KNOXVILLE — The Vols put the pads on Tuesday for the first time this spring. Despite being fully-outfitted, Butch Jones said his young team has a long way to go.
"First day of pads," said Jones, "(it was) pretty evident that we have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Overall, just our style of play, what it means to play winning football, the consistency we are looking for, the mental toughness, the mental conditioning that we talk about each and every day. A lot of work to do.
"We have great teaching opportunity, great teach tool in terms of our film, to go back and correct and really teach them our style of play. That usually happens the first day of pads, had some heat finally. We have a long way to go."
The players were excited to get back on Haslam Field and be able to hit.
"It's always a good feeling to get the pads on and get to hitting," said senior A.J. Johnson. "That's the big thing instead of just running around in helmets."
Sophomore defensive lineman Danny O'Brien was looking forward to today for a while after a challenging off-season in the weight room, where he increased his strength and improved his conditioning.
"Being in the weight room all winter, putting those pounds on, it was time to get in pads," said O'Brien. "We suffered a little bit on being in shape running wise, I think everybody was a little gassed but we'll get back in the swing of things. We'll be alright."
Having pads on made a difference in the speed of practice, which was noticeable to Jones.
"I thought we had very good tempo practice one and practice two and then we got into full pads our tempo really slowed down," said Jones, who has also made some adjustment in the team's protocol at practice.
"We are doing something a little bit different this year in practice, we have a 20 second clock, so as soon as that 20 second clock goes off a horn blows then we will do down-ups after practice for not maintaining the tempo. Today, I thought our tempo on offense, defense really slowed down. I think that was a byproduct of the pads. We have to learn how to work through those things."
A.J. set for senior year
Returning to Tennessee wasn't an easy decision for Vols senior linebacker A.J. Johnson. There were many positives making the jump to the NFL but ultimately the lure of one more year on Rocky Top kept him in Knoxville.
Several reasons kept Johnson from making the move to professional football including personal and team goals. With more than 300 career tackles at Tennessee, the first team All-SEC linebacker still feels he has plenty to prove with Team 118.
Check out Alex Cate's feature on Johnson right here on UTSports.com.
Helms draws high praise
Jones was quick to point out freshman tight end Daniel Helm as one of the early enrollees who has made an impression on him.
"The one individual that I thought really did some good things today was Daniel Helm," said Jones of the 6-4, 232-proud product. "He made some big plays, in a scrimmage situation, in some team settings, I thought he took great strides in moving forward."
Helm, who was home-schooled, played his high school ball at Glenwood in Chatham, Illinois. He was rated the No. 1 tight end in the nation by Rivals. He had a school record 35 career receiving touchdowns while at Glenwood.
Smith stays positive,
ready for new year
Sophomore Josh Smith is ready to turn the page on his freshman season as a Vol. The CAK graduate came to Tennessee with the reputation for having great hands and being a steady receiver. In his first year with the Vols, Smith had issues, dropping passes throughout the year. Despite the challenges, Smith has kept a positive attitude.
"Nothing was harder on me than anything because I let my team down," said Smith in his first time meeting with his hometown media. "That's why I got recruited, to catch balls and run good routes, and just not being able to do that as good as I wanted probably hurt me the most for the team."
Smith said the Vols' coaching staff has been very positive with him and kept his confidence up.
"Coaches just believing in me more because they could easily just push me aside but they kept playing me," said Smith "That made me as a person believe in them more and it made me feel good that they still believe in me because you could easily pull me out for all those drops I had."
Jones was clear that Tennessee's staff is very much in Smith's corner.
"We have tremendous amount of confidence in Josh," said Jones. "Josh also made some big plays and again he was a true freshman. You have to learn from those mistakes and you never make them twice ... But the big thing with him is the mental part, continuing to learn all the positions, all the fundamentals. But I have liked his approach so far."
Smith has worked on his mental game as much as his on-field game heading into 2014.
"It's hard to come back from that," he said, "but all the encouragement I'm getting, just not letting it affect me, watching more film, studying the game more, just seeing what I did wrong in a route, and just studying the DB's better, defenses, opponents and just improving my overall game."
ready to compete
If there is one common word coming out of spring practice every day it is "competition."
On the defensive side, Malik Foreman and Jalen Reeves-Maybin can sense it. Both sophomores saw playing time as true freshman and going into the 2014 season, now know what to expect.
"It's a lot of good competition there between everybody- a lot of talent there from the freshman class," said Foreman. "Everybody's competing and working hard."
With senior leaders like A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt around them, Reeves-Maybin can't help but learn how to compete.
"Those two guys are probably the biggest leaders on the team," Reeves-Maybin said. "So anytime when I'm around them, I just feel like I have to be [learning] just so I don't let them down."
Both Foreman and Reeves-Maybin are fighting for starting positions and know there is truly no "off" in offseason.
"You've got to bring it every week," said Foreman. "There are no off weeks, you have to bring it every week. All these teams have 5-star recruits coming in so you have to be ready each week."
Croom healthy and ready
Suffering a broken collarbone after scoring his second-career touchdown against Kentucky caused Tennessee Volunteers' wide receiver Jason Croom to spend part of the offseason rehabbing before receiving. Luckily, it was a quick recovery and the Norcross, Ga., native is ready to see what this season holds for "Wide Receiver U."
In day one of pads and day three of spring practice, the redshirt sophomore is impressed with the energy and competition that the wide receivers are bringing to the field.
"We have more depth and much more competitiveness," Croom said. "We need competition. That's what pushes everybody to be the best they can."
Seeing what he has to contend with, especially with newcomers Josh Malone and Von Pearson, Croom, who ended the season fourth on the team in catches (18) and third in receiving yards (269), isn't taking any time off.
"Coach Z [Zach Azzanni] is still coaching me up, just teaching me different ways," said Croom. "I'm watching film myself, watching bigger receivers to see how they use their body and go use it myself."
"You have to improve. You can't stay the same."