Knoxville, Tenn. – Tennessee has continued to grind away in the summer heat on Haslam Field and first-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri is liking what he has seen so far as the Vols work to finish installing his new defensive schemes.
“Things are going good,” Sunseri said. “We’re developing a little bit of toughness about us, working on fundamentals and doing what we have to do. The most important thing is learning their assignments, learning what the techniques are and applying their techniques when they get out. We’re getting good effort right now, we just have to get better.”
Helping that process early in training camp is the team’s ability to retain what it learned during a crash-course this spring.
“(There has been) a bunch of retention,” Sunseri said. “I’m really happy about it because they are understanding the concepts and they are applying those concepts to the their techniques. They worked hard all summer and they are doing pretty darn good.”
Although most eyes are on middle linebacker Herman Lathers to smooth the transition in defenses, Sunseri’s scope stretches out a little wider when he looks for leadership on the field.
“We’re not just expecting Herman Lathers to be a leader, we are expecting all of the seniors to be leaders,” Sunseri said. “All of our guys on defense, (Brent) Brewer, Prentiss Waggner, it doesn’t come down to one guy. They need to understand that they are all out there playing together as a unit, playing together as a team.
“There is one guy who is usually talking more than anybody and he is the quarterback of our defense. In one aspect you can say that (Herman) is the leader, but I am looking for 11 leaders going out there to get the football.”
The Vols are still have plenty of work to do before their first true test in 23 days, but Sunseri is pleased with the progress they have made to this point.
“I’m happy with where we are at right now,” Sunseri said. “Like anything else, these kids are coming out here every day and having pretty good practices. They are long practices, they are taxing on your body and if you can get through here and be efficient, we are going to have a good defense.”
CHANEY MOLDING VOLS OFFENSE
In his fourth season with the Vols and third under head coach Derek Dooley, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is seeing a greater level of comfort with the players went it comes to the game plan as well as relationships, both on and off the field.
With so much change and transition over the last few years, it has been hard in many areas to build consistency within the program. That has taking a turn for the better heading into 2012 according to Chaney.
“I find the advancement of our offense is coming more from understanding one another’s personalities,” Chaney said. “I think we know these kids better, they know us, they know it isn’t personal when we are getting (after them). When you are a young player and a new coach is yelling at you, you have to understand it isn’t personal. I think our team and their maturity understands it is not that way, they are excepting coaching right now. If you do something more and more you get better at it. So we are more advanced that way. We understand the concepts a little better but I think we know each other a little better, which is what I like the best. It is easier to coach guys you know.”
Along with the experience, the communication has grown and Chaney is pleased with the team’s effort through six days of camp.
“I am comfortable where we are right now being in day six of training camp,” Chaney said. “I think our kids are trying hard and their effort level has been good. We have been pressing just the physicality of our conference and trying to become a better physical football team. We seem to be going out every day and trying to hit. Today I wasn’t super pleased about it but for the most part we are trying to hit people.”
Chaney will have lots of weapons on the offensive side of the ball. Both through the air and on the ground, Chaney will have many options and that excites him.
“I am real pleased with Justin [Hunter],” Chaney said. “He had a wonderful summer. I think his confidence is there on his leg. I have seen some catches that remind me of Justin, which are fun. He is not quite there yet he has to push through these last 20 practices before we get to that ball game and it think he will be ready to roll.
“Cordarrelle (Patterson) is coming in here; he is a big, athletic, fast kid. There has been nothing that he has done to disappoint or wow us. We are comfortable. We knew him pretty well. He is right about where we thought he would be. He is a big, fast kid that can make some plays.”
The running game is an area that Chaney feels the Vols have made improvements.
“I think Rajion [Neal] is doing a great job preparing for practice,” Chaney said. “He is coming out every day with a workman’s like attitude and doing a good job, as is Devrin [Young], as is the whole group. Rajion is really raising his game and Devrin is making plays for us a lot. So those two are getting up there and doing some nice things. Marlin [Lane] is being a steady performer and doing a real nice job on some third-down stuff.
“I am pleased with where they are at. It will be fun to shape them as we get going. It is like a ball of clay. As we start maneuvering through, I am tickled with all those kids and I think they are going a great job.”
RUN, BLOCK, REPEAT; RUN, BLOCK, REPEAT
The two biggest things that running backs coach Jay Graham emphasized Wednesday were pass protection and repetition. And how the pair goes hand in hand.
