Special teams’ plays are game-changers. Through nine games, the Vols’ special teams’ units hadn’t given up the `big one,’ but just one mistake in this area can often lead to points.
Unfortunately, the Vols experienced that twice against then-No. 7/10 Auburn, and are now using this open week to get things corrected.
“Obviously, it was not a very good day for us on special teams,” said assistant coach Mark Elder. “In both instances we had opportunities to get the guy on the ground, we had guys that were in position and lost leverage on the football. That is defensive football in coverage units; anytime you lose leverage on the football big plays can occur.”
This week, Elder has stressed fundamentals such as leverage, containment and tackling to his groups.
“When you put the game into more green grass, when there is more space, things like lost leverage become even more critical,” said Elder. “When you have a missed tackle, that is more critical because it is a lane; it is a lane of about five yards. If you miss a tackle in that lane there isn’t someone for another handful of yards.
“Special teams really emphasize that if you have a mistake it gets blown up even bigger because you are in big spaces.”
Obviously disappointed after the loss, the Vols have come out strong so far this week.
“We gave up 14 points and countless yards in field position that were critical to the game going the wrong way,” said Elder. “We are working hard to get it corrected. It was extremely disappointing with as much as we’ve put into special teams.
“They have had a great sense of urgency these two days. When special teams are called, these guys have been fired up and competing as much as they have since they got here.”
A business-like approach
For the Tennessee offensive line, every day is a work day.
Instead of business suits, they wear uniforms.
“I have said it all year, they have been very businesslike in their approach, very mature in their approach in what we have done, whether it has been after a win or a loss,” said offensive line coach Don Mahoney. “This is the second open date that we have come out to work and guys like Zach Fulton, James Stone and Ja’Wuan [James] have been as business like as ever.”
The front five approach every practice, meeting, and game the same way week in and week out as four of the five don’t have much more time left on Rocky Top.
“There has been no drop off in terms of their approach, which is good,” said Mahoney. “I think it is more behind the scenes of what they are doing with the group of offensive guys. As a team that is going to be really important but I think as next week gets closer, by each day going by, where the seniors on the line realize that this is one step closer to being their last game in Neyland.”
“I sense that some things are going to grow as the week goes on next week with things becoming an even higher sense of urgency.”
Wideouts welcome open week
Coming off consecutive games against three top-10 opponents, including two road trips, Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni says his guys needed this open week.
“It’s great and mentally we needed it,” said Azzanni. “It has been a long four weeks and we know that. These are some young players we are dealing with that we’re trying to stay positive with and get them through this.”
While he welcomes the break, Azzanni doesn’t want the wideouts to forget the feeling of losing three straight, but rather channel it and use it as ammunition.
“At the same time, don’t forget this and use this, use this for these next two weeks, use it for the winter and use it for the spring,” said Azzanni.
“Don’t forget this feeling; losing is never going to be acceptable in our program and it is not something that is going to get easier to deal with. We are going to get out here and get after it.”
It’s obviously beneficial in terms of getting back to full strength, but the open week is also a good time to regroup mentally.
“Mental is a big deal; mental is a big part of the game,” said Azzanni. “Get these kids back and feeling good about themselves.”
A couple of the young receivers - Marquez North and Josh Smith - are taking advantage of the free time by working on chemistry with rookie quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
“I definitely think that it’s still a work in progress,” said Azzanni. “These guys are staying after and throwing every day, they are working at it. Especially, Josh and Marquez - the young guys - they know they are going to be around a while with Josh (Dobbs) and that is exciting for them. They are working at it hard; they want to be good.”
North also took in extra film this week, looking at clips of former Central Michigan receivers such as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown.
“Marquez just asked me to go watch some cutups from the Central Michigan days and things like that,” said Azzanni. “They are working hard.”