KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Vols opened their second week of preseason training camp with a midday practice on Monday at Haslam Field.
Coming off of a team rest day on Sunday, Head Coach Butch Jones and the coaching staff held more “Circle of Life” drills at the start of practice as Tennessee continues its march to the 2015 season opener against Bowling Green on Sept. 5 in Nashville. Following practice, Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord and Defensive Coordinator John Jancek met with the media to give their assessment of the team over the past week.
“I think we’re doing some good things,” Jancek said. “We’re making progress. We have to start to progress with some of the personnel groupings with bigger tight end and fullback-type personnel in the game. We did a little bit of that today and introduced some new things.”
Coach DeBord elaborated on the new drills and schemes installed, adding that today’s specific focus was all about tempo for Team 119’s offense and defense, while producing quality repetitions.
“We added a new drill at the end and that drill did not go as fast as what we wanted to go,” DeBord added. “Coach Jones started it over that the end [of practice]. We’re trying to get great reps in, not just reps.”
Depth and Positional Fluidity
The Tennessee coaching staff has stressed depth in recruiting over the past couple seasons, and with the second week of training camp underway, that depth is already being put to the test.
First-year offensive coordinator Mike DeBord spoke on Monday about some early movement on the offensive line as a handful of players are fighting through preseason bumps and bruises.
“We’re getting guys a lot of reps,” he said when asked about Marcus Jackson’s work at the left guard position. “[Brett] Kendrick went over there. Coleman Thomas has been swinging around a little bit. We’ve got a few guys banged up here and there, so right now a lot of guys are getting opportunities. And when you get opportunities, you’ve got to produce.”
According to DeBord, such movement is an inevitable and necessary part of training camp. Greater depth within a unit creates more opportunities and possibilities for personnel to learn other positions and roles.
“[It’s] `next man up.’ No matter what position. Whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, it doesn’t matter. The next guy’s got to be ready to play. That’s what’s good about training camp is all the players getting reps at different positions because you never know when we may have to move somebody.”
Mid-year enrollees such as Jack Jones and Chance Hall are already seeing increased work on the offensive line, and DeBord expects them to have already realized their necessary and fluid roles on the unit’s depth chart.
“Some of them [newcomers] are stepping up with the first group and a lot of them are with the second group, so they better understand that. Right now, guys are competing for jobs.”
Shaping Up the Big Guys
Tennessee’s highly-touted freshman duo on the defensive line of Kahlil McKenzieand Shy Tuttle have received praise for their size and strength. Defensive coordinator John Jancek says the biggest thing for his big tackles is to get in playing shape.
“We’ve all said that fatigue makes cowards of us all,” Jancek said. “You can’t play hard if you’re not in great physical condition. We’re constantly talking about those guys practicing hard and pushing themselves so that they do get in good shape. That’s been the emphasis.”
When asked about McKenzie’s ideal playing weight, Jancek said that he can see McKenzie at somewhere around 335 pounds. Still, conditioning will be the main priority, not a number on the scale.
“The biggest thing is for him to start to get in shape,” Jancek said. “We’ll start cutting that weight down and doing some of those things as we move forward.”
Tuttle had some standout moments at Monday’s practice.
“Shy showed up a couple of times today,” he said. “He’s working hard and certainly being here for spring helped him. There’s no doubt about that. We’ve just got to keep pushing.”
Passing Game a Work in Progress
Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord spoke Monday on the development of the passing game through the first six practices of fall camp. While plenty of encouraging pieces are in place–the starting assurance of quarterback Joshua Dobbs, added depth along the offensive line, and the return of wideout Von Pearson–DeBord believes that area still has a ways to go.
Of offense, I really believe [the passing game] is the one that takes the longest to execute. There’s been times we’ve had great execution, there’s other times we haven’t. Obviously we’re going up against a very good defense over there so the quarterbacks have to improve their throws, the offensive line has to improve their protection, receivers improving their routes all the time. It’s improvement for the entire unit.”
If time is what the passing game needs to develop, DeBord will take solace in the fact that almost 20 practices remain until the Vols kick off against Bowling Green on Sept. 5.
“That’s just something that has to continue to get better all the time. I think we are making strides. I think we are getting better with the passing game every practice.”
Gaulden Adjusting to New Role
After playing the majority of his snaps on special teams last season, sophomore defensive back Rashaan Gaulden is looking to lockdown the starting role at nickelback heading into the season.
“He is trying to learn the nickel spot,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said about Gaulden’s role on defense. “It’s a complicated position. There are a lot of calls that he has to make. There are lots of things he has to know like receiver splits as well as being involved in the run game. He has the physical ability to play a lot of spots, but we are going to leave him at nickel.”
Gaulden, who won the Andy Spiva Defensive Player Award at the 2015 Orange and White Game, impressed several of his coaches throughout spring practices. The question remained, though, would he be able to pick up from where he left off and continue to improve heading into fall camp?
“Rashaan has made some great plays,” Jancek said about Gaulden’s performance so far this fall. “He is still learning, and there are nuances of things he has to figure out and adjust to. I like the way he is playing. I like Rashaan’s game. He is a physical player. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He just goes out and puts his bodywork on film, and that is what I love about him.”
While the defense shored up its depth across the board with recruiting, 28 defensive players are in either their first or second year with the program. Jancek and the defensive coaches are faced with the challenge of managing workloads for players with varying experience levels.
“We’re working hard,” he said. “Certainly, we’re making progress. We’re heading in the right the direction, but we’re going to have a young defense this year. That’s exciting for the future, but right now it’s going to be challenging for us to continue to get better.”
- Offensive Coordinator Mike DeBord
(On Jauan Jennings’improvements)
“He’s having fun, number one. He’s smiling and laughing. He’s just enjoying it right now. That’s where it starts. You know he’s got a great attitude. He just keeps getting better and better every practice. He’s really bought in.”
(On Von Pearson)
“He’s like everyone else right now. He’s competing for a position.”
(On players adjusting to the heat & workout conditions)
“It’s hard on all freshman but especially on offensive and defensive linemen. They’re playing in a telephone booth… one improper hand use or improper leverage and they are done. They have to become an expert on these things. We’re staying on these guys but they have a great attitude.”
- Defensive Coordinator John Jancek
“I think the way they complement each other is they push each other. They pair up when they are doing individual drills, they compete, they work hard against one another and they are trying to make each other better.”
(On freshmen adjustments with pads on)
“Obviously the tempo and the sheer volume is new to them. I just want them to keep fighting and continue to push that threshold a little bit higher each and every time they go on the field. Eventually they’ll figure out what it means to play hard every single snap. I like some of the things they’re doing, they’re great kids, they’re working hard; we just got to continue to build.”
(Courtesy UT Athletics)