“I thought the first day of 2-a-days was very productive,” said head coach Butch Jones. “I’m looking forward to watching film and seeing the players we can win with.”
Jones was much more impressed with today’s practice after believing that the players did not live up to their standard of practice last night.
“I thought our players showed resiliency today,” Jones said. “They came out here and had a purpose to them. We took strides today.”
In today’s two practices, the offense showed a great level of consistency. All four quarterbacks took advantage of each rep they got and showed leadership by coaching and leading each other.
The ground game looked strong as tailback Rajion Neal ripped off a 98-yard dash down the left sideline in a situational drive started at the 2-yard line. The Vols also pounded the rock with a 14-play — all on the runs — drive finished by an Alden Hill burst from two yards out.
On defense, senior linebacker John Propst forced a fumble late in the scrimmage that was recovered by Kenny Bynum. That was the lone turnover of the day. On the defensive front, several sacks were recorded and passes batted down.
In the coming week, Jones is hoping to see a higher level of consistency.
“We have a long way to go and a lot of work to do, but these individuals are resilient and prideful,” Jones said. “They embrace getting better. We have to overachieve in every aspect of the game. We have to hold each other accountable and get better each and every day.”
A burst of energy
The star of Saturday night’s closed scrimmage was running back Rajion Neal who broke outside from the 2-yard line and raced 98 yards down the field breaking tackles for the touchdown.
It was all his teammates could talk about. He even got some praise from Coach Jones.
Rajion Neal really ran with a purpose tonight,” said Jones. “I liked his pad level; I thought he showed some bursts in acceleration.”
Neal, a selfless player that is never one to hog the spotlight, credits the offensive line for his run, specifically one Antonio Richardson.
“It was coming out, man,” said Neal. “The O-Line gave me a great start, great push up front, leaving me with one block and one cut to make, so I saw it. I took it.”
“I had a safety,” said Neal. “Everybody pretty much squeezed and it was, maybe an end, who squeezed. Tiny [Richardson] pushed him out. I just hit it. I had a safety. He had a crazy angle. I almost didn’t think I was going to make it. All I said was, I cannot get caught.”
Neal has been a consistent force for the Vols during his career on Rocky Top. The senior has played wherever needed switching to wide receiver for a season, and was on his way to a 1,000-yard season last year before suffering a brief injury during the middle of the season.
“When you look at [Rajion] last year, he was like the second leading rusher in the SEC before he got hurt,” said Antonio Richardson. “This year all we need for him is to be consistent, stay in the training room and make sure he is taking care of his body.”
Neal feels as though he is bringing more power to the table this season.
“I felt from last year, I had a good start and I had my ups and downs,” said Neal. “After the season, I was a lot more consistent at the finish, and I think with the new staff, as long as I’ll be able to finish and break tackles, I think a lot of good things will happen. I mean, up front they’re getting me started and that’s really all you can ask for from a tailback.”
The camp has had some ups and downs for the senior who has been doing what he has been asked, but maybe not making plays as much as he should during practice.
That changed today.
“I feel coach put some fire up under us,” said Neal. “He told us today that we are going to find out who everyone is, and I knew today that if I didn’t show up, next week I would be on the scout team. He gave us all a little fire because no one wants to be on the scout team.”
Transformation is everywhere within Tennessee football — new coaching staff, new players, new leaders.
A.J. Johnson is one of those transformers on and off the field this season.
Johnson claims he often stood in the shadows of former linebacker Herman Lathers, who last year was very vocal in leading the Vols. Now, Johnson sees his opportunity to step into those shoes, or rather, cleats.
“Herman was a great leader while he was here,” Johnson said. “It was just a role that I’ve just fallen into. I wasn’t that vocal my first two years, but I’ve got to be vocal now just to help the team and be a better leader.”
Johnson hopes that his vocal leadership is motivating his teammates and coaches, especially in long days like today.
“It’s just about going out there every day and giving 100 percent and talking to your teammates and inspiring people,” Johnson said, “And making sure you’re not lacking. If you see someone lacking you pick them up and get them going.”
The Gainesville, Ga., native believes the Vols have become more focused throughout training camp and that both the offense and defense are making great strides.
“We’re right on track,” said Johnson. “We’re doing the right stuff. Everybody on defense is making plays and stuff. And the offense is making plays as well.”
While the team is progressing, so is Johnson, who has transformed himself personally this season in the weight room.
“My body transformed a lot,” Johnson said. “I slimmed up five pounds and gained a lot of muscle. One time I did the bodpod and it was 240 (pounds) with three percent body fat. That was a good improvement ... I know I’m way faster than I was last year. I’ve got a faster step. I just know the game better, so I’m going to be faster.”