For the former Vol, how well one pass protects determines how much playing time one will get in 2012.
“It determines how much you see the field,” Graham said. “Every one of our guys has to be able to pass protect. We are going to throw the ball, and it comes to the time where you can’t switch guys in and out based on their ability to pass protect. It is important that they all know how to.”
Pass protection doesn’t come easy to most running backs; it didn’t come easily to Graham either during his time in the orange and white from 1993-96.
“You have to have toughness and great timing and the ability to think between the snaps,” Graham said. “It is a skill that you have to develop. It takes time. I got good because I did it a lot of times. That is the most important thing. You do it in practice, you get to the game and you do it in the game.”
Through the Vols first five practices, that is what has been seen on the sidelines during the open period. A lot of the same thing. But that is what Graham wants and is pleased with the effort of his running back corps at the beginning of fall camp.
“I think the biggest thing is repetition,” Graham said. “Repetition of punching and seeing the defender. It is not as easy as you think. A lot of it happens at the last second and is all about timing. Getting a lot of reps until they can do it correctly is the most important things.
“I like their effort. They are trying to do the things that we are talking about in the meetings. They are trying to be physical, they are trying to finish runs, they are trying to pass protect and do things the right way. That is the biggest thing that I have been impressed with.”
HINSHAW GROOMING NEWCOMER
With a group of new receivers on the squad, Coach Darin Hinshaw has had his hands full during the first six days of camp.
“We’re going over a lot of new things and throwing a lot at them,” Hinshaw said. “What happens is the brain is trying to figure out what I have to do, then go do it. What I want them to be able to do is not think anymore and just react.”
Hinshaw has welcomed the top JUCO prospect in the nation Cordarrelle Patterson along with talented freshmen including the likes of Jason Croom, Drae Bowles and Cody Blanc.
He has been emphasizing that making the learning curve into a straight line, takes a lot of learning and studying of play books.
“It’s registering right now, but they’re not reacting and we have to be able to react and be able to play fast,” Hinshaw said. “All those new guys are swimming in their minds and going `oh my gosh’ and we have to get to where it’s a comfort zone.”
Aside from the newcomers, this year’s wide receiver clan is proving to be one of the most talented in the SEC – if not the nation , with veterans Da’Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Zach Rogers.
“It’s a very talented group that has an unbelievable amount of potential,” Hinshaw said. “Now we have to maximize that and go do it on the field. And get with the quarterbacks on the same page, and that’s what camp is for. We have a lot of talent, but we have to maximize it, and go use it and go work our butts off to go get better every day.”
COLOR SUNSERI IMPRESSED WITH LBs
When defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri arrived at Rocky Top, he had heard a lot of hype about sophomore linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
So far, they have lived up to it with Sunseri heaping praise on both of them during Wednesday’s media session.
“I didn’t realize this until I finally got the two of them out there together, but those two kids might be the finest young linebackers that I have ever coached,” Sunseri said. “Their attitude, their work ethic, their toughness. I am really, really pleased with those two guys. They have shown great leadership as young kids.
“I can see why both of them were All-SEC type players and now they are becoming smarter. They are understanding what they need to do and why they are doing it and the concepts of the defense. Those two guys are playmakers…I think they have the potential to get drafted in the National Football League. Depending on their work ethic and everything, they will determine the round they go in, but they have the talent to do it.”
Helping shepherd both Johnson and Maggitt through the learning process has been the elder statesman of the linebacking crew, Herman Lathers.
Sunseri didn’t hold back when discussing the significance of Lathers’ contributions to the team either.
“(He brings) knowledge,” Sunseri said. “He has a great understanding of the concepts and he can run. When you have a guy who can put people in the right places, you have a chance to stop plays.
“He is an excellent mentor, he is smart and has a work ethic about him. More importantly, being able to explain what you are doing, knowing why you are doing it and how you are doing it is different. It’s not about learning assignments but the concepts of the defense.”
EXPERIENCE IN THE TRENCHES
Head Coach Derek Dooley inherited an offensive line that had collectively started three games in his first season at Rocky Top. Fast forward two years and Dooley’s men up front now have a combined 106 starts.
In football, especially in the SEC, games are often won and lost in the trenches. Knowing that, first-year offensive line coach Sam Pittman is excited to lead the Vols’ front five into battle in 2012.
