Vols staying focused as opener approaches

Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) The end result matters. At the end of the day, the "W" matters. But along the way, Team 117 is focusing on the process.

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian has molded the 117th team of Tennessee football into the players he needs to be champions on the field.

"We talk with our players a lot about embracing the process of becoming a champion," Bajakian said. "Every day we are focused on improving no matter what point we are at. We have been executing the offense throughout training camp and I am just looking to make sure our guys improve in practice day-to-day and game-to-game throughout the season."

The improvement that Bajakian has seen has stemmed from the starting quarterback position to his veteran offensive lineman and everywhere in between. He, as well as his players were even focused on the process of naming the starting quarterback.

"I think when you are competing in a quarterback battle or a position battle like that to a certain degree there is a sense of ownership that comes with officially being dubbed the starter," Bajakian said. "I think (Justin Worley) can take a deep sigh and say okay now it is time to go out and play.

"It is a competitive group, it is a proud group, and while I am sure there is disappointment in all of their hearts about not being named the starter, but they have gone out and competed every day."

The competition between quarterbacks has only improved the depth and strength of the position group as a whole. Bajakian says his starting quarterback is still improving every day and his other quarterbacks, including redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman still haven't stopped competing for the spot.

"In every facet, the (quarterbacks') game has stepped up," he said.

Bajakian is also focused on the process of his talented and experienced offensive line to protect his starting quarterback. With 114 total starts, the linemen are "the core of the team."

"Everywhere I've been, the O-line has usually been the core of the mentality of your team," Bajakian said. "When we preach a mentality of physicality and toughness and all those things, it definitely starts up front with the offensive line. With having a veteran group, they know the expectation and they have been able to preach that to the other guys."

Preaching between players is nothing new as Team 117 has focused on the process of becoming champions.

"Those guys have been through the worst together and they've laid it all out on the line for each other. We have preached playing for one another and preaching a family environment all the time. They've been through those battles. They've meshed since day one."

Stemming from the veterans to the freshmen and the new coaching staff, one thing no one will ever be completely prepared for are the butterflies from the season-opener and the atmosphere at Neyland Stadium. Bajakian has been on the other side of the ball at Neyland and says it didn't end up well.

"I remember vividly there were two fourth-and-one situations and we didn't execute," he said. "The crowd played a major role in that. We were late getting off the ball in the extended part of the formation and got blown up and didn't get it."

As Team 117 has focused on the practice and the process up to this week, it all changes on Saturday.

"I'm excited to have that crowd noise and that 12th man on our side now."


The shorter the countdown gets to kickoff is equivalent to the eagerness defensive coordinator John Jancek shows to getting his players out onto Shields-Watkins Field on Saturday and after tonight's practice, Jancek seems content with where the Volunteers defense is heading.

"I feel good," Jancek said. "I feel comfortable where we are. There are a couple minor things that certainly we're going to take care of tomorrow working into preparation for Friday, the day before the game. I'm comfortable with where we are. The guys seem like they're catching onto things pretty solid, so we're moving into the right direction."

With just three days before Team 117 opens against Austin Peay, Jancek knows that his defensive checklist has some bullet points that need to be crossed off.

"If I had to organize them and prioritize them, one would be play with great effort," said Jancek. "Two would be--take great angles to the football and three--finish with our tackles. No missed tackles. I think if we're able to do that, we'll be in decent shape."

Jancek and fellow Tennessee coaches have thrown numerous situations at this year's team in preparation for the season, challenging them for whatever may happen come game situations.

One of the biggest ways that Jancek has tested his defense is by constantly rotating players.

"We're going to have to play a lot of players in this first ballgame," Jancek said. "That's our goal is to develop players throughout the course of the year--get them experienced, get them in there, get them reps. They're going to make mistakes, but we just have to keep plugging away and keep making positive strides."

While Jancek and company will continue to "paint a broad stroke with our defense," he is ready to see how things play out against Austin Peay.

"This will be the truest test that we've had up to this point," said Jancek. "As coaches we've challenged them. We've tried to put them in competitive situations and expose them to as much adversity we possibly could, but there's nothing like game day, so we'll find out Saturday."


With defensive experience at seven previous institutions, six conference championships and 22 bowl appearances under his belt, it's safe to say Tennessee's Steve Stripling knows what he's doing on defense.

The first year associate head coach and defensive line coach knows that spot is key for the Vols in 2013, and believes his guys are ready to take on the leadership role.

"That was the message in the defensive meeting today," said Stripling. "The pressure is on the D-Line. We have some younger guys behind us and we're the mature group so we definitely want that pressure.

According to Coach Stripling, the biggest key to success for the defensive front this season is effort.

"We set some goals going into fall camp... The biggest one is effort," Stripling said. "What am I looking for? I want to see four guys playing hard. That's what I'm looking for. Coach Butch Jones talks about dominating for 60 minutes, and that's through play No. 70. I don't want to just be playing hard on play No. 1; I want to be playing hard on play No. 70.

"Effort can overcome a lot of problems. The ball bounces to teams that play hard. You can cover up mistakes if you're playing hard. The basis for our front is going to be effort."

Due to depth across the second and third lines of the defense, Stripling and the staff has challenged the Vols' front four this preseason.

"They've been good because they're mature," Stripling said. "It's real simple when you look at our board. There are younger guys back behind us so we need to shoulder that responsibility.

"Every great defense I've been involved with we were able to get pressure with four. You shouldn't have to rely on pressuring in order to get to the quarterback. That's all in the pass-rush mentality."

