With fall camp now officially in Tennessee's rearview mirror, you could feel the gears shift on the Vols' practice field on Monday. Game week preparations brought a new level of excitement to the morning’s proceedings, a shift that was noticeable to the players and pleasing to the coaches.
“I’m extremely excited," said senior linebacker Austin Johnson. "It seems like we’ve been waiting for this forever. It’s been a long time. We’ve all worked really hard in the offseason and we’re ready to get this season rolling."
“You can feel the gears kind of shift this week. Guys are definitely more excited this week. They’re ready to face a different opponent. The tempo today was great. Guys were enthusiastic — flying in and out of the huddle.”
That's the kind of enthusiasm head coach Derek Dooley was hoping for when he gave his team a full four days off in between the close of fall camp and Monday morning’s workout. It was a calculated move on the head coach’s part after a physically demanding four weeks, and one that he felt paid dividends.
In describing his team’s preparation on Monday, Dooley took the notion of ‘dividends’ and expanded it into a complete banking metaphor to describe what he’s looking for this week.
“Every day you’re depositing money in your bank account," Dooley began. "The investment that you put into practice physically, the investment you put in mentally, is a deposit. On game day, you withdraw it all. So, the more you deposit during the week, the more money you’re going to have on game day to play well. Today we put a pretty good deposit in and we’ll see if we can keep it going all week.”
Most Big Orange fans are looking at the opener against FCS member Montana as little more than a glorified scrimmage. Oddsmakers have installed the Vols as an early 28-point favorite, a number that suggests a large discrepancy in talent between the two squads.
Like most coaches, Dooley has no trouble finding danger lurking around every corner. That’s a skill he showed off on Monday in assessing Saturday’s opponent.
“They’re the winningest program in the last decade in Division I," Dooley said of the Grizzlies. "If you take all the teams, I and I-AA, nobody’s had more wins in the last decade. They’ve won about 15 of the last 17 conference championships, three national championships in the last 10 years. So it’s a program we have a lot of respect for. It’s a prideful program, they have a lot of good football players. You can’t win that much if you don’t. Incredibly coached, they’re tough, they’re disciplined, they’re smart. They play with great effort.
“When you watch the film it’s no secret why they’ve had so much success. They believe in their systems. They play their tails off and they have a lot of good football players. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Moving on without Jackson
Preparing for the season opener is the Vols’ top priority this week, but the staff is having to install a game plan while also adjusting to the loss of starting free safety, and pre-season All-SEC selection, Janzen Jackson. Jackson was dismissed last Wednesday for a violation of team rules.
Monday was the first full-scale practice without Jackson on the field and Dooley didn’t try to downplay the impact of his absence.
“Well, we’re not as good," he said. "I’d like to sugarcoat it, but when you lose an all-conference guy you’re not as good back there. It moves Prentiss (Waggner) into a role that we didn’t have him in, or didn’t need him in. So you start getting stressed everywhere. That’s just the way it is.”
Waggner’s move to Jackson’s free safety spot from corner thrusts true freshman Justin Coleman into one of the starting cornerback spots opposite Marsalis Teague.
An early-enrollee, Coleman had the benefit of participating in spring practice, which has sped up his development. But Dooley cautions that he’s still learning every day. While the staff has been impressed with his performance so far, fans shouldn’t expect a seamless transition to the college game.
“Justin has done well," Dooley said of the Coleman. "He’s made progress. He’s not near where he needs to be to be a good dependable starter in this league. The only thing that’s going to get him there is time and experience. We have confidence in him, but he’s going to have some growing pains out there."
Much anticipated debuts
Coleman won’t be the only true freshman starter on defense on Saturday. He’ll be joined on the field by outside linebackers Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson. Both newcomers have generated some serious buzz this August, more than living up to the hype that accompanied their arrivals as elite recruits.
Amazingly, Tennessee has never started a true freshman at linebacker in a season opener, a streak that will end emphatically on Saturday.
“You see these two guys play and they don’t play like freshmen and they don’t act like freshmen," said senior middle linebacker Austin Johnson. "They’re going to go out there and show people what they’ve got. I’m excited to see what they’re going to bring."
Dooley doesn’t expect either to be perfect out of the gate, but the head coach also doesn’t seem to harbor any reservations about handing the duo starting jobs. He’s consistently maintained that he’ll play his best players regardless of class — a fact he certainly proved in his first year on the job, starting five true freshmen on offense alone, including quarterback Tyler Bray.
“It’s going to be a challenge for them because it will be their first game," Dooley said of the freshmen debuting on Saturday. "There’s going to be a lot of anxiety, and then you add the component that, when they’re out there, stuff’s going to be moving.
“It’s about having that mental stamina. When the play’s over, we’ve got to move on to the next one, and you’re out of that routine that you’re normally in (in practice). So, yeah, it will be a challenge for them.”
Tennessee heads into the season opener largely healthy with the exception of linebacker Herman Lathers who broke his ankle in the summer and is still recovering.
Receivers Matt Milton (concussion) and Rajion Neal (sprained knee) had both missed significant time in the last week, but both were back at practice on Monday. The pair each wore red ‘no-contact’ jerseys but are expected to be available on Saturday.
Freshman running back Tom Smith, who was running with the third-team offense behind Tauren Poole and Marlin Lane, is also back in the mix after working through a sprained knee.
Defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who missed over two weeks of camp with a sprained knee pronounced himself 100-percent on Monday morning, observing that, ‘I don’t even think about it anymore. It feels brand new to me.’
Freshman Martin leaves the program
The only bad news on Monday came with the word that freshman Pat Martin was in the processing of asking for a release and planned to leave the program.
The freshman had been working at safety during the preseason, but didn’t figure in the Vols’ two-deep system and appeared headed for a redshirt this season.
"I think it's a mutually, fully agreed upon decision," Dooley said of the development. "Let's say it that way, mutually agreed upon that it's best for Pat.”
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