“Experience is a big deal, especially up front,” Pittman said. “Here’s when it’s good though… If you can lock guys into one spot, then it’s good. You’ve got to play by somebody for a period of time to understand it. Obviously, it’s great that we have that kind of depth and returning starters, but we have to lock them into one spot. We have to find the five and place them where they want and need to be and then let’s get rolling.”
With such an experienced group, however, the hype starts to get louder, expectations grow larger and a quick start is expected.
“You can assume that, but they have to do it,” Pittman said. “You can assume you have a whole boatload of great players, but they have to go play. What we’re doing right now is they’re responding to what we’re asking them to do and they’re responding really well. We’re excited about the group.”
One major benefit of having depth at any position is competition.
“Competition obviously makes the starting guys not just go into `cruise mode’,” Pittman said. “Hopefully, we’re coaching hard enough to where they don’t do that anyway, but consciously they know if they don’t get it on somebody else will.”
The front five is not the only group currently going through some changes. With defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri implementing a new system on the other side of the ball, Pittman’s O-line has reaped the benefits.
“It’s good for us,” Pittman said. “It makes us play with our heads up, it makes us make our calls and it makes us understand nose going across the face. It makes us understand a lot of different things. It has been really good for us.”
PALERMO KEEPING NFL EXPECTATIONS
Just a few seasons removed from coaching the Washington Redskins’ defensive line, John Palermo doesn’t plan on changing his expectations in his first year at Tennessee.
“We demand a lot from these kids in practice,” Palermo said. “These big lineman are getting worn out in practice and they are getting worn out fast. We got kids at 320 and 360 pounds so the big guys are getting worn out quick, but that’s because we are demanding so much out of them at practice. During the season we will be rolling in a lot of guys, so they will need to be ready.”
In Wednesday’s media session, Palermo talked about the upcoming practices and getting ready for the season. Many are curious about how the defensive line depth chart will shape up, but the Vols don’t have all the answers just yet.
“As far as the depth chart is concerned, we just don’t know right now,” Palermo said. “After our first scrimmage, I’ll be able to answer that. Right now, we are just rolling a lot of guys in there and trying to find out who our players and depth chart guys are going to be.”
That first scrimmage will play a key role in Palermo’s evaluation of the defensive line, but he is mainly looking for an understanding of the defense and consistency.
“I just want to see good fundamentals, great effort to the ball and no mental errors. There is no question that our guys are thinking too much. We just do so much. I mean we do an under- front, an over-front and a base-front. We are doing a lot of different things, but I will say that we are way ahead of where we were in the spring as far as understanding the scheme.”
TENNESSEE OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR JIM CHANEY
(On installing complex plays)
“Not much right now. We are just doing base installations right now. We will go through about ten practices of base installations before we try to start identifying who we are as a football team. Offensively we will have some big personnel meetings about who is going to be playing and who isn’t. Coach will make those decisions and we will roll on from that. It is fun to watch. We have been able to be physical running the ball which is intriguing, that has been fun to do. We have some vertical speed to be able to throw the ball. So we are comfortable with where we are at right now. It is like a big ball, we want to make that ball a little bit tighter and smaller as training camp goes on but we won’t do that or even consider that until we get through installations.”
(On having more advanced players)
“I think their brains are better, they understand better. So with that it is more playbooks, more schemes that are available to you. I think you have to be more careful of that. The aptitude of teams will indicate how deep you will go in the play book. Everybody thinks just because they are more experienced they can grasp more. I think you do things better when you are more experienced, but not necessarily guarantees the aptitude.”
(On Joseph Ayres and Justin King helping the depth at tight end)
“Their stature. Justin King is a bright kid who can hit people. He is 230 pounds and he is a young kid, he is going to get bigger and stronger. Joe Ayres allows us to have someone who has some physicality to play a position that we are in desperate need of. With Joe’s unselfishness and moving over, it is a big plus for our team. It is what we preach to our team, whatever we need to do as an individual. He has done that and we are tickled with it. How far he is going to advance? We don’t know that yet, we just moved him there so I can’t tell you where it is going yet.”
(On Tyler’s command of the offense)
“I think Tyler has that down pretty good. I have seen some growth with [Justin] Worley. He has two or three fantastic practices in the last two or three days. All of them. The more you do something. It is like we all do in our businesses. It is about practice. We are practicing better and the kids have matured. There isn’t a lot of silly going on. It is just a real mature and calmer group. I like what I feel. I don’t necessarily say that will equate to a fantastic offense. I have no idea about that but I like what I have seen.”
