Vols go to full pads for first time in fall camp

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- As intense as coaches and players have described practices leading up to Tuesday, a lot was to be learned when the Vols took Haslam Field in full pads late at night.

Tennessee assistant coaches responded that there was still a lot to be learned afterwards.

"I think we got better," said linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen whose position thrives on contact. "We got a lot better with our hands. I think guys did a lot better with their eyes and hands and that's what we've been emphasizing and then just knowing the schemes. Put in a little bit more defense today and I thought we were going to have more busts but it seemed like they got a good grasp of what we were doing today."

Offensively however, there was an evident learning curve with having everything on.

"Today, we didn't execute very well," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "I felt like we took a step back. Putting on the pads for the first time may have been a contributing factor, but we will come out tomorrow and get after it again."


Wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni has made it clear to his players, the best four playmakers will see the most playing time on the field.

Five practices in, Azzanni has somewhat of an idea of where his receivers will play on Saturdays but the job is still up for grabs.

"Whoever [the best four] might be, if that means its Jason Croom in the slot, it's him in the slot," said Azzanni. "If it's Pig Howard outside, it's him outside. Whatever it might be I am going to get the best four guys out there to give us a chance to win. I am going to develop that as we practice and find out who the playmakers are. And the playmakers are going to go play and I will teach them the position."

Azzanni would ideally like to travel and play nine receivers in every game.

Offensive Coordinator Mike Bajakian wants fresh legs. And trust in his receivers.

"When you are moving as fast as you can you want to stay fresh," said Bajakian. "The guys that can contribute and make plays, they will find the field. Let's put it this way. Trust is a big factor when it comes to play calling. Can I trust them to be in the right spot and make the play. If you earn our trust you will find your way on the field."

The clean slate mentality runs through Team 117. Whether you are a redshirt senior, or a freshman that arrive to Rocky Top for the spring semester, if you are the best player on the field, you will get the playing time.

"I am comfortable with giving the best players playing time and if those happen to be guys with black stripes, they happen to be guys with black stripes," said Azzanni. "There will be some peaks and valleys for sure and a lot of growing pains but they're willing and it will be a lot of fun to coach these young guys."

Azzanni plans to weed out the best players by throwing everyone into the fire. And today at practice that mean Marquez North and Josh Smith running with the ones.

"[Josh Smith and Marquez North] are both really good athletes, they bring a lot to the table as far as competition," said Azzanni. "There is no depth chart right now. I know what the other guys can do because they had 15 practices to show me. I have 25 days to find out if anyone else can do it. Rather than waste time I am throwing them into the grease and seeing what we got."


Dec. 7, 2012 - Day 1 on the job for head coach Butch Jones. From that point forward, the expectations were set. They were high then and they remain high eight months later, just five days into fall camp.

According to running backs coach Robert Gillespie, the same holds true for his troops.

"They understand the expectations of this offense, Coach Jones, Coach (Mike) Bajakian and me as their positional coach," said Gillespie. "It's just more of a comfort level. They understand why we're so intense as coaches, and they understand what we want. Fast and furious is the way we play so we demand a lot out of them."

Gillespie went on to say that Coach Jones has laid the foundation - brick by brick - but the goal is to understand it and build upon it every single day.

"Standards have been set," Gillespie said. "Coach Jones has laid the foundation of what he wants, and the key is understanding that. They understand every day that they have to go out and try to reach that level, and they probably never will. But that's the standard we want those guys to have every day, where they go out and compete and understand they're probably not going to reach it, but they'll continue to work hard.

"So far they're doing good. They don't hang their heads when we get on them, and that's the part that's encouraging to the coaching staff. These are good kids; they're working hard every day and buying into whatever we tell them to do."

Off the field, Coach Gillespie and his backs have all established a comfort level.

"We have a really good atmosphere in the running back room," Gillespie said. "I know them and they know me. I've got a better feel of what I think each one of those guys can do, and I think they have a great feel for my expectations of them. Now it's getting to be where they can finish my sentences.

"The guys compete on the field, but they really help each other off the field. So far five days in, the guys are working hard and steadily competing. There is no depth chart and I think that's what's making them hungry to compete."


Relentless is a main theme of this year's fall camp and with day five of training camp and day one in football pads complete, Tennessee Volunteers defensive line coach Steve Stripling seems satisfied with what he has seen.

Numerous Volunteers of all ages are beginning to stand out amongst the coaches and prove that they are willing to step on the field August 31. The seniors, especially, have shown that they want Team 117 to be successful this season.

