is that it is ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.’ He does everything we ask him to. Once again, he’s a sponge. We may be throwing a lot at him right now, maybe too much, but that’s fine. It’s spring and that will be good for him. His talents are both running routes, blocking, whatever. We are excited about where that can go.”
(On the plusses and minuses of having a 280-pound tight end)
“I don’t see many minuses. I really don’t. Your minuses for a guy that size playing tight end are if he can’t move, but that’s not Cam’s problem. Cam can not only move, but he’s flexible and can bend, but he’s so far away from being a finished product and he knows that. He has a lot of work in front of him. There are no minuses to anything about him physically, it’s just that he has to become a more mature player and he will with time.”
(On Brendan Downs)
“Brendan’s kind of the same way. They come out here every day and you are watching them grow up right in front of your eyes. We put the heat on them, both of those two. We are putting them in a position where they have to know a little bit of everything. We’re putting them out there for five or six snaps at a time and really letting them learn how to play the game instead of standing there with them and nursing them through everything. We have a lot of high expectations for Brendan too, but once again he has a long way to go.”
(On the specialists)
“The specialists thing gets to be more when you get into the scrimmage-type situation. What we are doing here is mostly working with the people that are on the core units. They work every day, but let’s face it, when you get into a situation where you are a punter or a kicker and they turn on the lights, so to speak, that’s when we are going to see what they really do. We’ve seen them, they are out here in drills and everything, but that’s not the same as when it actually gets real. That’s just the way I feel about it.”
(On Justin Meredith)
“We haven’t been able to do a lot with him and I feel bad for the guy. He wants to be out there, he’s in every meeting and he’s trying to learn. It’s a little bit like the punters and kickers, Justin learns and answers all the questions right in the meetings, but until you are in a three-point stance and the ball is snapped, you have to show me with somebody over 270 pounds over the top of your face, I don’t know if you know it or not. We just want him to get well.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On developing toughness)
“Toughness comes with technique. If I am higher than you are all the time and I’m getting my butt kicked, the only time I can be tough is whenever I’m trying to fight you off the top of me. We are trying to get our technique, we are trying to play fast, we are trying to get step two on the ground. Along with that, we are trying to become powerful and obviously we have to play faster to become powerful. That’s what we’re trying to do. We are trying to get two on the ground and we are trying to explode. The toughness part of it – if we’ll get our fit right and we get our lift on, we will be more physical.”
(On separating yourself at the deep guard position)
“You just have to play well, play physical. You guys know a lot more about Zach Fulton than I do. Well, you probably don’t because I watched all of his games. But obviously we think he is a good player. We have been very pleased with James [Stone] and as I said before, Dallas [Thomas] – not only did he help our football team, but he helped himself [with the move inside]. And of course Marcus Jackson, a guy who is coming on with [Kyler] Kerbyson. We have more depth there. We are probably going to have to find a tackle out of that group – another one besides Dallas. I haven’t seen Zach [Fulton] yet, but we will get him out here and let him go.”
(On preference of specialization or flexibility of position)
“I would rather have them just hone in on one position if they could. It is the same way with the NFL. In the NFL, they keep eight guys. You may have to play both tackles. You may have to play a center and a guard. How you get really good is if you’ll hone in on one spot. That is what we are trying to do right now. We are trying not to move them around too much until we all learn each other a little better.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On Rajion Neal)
“He is progressing. I can tell he wants to be good. He just has to hone down on the little things and then we have a chance to consistently do well.”
(On coming home to Tennessee)
“I’m loving it. It is just what I expected. Being around these guys, it’s been good and the effort has been great.”
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On if there is pressure on the unit to perform well)
“We talk about being the best in the country all the time, so there is no pressure. We go in taking it one play at a time, doing our job, what we are supposed to do, understand and then work on technique. Wherever we make a mistake, whatever the situation, go to the next step and let’s get better this next step. Continue to get better until we are one play at a time and don’t worry about any of that stuff.
(On the rehab of Justin Hunter)
“We pushed Justin and Justin is really doing a good job. Understand the healing process has happened and it’s about strength levels with that knee and continuing to get it stronger. Both legs aren’t the same, so he’s getting used to that, he’s really working through it, he’s really working hard and he’s working hard in rehab. It’s hard because in rehab they push him now and in the weight room he’s got to continue to work hard. He’s doing a good job, I’m excited about where he is right now and he has to keep getting better.”
Courtesy UT Media Relations