Vol football building brick by brick

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (UT Release) -- The Vols were back on Haslam Field on Tuesday as Butch Jones continues to build a new UT team, 'brick by brick.' Tennessee returned to action after spring break week and Jones was happy with what he saw from the Orange & White.

"We wanted to see how our players would respond," said Jones. "We had a focused group of young men yesterday in our meetings. And today I liked our mental focus and I liked our mental effort. It is like building a building, you build it brick by brick.

"That is what we are building right now as this football program, this football team. We still have a long way to go. I also saw some individuals who really went on spring break and came back and they were in great shape. Overall, still a lot of work to do."

Jones continues to emphasis the physical nature of the game and is putting a significant focus on it each day.

"I think our overall physicality as a football team has to improve greatly," he said. "That is going to be the emphasis each and every day. We are going to get even more focused because obviously playing in this football conference we have to be a much more physical football team then what we showed today. It is all how you practice.

"The way you practice really tells you the culture of your football program. The thing I like about our players is they are here and they are willing but we still have a long way to go. But like I said earlier it is brick by brick."


Of his course of time as a coach, Jones has placed a major importance on the impact of leadership within his teams both on and off the field. It is no different at Tennessee and Jones continues to look for the men to lead Team 117.

"It is critical. Leadership is everything," said Jones. "We (coaches) aren't on the field with them, we aren't in there when they start their summer strength and conditioning program. We always talk about it, it is better to be a player-led team than a coach-led team, or a player-coached team then a coach-coached team."

Jones has pointed to several upperclassmen including Ja'Wuan James, A.J. Johnson and Jacques Smith, who have emerged as leaders. He also pointed to unheralded Raiques Crump as a player who is rising to the occasion.

"Ja'Wuan has done a great job, but we need more," said Jones. "I thought A.J. Johnson stepped up a little bit. For the first time I saw some energy, I saw a passion to get to the football, tackles for loss. Jacques Smith has been an individual who is bringing it in terms of his demeanor every day.

"Crump has been doing a great job. There is a number of individuals, Byron Moore, again we need more, we need more of a collective group effort."


With most of the university students gone over spring break, a handful of Vols remained on campus working out and getting ready for the second rounds of spring practice. Little did some of the players know a 14-year-old girl would change their lives forever.

Katelyn Norman, the 14-year-old from La Follette, Tenn., who had been battling osteosarcoma for the past two years, passed away last Friday morning, just before several Vols took part in a walkathon in her honor.

Marlon Walls was touched in such a way after meeting Norman on March 27 at the East Tennessee Children's Hospital.

"That little girl changed my life and I mean that with the utmost respect," said Walls. "She literally, she changed my life. Man, words can't explain how much I look up to that young lady."

Walls, Corey Miller, Allan Carson, Daniel Hood and Daniel McCullers took part in the walkathon and were welcomed with open arms of Norman's family despite knowing her just a few days.

"We were getting a lot of attention, and asked her sibling if this is okay or should we leave,” said Walls. “She was like, "No man we want you here because that's what Katelyn would've wanted." I don't know man, it touched my heart. I can honestly say my life will not be the same from meeting that little girl."


At 6-5, 232 pounds, you'd think being physical would come natural to RS freshman WR Jason Croom.

However, Croom says that's exactly what the coaches are stressing to him thus far in practice.

"Coach has been talking to me about using my size more and having more confidence when I am out there," Croom said. "That is what I have been working on."

Croom said the he wants to go up and get the ball, but also make it tough for defenders to bring him down once he lands. During Tuesday's practice, Croom ensured he'd maintain that attitude with a friendly reminder on his wrist.

"Today, I wrote on my wrist, no missed physical opportunities," Croom said. "Every chance I had I tried to be physical and go grab a deep ball if it came my way."

The coaches are working to instill this toughness among the players and Croom's progress has caught the eye of Head Coach Butch Jones.