"It's positive, because we're getting a great leadership," Stripling said. "The freshmen are freshmen. So, they come and tomorrow's day six or seven, whatever day it is, and we're up at 7 a.m. again, so it's the seniors that are walking in with energy and juice in the morning and a positive attitude, so leadership really helps."

The seniors are working to create a positive environment for the freshmen and some of them are already on board.

One particular freshman that has been relentless this summer is defensive lineman, Corey Vereen. The Winter Garden, Fla., native has been on campus longer than most of his freshmen teammates and has used that time to get adjusted to what the new coaching staff will expect.

"He's separated himself, not only because he's been here longer, but because of his work habits and maturity," Stripling said. "His personality. 9:30 at night in the summer, he would be in here by himself working on skills. He's one of the highest motivated young men I've ever seen."


Tommy Thigpen has played and coached at a high level his entire career.

With his SEC experience, Thigpen knows there are no off weeks in the conference. And believes it is the closest thing to the NFL.

"Each week it is a battle," said Thigpen. "You go and line up against Alabama, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia. Every week is a challenge. It is your biggest game every week. That is the greatest thing about this game because every week you get to strap it on and play against some of the best football players in all of America."

But coaching at Tennessee was always the goal.

"I was at the University of North Carolina and I will tell you when they would come in the state and recruit you knew you had a battle," said Thigpen. "Tennessee had a great reputation and they have always had great players and everybody knew that. This is the place to be."

"I always knew that I wanted to be here," continued Thigpen. "I always thought Tennessee was one of the best college football jobs in all of America. And It is. I work for a great man and have a great head coach in Butch and I am appreciative of the opportunity that he gave me to come here. My impression of Tennessee is that it is only a matter of time before Tennessee is back on top."


When the greatest linebackers are mentioned in conversation there is a common theme amongst them. Even Vol legends like Al Wilson and Leonard Little would probably agree that physicality is a Tennessee linebacker tradition.

Vol Linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen echoed the teams need for physical linebackers and was overall pleased with the first day of full padded practice. He added that if his linebackers were characterized as something he'd want it to be as "smart and tough".

"That's the one thing that we pride ourselves on our board," said Thigpen. "You don't have to be 4.4, 4.3 linebackers to be great linebackers and great defensive players. We say smart and tough and that's what we're going on every day. Alignment and excitement football and knowing what all 11 guys are doing on the football field."

Junior A.J. Johnson, the undisputed leader in the Volunteer linebacker corps, received praise from Thigpen in his physicality and the way he has begun to command the defense.

"He holds a lot of pride and he wants to be the lion of that pride; he wants to be that alpha guy and you know guys respect him," said Thigpen. "Our players really respect A.J. He's tough, he's physical, he brings a blue collar attitude to work every single day and a great attitude.

"Loves contact; the kid really loves contact. He's strong and he's a smart kid on the field so I think his game has improved each day."

Thigpen reiterated that an instrumental part of being a smart linebacker is communicating well with the other defensive players saying that switching from safety to linebacker has helped guys like Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp in relaying the secondary's information.

"The more communication we do on the field the better we are and I think the kids feel good about the communication," he said. "And part about that is the more you know, the more confident you get in the communication."


Because the majority of the Vol staff has worked together previously, their transition at Tennessee has been simple.

"That makes life a lot easier," said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. "We can anticipate what is going to happen, problems that may arise, the questions they may have. We have a very good staff chemistry and a lot of faith in the rest of the guys on the coaching staff, the rest of the guys on the offensive coaching staff and we are happy with where we are going."

The staff strives to keep things simple and cohesive.

"Coach Jake does a great job of working with each group and group coaching so that we are all on the same page," said tight ends and special teams coordinator Mark Elder. "To be a great offense you have to be a unit and that is difficult to do with 11 different guys, because there is 11 different guys being pulled in 11 different directions."

" It all has to be together, it is like an orchestra. You have to have one guy in front making sure it is going as it should."

Bajakian is that guy out in front. Though he spends time with the quarterbacks every practice, as the offensive coordinator he sees the entire field clearly and helps it all blend together.

"He has his hands in everything," said Elder. "I love being with him during those individual periods because I see it, it is an important part that I am saying the exact same thing as he is saying. That is what is also important in having been together for a long period of time, he can start a sentence and I can finish it for him a lot of times. What I am saying in my meeting rooms is what he would want to be said. Because it is one clear message to the whole time."

"We may emphasize different personnel groups depending on our strengths that year, but we know what we are doing and we have a set system and everybody is working in unison to get there."

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