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August 25, 2013Corey Miller doesn't want to hear it anymore.
Not about playmakers, nor about freshmen playing a key role in Tennessee's offense. The Volunteers senior isn't buying it.
"People ask me, 'You call them freshmen?' I don't call them freshmen," said Miller, in line to start at defensive end for UT in Saturday's season opener against visiting Austin Peay. "Marquez North isn't a freshman anymore. Those guys aren't freshmen anymore."
Whatever the skill position players on Tennessee's offense are labeled, they're going to be called upon with regularity as the Vols initiate the Butch Jones era. No UT quarterback on roster has started a college season-opener, and no wideout has been prominently featured in a collegiate offense.
Tailbacks Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane have played extensively, but neither was a focal point in previous Vols offenses.
"Man I've seen flashes from guys, especially like Marquez North. Devrin Young, those guys," senior center James Stone said. "We've seen some great things from our receivers as well as Rajion Neal. Actually all the backs, especially later on in camp, they've all shown improvement."
Where the Vols find dynamic offensive plays probably is their greatest question on that side of the ball. So Jones hasn't been shy about challenging the wide-ranging cast --- seniors, freshmen it makes no difference --- of potential playmakers.
"We have to have some individuals step up," said UT's first-year coach. "And I think they kind of look forward to see who's going to be called out a little bit. But it's all productive and it's a compliment in a way, because we're saying 'Hey we need you. Step up and lock in.'
"It's that mental effort, that mental intensity, that mental focus that is required on each and every snap. That's how you finish games, that's how you win games in the fourth quarter. That's how you go on the road and get road victories."
Sophomore Alton 'Pig' Howard is perhaps the Vols' most consistent threat at wide receiver, responding to coaches' challenges in spring to lose weight and become more accountable, reliable. Behind Howard, junior Devrin Young has caught the coaches' attention and true freshman North, a 2013 prep All-America pick, positioned himself to nab a starting spot.
"You want to be that go-to guy; you want to be somebody that the team and the coaches can depend on on Saturdays," said Young, the former All-State standout at nearby Bearden High School. "You take it to heart. You don't want to be on the sidelines come gamedays. I just listened to them."
Neal praised Jones' ability to challenge the Vols' offensive skill players and made clear the group has grown weary of their head coach's mental ploys.
"That we can make plays," Neal said players had proved in camp. "Coach Jones knows how to push our buttons; I swear every day he looks at me when he says we've got no playmakers. He knows how to push our buttons."
But Stone said Neal had hit all the right keys in a taxing camp that sought to establish players Tennessee might rely on this season.
"I've seen he's really more focused on blocking than he ever has been," Stone said of Neal. "All of our backs are just hitting holes and running with a hard edge."
Their first opportunity to prove as much comes in just six days.