"The one individual who has really started to impress me right now is Jason Croom. I thought he came back from spring break, I could tell he got into his play book, he ran over break and I really liked the way he approached practice today. He is a big 6-foot-4, 225-pound individual and he needs to play like that. I really saw some glimpses today and was very encouraged by what I saw with him."


As the Vols reunited for meetings Sunday night leading into today's practice, several had stories and tales to tell from their time away from Knoxville while others staying in town honing their craft.

Nathan Peterman returned to his native Jacksonville, Florida, with some teammates.

"A few guys went home with me like Justin King, Jason Croom and Kenny Bynum," said Peterman. "It was good to have those guys with me. I threw a few times and ran on the beach for a little beach workout. It was nice."

Croom got a taste of a type of workout.

"I just ran on the beach," he said. "I heard it made your feet fast. That is the first time I ever had done that. I felt it, I felt the difference."

Several of a Vols went on cruises including A.J. Johnson, who was "having a good time," but added he he came back "ready to practice" with lots of energy and tempo.

Unlike previous seasons, the Vols' break came in the middle of spring practice.

"I didn't know what to expect because this is the first time since I've been here that we've had spring practice with spring break in the middle," said Ja'Wuan James. "I feel like it went well and everybody stayed out of trouble and came back today with a great mindset."

Brian Randolph was in great spirits after Tuesday's session. "I felt we were fresh," he said. "We were uptempo - sometimes we were down - but I think we had a good practice."


Junior running back Marlin Lane was not at practice on Tuesday due to some personal matters. According to Jones, "He is taking care of his family right now. He has had some health issues in his family and he wanted to be there for them. He will be back tonight."



(On the players showing they had a week off)
“You could definitely see the rust. I liked our approach. I thought we saw some more leadership overall and we are still getting out where we need to be. When you are putting things together, you have the standard and the expectations that we have for this football program. It takes time where we can see in transitioning, maybe not as fast we want them to but we can see it. Again, brick by brick, we can see it. I thought our retention overall was pretty good. Obviously we threw a lot at them today with installation, doing some different trades and shifts and motions, different personnel groupings with our defense and things like that. Some different things in practice and structure. It is only the second time that we have been out there on our grass practice field so the environment changed. I like changing venues. I like changing environments. It goes hand and hand with being a good road football team. I thought their retention was good. We are going to start throwing more at them from an installation standpoint.”

(On building the mentality of the football program)
“We are learning more and more. I think that is what people miss when you take over a football program, you really have 11 practices. You are really building the mentality of the football team. You really have three in just helmets and then the spring game is the spring game. Really that is why every practice and every rep is critical. Because you are building an identity, you don’t have a foundation from the past. Again, it is still not where we need to be. In order for us to achieve things, is we have to have a collective effort in terms of energy, a great collective effort in everything that we do, we are getting there slowly. I saw Dan McCullers for the first time this spring, turn and sprint to the football. That is a short victory. We have to continue to point those things out, not only pointing the negative out but also the positive.”

(On installations)
“We want to install as much as they can handle. We have to get more in. First of all, our offense is based on execution, we are in an execution based system. You could see the rust a little bit. There were too many balls on the ground today, too many incomplete passes. In order for us for us to operate our offense we have to operate with efficiency. We can’t have balls on the ground. I thought we had balls on the ground too much, whether it is the running backs or the wideouts or the quarterbacks, we have to come back on Thursday. We are taking a maxim a day. Today was all about Maxim No. 1, the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. That is ingraining in our player’s minds and that is what it is all about. We will come back tomorrow and meet as a team and we will review maxim no. 1 and all the mistakes and what we need to do to get better as we move forward and push forward to Thursday and then to Saturday which will be more of a scrimmage.

(On the installation process)
“I think you learn each team is different. When we took over at Cincinnati, I think we installed a little bit too much. At Central Michigan we took our time, Cincinnati we installed a lot, here we have taken our time because we have really focused on the style of play of which we want to play. The demeanor, the physicality, the tempo, you have to graduate from that and move on. It is the building process. And execution. It doesn’t help us to go out there and install eight different route packages if we haven’t graduated from route package No. 1 and No. 2. Everything is execution. When our players feel that they have mastered that, we will move on. So much is technique oriented, the sense of urgency has to pick up and they understand.”

