KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee football returned to the practice field for its sixth workout of the spring Tuesday evening, and the Volunteers now turn their attention to their first scrimmage under head coach Josh Heupel set for Thursday afternoon in Neyland Stadium.
Thursday’s scrimmage is closed to the public.
Wednesday’s practice was full pads and featured multiple team periods, including a two-minute drill to cap the day. Running backs coach Jerry Mack and secondary coach Willie Martinez addressed the media following practice.
Mack’s unit features junior Tiyon Evans and sophomore Jabari Small. Evans, who is in his first spring in Knoxville, was the No. 1-rated junior college running back in the nation prior to enrolling. Small came on strong toward the end of his true freshman season last fall.
“You can just tell Jabari is one of those guys that really was born to play running back,” Mack said. “He has a really natural feel. He has great instincts at the position. You can tell he has been really well coached. Every day we come out there, he is disciplined. He is focused.”
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Running Backs Coach Jerry Mack
“Dee’s doing a really incredible job just continuing to learn the finer details of the position every single day. We talk a lot about just playing with low pad level, because he is a taller, bigger back, so just getting his pad level down and just learning some of the intricacies of the position. He played so many different things in high school, and last year, I think they moved him around a little bit, so he’s finally getting into a situation where he’s kind of getting settled in on a position. You talk about extremely intelligent – asking questions in the meetings and just from that quarterback background that he has, you can just tell that he’s got a sense of the entire game and situational football and how everything fits together. I’ve been really pleased with his progress over the last few practices. Tiyon’s situation is getting better every day. Today he was out there dressed out. He ran around and did some individual drills with us. We’re hoping to have him back really sooner rather than later.”
On what Jaylen Wright has shown thus far and how much growth he has displayed …
“Jaylen, right now, is just really learning the speed of the game more than anything. He’s had some ups and he’s had some downs, but he sure has had a lot of flashes as well. When you talk about the ability to separate from people when he gets to the second level, the speed jumps out at you about him. He’s so dynamic when he gets to the second level, it’s really hard to catch him. But, the finer details of the position and down-in and down-out just learning those different things – for a young guy, especially from a protection standpoint when you come to college – the protections are really just blowing his mind a little bit, but he is getting better. That’s what we ask of those guys, more than anything, is to try to come in every day and get one percent better each day. You can just tell, right now, even though he’s struggling here and struggling there, his flashes are big, huge flashes. You can ask anybody on the field. When he gets to that next level and he gets an opportunity to get in space, he can make people miss. He’s still learning, more than anything, about college football and how we can’t bounce a lot of runs. We have to stay in between the tackles when we need to, and we have to trust that the offensive line is going to get their block. That’s just going to come with reps. The more reps he has, the better he is going to get. I’m looking forward to the remaining practices of the spring to see exactly where he can go.”
On the running backs group as a whole …
“As a group right now, I think we are getting a lot better. Every day we kind of come in and we focus on something to get better at. We choose two or three things that we know each man in that room has to get better at something individually and specific. We put the notes on the board, and we go around and talk about what do you have to do individually to get better and then what do we have to do as a group to get better. I’ve been very pleased with the effort they’ve been giving me every single day to try to come out there and really focus on those finer things. Today, the heat kind of got us a little bit. We were sluggish. We were up and down, but toward the end we tried to find a way to push through in that fourth quarter and find a way to come out on top.”
On what he’s seen from Jabari Small so far …
“You can just tell Jabari is one of those guys that really was born to play running back. He has a really natural feel. He has great instincts at the position. You can tell he has been really well coached in high school and also, too, with the previous staff. He has a natural feel for that position right now. Every day we come out there, he is disciplined. He is focused. He understands protections right now, which is really intriguing and impressive for a guy of his youth. He has been extremely impressive to everybody on the field. The way he handles his business, the way he goes about his business – he takes care of business like a pro. We talk about that in the room all the time, making sure you’re handling yourself, taking notes and then go out there and apply it to the field. That’s what I’ve been really impressed with by him this entire spring. These first six practices, he’s really sparked and showed his true colors, and I think he’s really going to help us this season.”
Secondary Coach Willie Martinez
On the number of defensive backs he’d like on the roster …
“I’m going to act serious when I answer this question. I’ll take 20-24. You need a lot of them. It’s changed. You’ve got to have guys that have to be able to cover. The offense, whether it is this offense or any offense, are looking for mismatches. You’ve got to be able to run. You’ve got to be athletic. You can’t be one-dimensional. You can’t be just a one-position guy. You can’t just be a nickel. You can’t just be a corner and have a weakness to your game. You can’t line up at corner and take this guy because he can cover really well but he can’t tackle very well because you are going to be exposed. The more athletic you are in the defense, and it doesn’t just have to be defensive backs, your linebackers and your d-linemen. Your d-linemen make a lot of the plays that you may not think have an effect on types of styles of offense. The tempo teams. You are creating quick decisions by the offense instead of sitting there and patting the ball and having a little more time. To answer the question, you have to be able to play six defensive backs. Six guys that can actually cover, play man. That’s on the field when you want it. Ideally, it’s probably more like five. It depends on what you’re playing too because we are so multiple. We are playing 3-4. We are playing 4-3. The more multiple you are on defense now, where you can have the same personnel on the field but give you all different types of looks is an advantage. That’s something that we are looking at, guys that we can keep on the field but be multiple in positions. I like to have a lot, at least three-deep at each position in the backend. I think everybody on our defense would like that. It starts up front.”
His early impressions of his secondary group …
“I think the guys in the backend have been locked in. I’ve just noticed how they pay attention to detail and it’s important to them. It’s not a big group. We don’t have the numbers there, but I guess you could say that about everybody on our team. Having guys like Alontae Taylor, who have a tremendous amount of experience and have been here. Theo Jackson. Just naming two guys who have been here and played for a while. They do things how you want them done off the field. When you have that kind of leadership, I don’t care what room it is, you have a chance. They’re good players and they know how to get things done both on and off the field.”
On facing a fast-paced, up-tempo offense in practice …
“I think they’ve done a really good job. I’m not saying that just to say it. I think we’ve done a really good job of trying to prepare them for what the expectations are going to be. How fast it was going to be. Obviously, in our offseason conditioning, just trying to prepare them to the thought process. It’s going to happen really fast. We were doing some exercises prior to it. Whether you are in the meeting room and when you’re asking a question, you are wanting one-word answers. That’s how you have to communicate on the field. It can’t be long answers. Today we were coming off the field and it was really fast because we had a two-minute drill. They have to process stuff really quickly. Get the signals off the sideline and communicate it. We like to say you have to get back to your spot when the play is over with. If the ball is on the hash, that’s why we play left corner, right corner, left safety and right safety. We are very multiple in how we line up because you have to be that way and you have to know it all. You have to play both sides, strong and weak because it’s going to go fast. If you’re just a person that is going to line up strong side or weakside, you’re in trouble. They’ve adapted and adjusted pretty good to that. By no means are we there. There was some frustration the last couple of practices when the tempo goes really fast, but it has been mainly the ones who are inexperienced and trying to look around looking for help. The help is not going to be there. You just have to get lined up and have short memory. Hit the reset button and go on to the next play. Don’t let the last play beat you. Just like if the last play was really good.”