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR SAL SUNSERI
(On how long it takes to switch to a new defensive scheme)
“Any time you come in and you are a new coordinator, regardless of what package you are running and what you are applying, everybody has to learn the language. So learning the language and knowing your technique and the scheme. It doesn’t matter if you are running a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2, 3-3-Stack or whatever.”
(On Daniel McCullers)
“Pretty darn big guy. He is strong and is getting better. He is in better shape than when he first got here. He needs to keep on battling and if he keeps developing I’ll be really pleased with him.”
(On the pass rush)
“We’re not where we need to be on that, so we are going to work on that and try to get better at that. We are finding out how to get off the football, how to keep the guy contained in the pocket and rush lanes. It comes down to discipline. Everybody thinks the pass rush is about having great rushers all rushing off the end. The next thing you know, if you get pushed by the quarterback those lanes open up and the quarterback is running. We have to understand the concepts of keeping your rush lanes, beat your guy and not to take chances that open up lanes. We are improving on that, but are we where I want to be at? No, not right now.”
(On big plays)
“I want plays every down. The whole thing about this defense is there has to be production. If a guy is in there for 40 snaps and he makes one tackle, he might have been in the gap the right way but we aren’t getting any production out of him. We have to get to the football and that is flying united, everybody running to the ball and making plays.”
(On the challenge of installing a new defense)
“I enjoy the challenge. I love going out there every single day and seeing how someone is going to step up and how we are going to improve this defense that has to be one of the top defenses in the country. I’m not saying we are going to be there this year, I’m telling you that we are going to try to go out there every single day to improve. If they keep working the way they are working, they are going to be a good defense.”
CORNERBACKS COACH DERRICK ANSLEY
(On Saturday’s scrimmage)
“Anytime you can get in 11-on-11 you are in a competitive environment and you can see guys compete with the coaches standing off on the sidelines. You can see how they adjust to formations and motions and how they react when things go bad or good. You can also see if they have the passion and the focus and can stay even keeled throughout the scrimmage. It is not going to be perfect and we know that going in. We want to see how guys can hit, tackle, get off blocks, cover and execute assignments and those are the guys we are going to focus on later in the camp.”
(On Prentiss Waggner)
“Prentiss has been up and down in camp. He had a really strong beginning to camp and in the last day or so he has kind of dipped a little bit, I don’t know if it is fatigue or what. We challenged him a little bit and today he came out and responded. He was all over the field and had a really good strip out there in the team period that caused a fumble. We challenged him to be a pro. He is a leader back there and he has to take on the leadership of the group along with Brent [Brewer] and those guys will embrace that role and we expect a lot out of them.”
SPECIAL TEAMS/TIGHT ENDS COACH CHARLIE COINER
On how many tight ends are necessary for a season
“You can’t say how many guys you need out there. That goes back to my NFL experience; I have been a tight end coach where we have had one. You go with that guy, and you have a plan to go to 10 personnel when that happens. I have also been just the opposite where the receivers have been down and you use two or three tight ends. That’s the one thing that Jim Cheney, Coach Dooley and myself has learned. You learn to coach what you have. I wish I had them all, don’t get me wrong, but you learn to get it done with what you have.”
On Mychal Rivera’s leadership
“Right now [his leadership] has been outstanding. There is a history with Mychal even before I got here that he has gone through a lot of learning curves and done a lot of growing. Since January 27 when I was hired, I see his growth happening on a daily and weekly basis, even over the summer. That is what this is all about. We talk about it all the time. You mature as a player but you grow up as a person too and you learn how to handle yourself. What happens is you see other guys come in, they see themselves in them, put their arms around them and help them and [give them advice]. He has been an outstanding leader since we have been back on campus.”
SAFTIES COACH JOSH CONKLIN
(On Brent Brewer)
“He really looks good in the back end part of the field, which is a surprise to me coming out of spring because I hadn’t had a chance to see him, or gauge what he could do once he came off that injury. This summer has been really good for him. He’s looking really good and moving well and I think he can hold up the run game.”
(On defensive backs)
“There’s definitely a chance for those other backup guys to get out there. You’re going to run five or six DBs and all of those guys understand that we’re going to put multiple people out there on the field… As you go through camp, you’re just trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle and [which positions you need to play], and you start to put them together.”