(On the quarterbacks)
They really haven’t. I felt really good about Justin and Nate going into break. I thought they showed a bit of rust today. But everything in the throwing game is about rhythm and spacing and timing. You can see why practice is critical when you have a week off. But also a lot of that is on the receivers too. We have put them in some negative and adverse situations too. The way a receiver runs a route is all about body language. They are conversing verbally too but how you stick routes, accelerate, you really see that from our receivers today. And they have to step up, and they have to have a big day on Thursday and keep grinding because we ask a lot of them. That is the expectation by which we are going to play and we are not changing. I see progress. I do, but not as much as we would like. But that is pretty common when you are installing packages.

(On putting spring break in the middle of spring camp)
It is a grind. I think we ask so much of these student-athletes. Taking a full course-load at a great academic institution like Tennessee. All of a sudden then it is spring football, going through monumental changes to the program and the expectations. And then the scrutiny. That is one of the things that attracts people to come to Tennessee is that you want to play in the spotlight, you want to play in the media capital of the world when it comes to college football, you come here. There is so much in their personal life. I think a lot of times we miss the picture that these are still 17-21/22 year old individuals and that is why everything we do in our football program is based off of family. I did. I liked the way it was structured. Six practices. Take a break. Take a mental break. Recalibrate your thoughts and comeback and be sure to finish strong. We had a Sunday team meeting to make sure that everyone was back on time. And I like the way our players have come back and how they have approached coming back so far. They are energized, I like what I have seen in terms of willingness. Now it is just the execution and physicality that we have to continue to improve.

(On Christian Harris)
I think Christian continues to progress. He is a great individual, competitive and works extremely hard. He is just going through the process of learning the linebacker position. All of the reads and learning to play instinctually. That is the big thing. We are forming habits every day. Good or bad. But you train so it becomes instinctive. I am encouraged by what I see with him because he continues to progress and get better.


(On what he is trying to improve on)
"Catching the ball wherever it is at and not going down easy. I want to be everything. That is the way I think of myself."

(On last season to this season)
"It is different because last year I was messed up. I tore my hamstring, and then once my hamstring got better, I messed up my shoulder. I was down from the get go. Now I am healthy and learning a lot more from Coach Z."


(On competition with Pig Howard)
"I think we will be in a postion where, hopefully, we will be splitting time. We push each other and learn from each other. I try to get tips from Pig because I have never played wide receiver in my life. We just vibe off of each other. It is competition between us but at the end of the day we are both out on the field."

(On expectations for receivers after having Justin Hunter and CP)
"With those guys gone we pretty much just have to take over. You can't look to those guys anymore to make the big plays. We have to be the guys to make the big plays and that is what we are focused on."

(On working harder to learn the new position)
"I have to put in extra work to run routes, coverages and all of that. Learning the defense was easy because I played running back, but with route concepts I have to put in extra work."


(On if they missed a step because of spring break)
"No sir. I know coaches, I know a couple of guys were probably winded because of the break but we came out ready to practice as a whole."

(On how hard coach Thigpen and Jancek are pushing them)
"Pretty much they are pushing me, pushing me real hard. They make me a better player. I know they are helping me learn just defense better. Just overall learning defense, schemes, and all. I know Coach (John) Jancek is working with me one on ones and stuff during practice when I'm not on special teams. So they're working me hard."

(On what he is trying to accomplish the last half of spring practice)
"Pretty much just overall, just trying to be a better player. You always can work on your step, hands, and then just getting the defense down pat. Learning the defense and knowing the in and out."

(On the ins and outs of the defense)
"The process is going real smooth. I know we go in the meeting rooms and getting everything down pat. I know we mess up but we are still getting together. It's coming real smooth, limiting our mistakes a lot each day."

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