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October 11, 2012The hard work began in earnest in middle school for Jaron Toney, the Tennessee defensive back from nearby Alcoa who was enlisted to help work at his father's stone business.
The Toney family all chipped in, and Jaron began stacking stones long before he stacked up touchdowns at a record-setting pace at Alcoa.
Now the 5-foot-10, 188-pounder is beating somewhat stacked odds as a former walk-on to be a contributor for Tennessee when the Vols (3-2) visit undefeated and 19th-ranked Mississippi State (5-0) Saturday night in Starkville.
"My dad owns his stone business, puts stones on houses, and it's been since like middle school that he had us helping him, moving stuff. Mostly, he said, to stay out of trouble. He said if you're working, you're staying out of trouble," said Toney, who had a state-record 50 rushing touchdowns in his 2009 senior season at Alcoa. "I figure that got me strong in most ways people haven't got.
"It kind of like mentally just showed that you have to work if want something. It just lets you know you've got to work for whatever you want."
Toney's hard work has helped him carve a consistent role on special teams, and he worked some this week as the Vols' first option at the 'Star' position in defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's nickel packages.
"Jaron Toney has done a great job and he's made plays on special teams," Sunseri said. "When a young man goes out and starts making plays on special teams and starts being noticed, then he's ready to get in there in the fire on first and second and third downs. The kid has made some plays and he's done a good job and he will have an opportunity to get out there and show what he can do."
Defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley said coaches appreciate Toney's consistency and knowledge of Tennessee's new system in Sunseri's first year on Rocky Top calling plays.
"He knows where he fits in each defense. When you've got a guy you can count on who knows where he needs to be at all times, that kind of helps you out as far as the big picture," said Ansley, himself a former standout defensive back at Troy. "[Toney's special teams approach] just shows his maturity and his unselfishness. We throw him in there and tell him to do this, this and this and he goes out there and does it. He's a guy you can trust and he's a good football player."
Despite a wiry frame, Toney also has shown since high school he would not back down from thick situations. He has adopted that same mentality on defense.
"I want to say I'm physical in the slot, getting my hands on the receiver. Most receivers don't like that," he said. "I was a smaller guy, so I always had to show somebody that 'Hey, I ain't scared to get dirty with it sometimes.'"
Indeed, that approach already earned Toney the Vols' special teams player of the week honor after the Georgia game, and it could lead to an even greater role Saturday at Mississippi State.
NARROWING IT DOWN
From head coach Derek Dooley, who returned to Haslam Field Thursday for practice less than 48 hours removed from hip surgery, to Sunseri to the Vols' defensive players, talk has centered in recent weeks about the Tennessee defense's need to tight up its playbook, as well as its big-play tendencies.
Sunseri said his defense has improved in advance of Saturday's stiff test against the Bulldogs.
"I think this past week we got better. I think right now coming off (Wednesday's) practice I feel good about it," Sunseri said. "Those guys went out there and they practiced really, really well and executed some things extremely well. I'm excited and I think they're excited and they want to get out and play football on Saturday night."
Asked if he felt comfortable the defense had identified a base package to operate from moving forward, Sunseri replied with a simple, "Yes, yes."
Toney, like some other Vol defenders, said the players felt an ability to play faster after the work the past two weeks.
"We haven't been doing too much where it confuses people so much. They have made it where we can just go out there and play ball, and that's what it all comes down to," Toney said.