With kickoff just three weeks ago, Johnson hopes that he has spent his time wisely, knowing that he has worked and will continue to work to reach the standard of excellence expected by his teammates and coaches.
“I always say football is football,” Johnson said. “It is just time management. Football is football, but I am going to go out there and bust my tail and go fight.”
Just gotta execute
Tiny Richardson said after the scrimmage that all the offense needed to do was execute to be successful.
Based on the results, executing was all they did on Saturday night. Of the offensive highlights, Richardson and others kept coming back to the 98-yard run by Rajion Neal that led the night.
“Rajion [Neal] did well, Marlin Lane [did] well. Rajion had the 98-yarder,” Richardson said. “All of our backs did a good job today, they were reading the blocks, coming off of our hips and doing a really good job.”
Neal credited the previous offensive series, a 13-play drive that also covered 98 yards, with sparking his big run.
“I mean, it was honestly another coming out, actual before mine that I think sparked it off,” Neal said. “They had a 13-play drive, all runs, and you had runs from Alden Hill, Tom Smith and Justus Pickett. It was kind of unreal to see because literally every three plays, those guys were breaking. I want to say Alden got them from the minus two to about the 15. I want to say Tom came in and broke his first play for about 20 or 30. Then you had another great cut, Alden came in and finished it. I mean it was crazy, but Coach was just calling you keep running it, keep running it, and it was a 14-play drive, 98 yards, all runs.”
Richardson said the offensive line paved the way for the big runs by playing tough up front.
“It is just attitude,” Richardson said. “When you are on the goal line or wherever you may be it is all about having an attitude. When you have the talent that we have on the O-Line you have to perform and that is what we did.”
Fellow lineman James Stone spread the praise around on all of the running backs. “I feel like all the backs had some good moments out there,” he said. Tom Smith showed up today and he was able to make a lot of runs and continuously stay in the game and continue to go run after run after getting hit. I applaud him for that.”
D-line pressure stands out
The Vols’ defensive line had a strong showing in the scrimmage with numerous pass break-ups and several sacks.
“The pass rush went pretty good,” said senior linebacker Brent Brewer. “I think we had four or five sacks. So that’s a good day. I think John Propst got a sack and like three from the defensive linemen.”
The linebackers made their presence known throughout much of the action and came away with the only turnover of the evening.
“We didn’t have any interceptions, but we had a couple of pass break ups,” said sophomore defensive back Brian Randolph. “We forced a fumble during the last situation. It was the second team. The situation was that we had to get the ball back with a minute to go. I think it was John Propst who caused the fumble, and Kenny Bynum was the guy who recovered it.”
The leader of the defense is pleased with the defense’s progress.
“We’re right on track,” said All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson. “We’re doing the right stuff. Everybody on defense is making plays.
We’re all one team, and we’re working toward one goal, and that’s to win each day. We’re progressing all together as one unit.”
The unsung heroes
Everyone knows about Tennessee’s offensive line.
Last season the front allowed just four sacks on the year. After losing Dallas Thomas to the NFL, the line comes in ranked second in the country by Lindy’s and Athlon Sports.
But on a football team, every player needs a backup. And the Vols’ second team O-Line is doing quite well according to its head coach.
“I thought our second team offensive line is really coming around,” said Butch Jones. “The one individual I am really excited about right now is [freshman] Dylan Wiesman, he is physical, he is very intelligent and he is playing himself right now into a rotation in our offensive line. We have asked a lot of him as a true freshman for playing center and playing guard and he is playing with a high level of consistency right now.”
“Mack Crowder continues to progress. Wiesman has done a great job. I tell you, Marques Pair has done an unbelievable job, I think he is one of the most improved players that we have in our football program. So you are starting to see some confidence come in that second group, which is great to see but we still have a long way to go. But I am very encouraged by what I see.”
Learning from a legend
Al Wilson was back on the Tennessee campus this week and current linebacker A.J. Johnson couldn’t have been happier.
It’s not every day that you get advice from one of the best linebackers in school history.
“I have spoken with him some,” said Johnson. “It’s a blessing for him to be around. He’s one of the best. When people say Ray Lewis; people say Al Wilson just like that. He’s just as good. He’s one of the best out there, so it’s a blessing to have him around to see how great he is.”
What advice did the Vols’ past middle linebacker give to its current middle linebacker?
“Just to keep playing hard and keep leading.”
Senior linebacker Channing Fugate was not with the team on Saturday. Following the scrimmage, Butch Jones addressed the media on the possibility of him leaving the program after three seasons.
“Right now Channing is weighing his options,” said Jones. “He wants to continue, he wants to have more a role of playing football. We are helping him. We have met a few times and he is weighing his options right now, possibly transferring to another school.”n Twitter or like the Vols at Facebook.com/VolFootball.