RUNNING BACKS COACH JAY GRAHAM
(On Rajion Neal)
“His attitude has been really good. He hasn’t had the highs and lows, he has been really consistent working hard. I have noticed that these first 4-5 practices that we have had.“
(On Devrin Young)
“He is doing well, catching the ball out of the back well and running between the tackles well so we just have to keep that up. I think he does so well because he is hard to see. You don’t see him and he is pressing his runs better so we just have to continue to be consistent there. I think he [has good vision]. But I think all of our guys have good vision, when they are looking in the right places.”
(On the incoming freshmen)
The freshmen are doing good. They are trying to figure out where to go but they have a lot thrown on them right away. We do that on purpose just to get that stress level up so they learn quicker. No one has really stood out until they start learning some things.
WIDE RECEIVERS COACH DARIN HINSHAW
(On the players)
“We have to focus on learning what to do with the newer guys. Older guys got to continue to work on fundaments, continue to work through being tired, all those bumps and bruises, and get ready to play the game of football. We’ve been working out and doing all these things in here and now it’s time to go play football.”
(On Justin Hunter)
“Justin is 100 percent. He’s working his tail off, he’s hungry. He’s going out there and he’s got a great attitude. He hits the practice field running and he reminds me of the old Justin Hunter. The thing with Justin is it’s a continual improvement. Now it’s you’re playing the game of football at the speed he plays at, it’s a little different than working out and all that stuff that he’s been doing all summer. Now its playing the game of football. And getting into that. You gotta get tired because you’re going to play tired in the game. Pads on, helmet on, all those kind of things that we’ve worked through we have to continue to get better. And the details of what you’re doing because when you get tired, the depths and routes, all your angles, all those kinds of things, you start comprising. We have to learn right now to go focus on details. Get really good at what we do, especially with older guys. New guys that come in we have to learn the offense and then we go to focus on details as we learn them.”
DEFENSIVE LINE COACH JOHN PALERMO
(On guys adjusting to the new defensive scheme)
“There is no question that our guys are thinking too much. We just do so much. I mean we do an under front, an over front, a base front. I mean we are just doing a lot of different things. But I will say this to you, we are way ahead of where we were in the spring as far as understanding the scheme.”
(On Junior defensive lineman Daniel McCullers improvement)
“I’ll tell you what he did, he worked his behind off. When he got to camp, he reported at 362 pounds. When we talked to him in the spring, he was at 390 pounds so he has lost 30 pounds. He still has some work to do, but he has done a great job. He has made a commitment to becoming a football player.”
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH SAM PITTMAN
(On the changes to the left side of the line)
“That’s looking pretty good. You’ve got two talented guys over there. They need to communicate a little better at times. Both of them are pretty quiet guys, except when Tiny (Antonio Richardson) gets in front of the media. Other than that, they’ve done a nice job. They’re both really good players so we’ll see how they play together. They had a whole spring to play together and now the fall so they’ve been looking fine.”
(On the hype surrounding Antonio Richardson)
“He’ll be ready. We have a lot of players that are pretty good players. Zach Fulton is a good player; James Stone is a good football player and obviously Ja’Wuan James. Tiny gets a lot of the publicity because he was so highly recruited and so talented, but we’ve got a lot of good players.”
(On Ja’Wuan James)
“He’s playing more physical. You get an athletic guy, obviously that is wonderful, but unless he uses that athleticism being physical he’s not a very good offensive lineman. That’s what he’s doing now… playing a lot more physical.”
(On having depth)
“That’s accurate. (Alex) Bullard is helping us out at several spots right now. Marcus Jackson is playing well. (Mack) Crowder is doing a good job. Kerby (Kyler Kerbyson) is getting better every day. Darin Gooch had a good fall camp so far. We thinkwe’re getting a little bit more towards that number of 10.”
(On having 106 starts of experience)
“Experience is a big deal, especially up front. Here’s when it’s good though… If you can lock guys into one spot, then it’s good. If you’ve got 106 starts and 20 of them are at right tackle and one was at left tackle and so on. You’ve got to play by somebody for a period of time to understand it. Obviously, it’s great that we have that kind of depth and returning starters, but we have to lockthem into one spot. A lot of those starts came with someone else getting hurt and having to move other players around. We have to find the five and place them where they want and need to be and then let’s get rolling.”