With injuries across the front line, it's no surprise that senior Corey Miller and junior Jordan Williams continue to shine.

"They have separated themselves from everybody else and I'm going to play guys to keep them as fresh as possible," said Stripling. "Those two guys have done a tremendous job of shouldering responsibility, picking it up and running with it. They're probably the two best guys on the defense at what I call `out of focus,' which means encouraging your teammates and leadership."


The Vols will open the 2013 campaign against Austin Peay on Aug. 31. To purchase season tickets, go to UTTix.com.

For more information about Tennessee football, visit UTSports.com/football, follow @Vol_Football on Twitter or like the Vols at Facebook.com/VolFootball.



(On Justin Worley)
"For us it is improving every day, if I don't see him improving every day I am going to be upset. I expect him to grow tremendously in that role and throughout the course of the season. Nate and the other quarterbacks have not stopped competing. They are in there watching video, they are in there demanding a lot from their teammates. It is good to see that, in every facet their game has stepped up."

(On Rajion Neal's improvement)
"The biggest difference is he now knows the offense. We have a phrase, `don't let the mind tie up the feet.' When we first got here he was still learning the offense, still learning the terminology, still learning the techniques that we are teaching. So he was thinking a little bit too much. He is now playing faster, his run-reads are quicker, he pass protection reads are quicker, and he is playing with better techniques. It is just a matter of getting some experience with the coaching staff and with the offense."

(On Austin Peay)
"They are veteran group too, defensively; of course that is what I focused on. They returned 10 starters and one got injured so now they are really down to nine starters. Their entire back seven is back, they have a lot of depth even their back-ups played quite a bit last year. So they are an experienced group that has played on a big stage before. They have nothing to lose and they are going to come in here swinging and we have to make sure we are prepared for it."

(On the anxiety of the season opener)
"I don't care if you have been somewhere for an extended period of time or if it is your first year. This is Team 117, meaning this is the 117th edition of the University of Tennessee football. It is different than last year and Team 118 will be different next year. You never know what to expect, every team is different. Even if you have been there a while, it is a whole new ball game when you come out, the seniors that graduated, you have a whole new freshman class. I wouldn't say there is added anxiety but there is that certain butterflies in your stomach and that excitement about the year ahead."


(On defensive backfield)
"Well, you know, we have outside with Cam [Sutton] being a true freshman. That's the one spot and he just has to hang in there and play with technique, play with the fundamentals. The thing that I like about him is if something bad happens, he's not going to be rattled. He'll be fine. He'll be able to get back in there next play and be ready to go. So, you know, that part of it is just part of the situation that we've been doubting playing true freshmen. Swafford is another nickel who's, a guy who's going to play for us. He's a true freshman. Then obviously Malik Foreman. Yes, we do. We have some young guys back there, but it's not just the defensive backs. Our defensive line has to do a great job. When we pressure, our linebackers have to do a great job impacting the quarterback so he doesn't feel comfortable standing back there throwing the ball."

(On defensive pressure)
"We're going to go into this game, we've got obviously some blitzes in the package, but I've really challenged our defensive line. I've said hey look I want you guys to get a brush and put pressure on the quarterback with just our front four. I don't want to feel like hey, we have to blitz every single time. I've really challenged them in our unit meetings and I want to see how they respond and hopefully they come out and we're getting after the quarterback with our four down linemen."

(On first game worries)
"Penalties, mental errors, giving up explosive plays, and how are they going to respond to adversity. That's really my concern with this group. In a first ballgame, if something bad happens, maybe they get a big pass or there's a turnover or they get a long run, or there's something that happens to change the momentum on special teams, how are we going to respond as a defense? That's what I'm probably paying most attention to."

(On pass rushers)
"Jordan Williams is a guy that's shown that he can get after it a little bit. Corey Miller has done some good things. Actually a guy, another true freshman, Jaylen Miller is a young man that's really come out in the last four or five practices and shown some quickness and some explosiveness, so Jaylen's done a good job. Brent Brewer's gotten better from the linebacker position. A.J. [Johnson's] a guy that you know, at different points in the game could give us some pass rush, so those are the guys that we're really looking for right now, but everybody's going to have an opportunity in this game to show what they can do, so hopefully guys will start to separate themselves as we move forward throughout the season."


(On Austin Peay being a dangerous game)
"Sure... We've told our team that they have nothing to lose. Expect the unexpected so yes that makes them dangerous. But we're more about what are we going to do. Are we going to go out there and execute, be sound, be dominate for 60 minutes and play hard? It's more about us."

(On liking where his group is at)
"I do... Obviously you always wish you were farther. We've talked in our D-Line room about firsts. Like that was the first time I saw somebody do this technique. That's the first time I saw that scheme recognition. There were a couple of first yesterday. That was my message in the meeting today. It's still a journey, it's a process. We had to firsts yesterday and hadn't done that in 15 spring practices and up until now. But it showed up yesterday and we have to keep going down that journey."

(On Maurice Couch)
"He's ready to go. In fact, I would say this past week he's probably stood out more than anybody. I've been really pleased with him this past week. He's a x-factor because I didn't see him in the spring and he's a x-factor because he's inconsistent. This week he's smoothed things out and obviously being a senior I think he's appreciative of it being his last go-round. I think he can add something for us."

(On going into the first game from a coaching standpoint)
"Well you don't [know what to expect.] They call it pregame butterflies. I'll definitely have them for a lot of reasons. We're excited for the opportunity. It's the first test. It's going to be great to go out there and get an evaluation."