April 6, 2013

Jones hits ejection button in teaching moments

There was the time, Daniel Hood recalled with a tired laugh, that a teammate had been kicked out of a bowl practice.

But a fellow member of the defensive unit getting his helmet and shoulder pads taken away for after-the-whistle activities in a scrimmage, spring or otherwise?

Hood, a film-room junkie and leader on the Vols' defense, was at a loss Saturday inside Neyland Stadium.

"No. Not for something like that. I can remember back a long time ago when we were doing a bowl practice, where someone got ejected for trying to wear a sweatshirt under their pads," Hood said. "That was ole (Derek) Dooley [who ejected the transgressor]. That was the only time that I remember it before that."

The setting came when promising rookie linebacker Corey Vereen, a bit frustrated more than midway through the second of Tennessee's four scheduled spring intrasquad battles including the April 20 Orange & White game, went too far beyond the whistle. First-year coach Butch Jones, again seizing a teaching moment in his football classroom, pounced.

Bellowing into the microphone, Jones exclaimed "We're not doing that around here!" This came just seconds after Jones had told coaches to take Vereen's helmet and shoulder pads.

Jones explained the situation after the scrimmage.

"You know, everything is a teaching moment," said Jones, who helped host friends of the program and more than 150 faculty members during a pair of pre-scrimmage breakfasts. "Obviously with the rules changing in college football right now, the fighting rule and all that, one-game suspension, that was an opportunity to make a point to the entire football team.

"I know this about Corey Vereen: he's high character. He felt awful about it. Everything was his demeanor when I called him over there. He knew what he had done. He knew, and it was a great teaching point and I bet it never happens again. It was a great teaching point for the entire team."

There were many of them on this most picturesque day of the spring, the Vols' ninth official day of Camp Butch and an integral scrimmage from a progression standpoint. Coaches had vowed to be more hands-off on this day, but that hardly meant less teaching.

Instead, Jones again dropped in some unexpected sudden-change situations and pinned his first- and second-team offensive units down at their 2-yard lines. After the first team offense moved the ball to the 5-yard line on first down and ultimately picked up a first down to win the point, Jones paused to educate his team.

"The first play is key, because it impacts what will be done on special teams," Jones told the team at the time. "If you keep them at the 2 or 3, it changes their punt protections."

What's unwavering is the coaching staff's approach. Hood, among others, has picked up on this.

"The thing that we recognize the most about them is that they're authentic as to who they are and authentic as coaches. They're going to tell us what's wrong and all this, but we know at the same time they've got our back," Hood said. "Having that type of relationship with them, you know, helps us know how to take the coaching and to get better off of it."

Building a foundation and utilizing various themes in the process, be it "brick-by-brick" or his quest to establish a "championship caliber program," Jones explained that exhibitions like Saturday are equally important for players and coaches in the evolution of the program.

"Big. It is a culture, and it's an expectation," Jones said. "I said, and our margin of error with our football team is very slim. You all see it. We all know. Let's not hide between it. We know. We can be a good football team, but our margin of error is extremely small. It's very small. It's limited. So we can't have turnovers. We can't have penalties, and our players understand that.

"But every time out here is a teaching moment, and I'm going to say it and I'm going to continue to say it: our kids have been outstanding. They've been willing. They've been eager. They want more. They want to learn. Again, when you have that you can accomplish good things and get better. And I see that."

Junior quarterback Justin Worley praised both the on-field approach of Jones & Co. as well as the manner in which they've manifested improved team unity.

"Today was huge, working on situations and game situations like coming out from the 2 or overtime that you might not necessarily work on, day in and day out," said Worley, who fired a completion to Jason Croom for a point-winning first down backed up deep in one of those adverse setting. "(Saturday) was a good changeup for spring practice, and he's really got us buying in and focusing on what we need to do and work on."

Stalking the Shields-Watkins Field turf with a microphone seemingly glued to his hands, Jones didn't merely use it for explaining situational settings or curtailing post-snap activities. He didn't hesitate to call out players who committed penalties, either.

The goal, a mainstay since Jones' hiring Dec. 7, 2012, is promoting an atmosphere of responsibility.

"I like it because you have to be held accountable for everything you do," Hood said. "You can't get by with the little stuff. If you get by with it and he allows it then it's just going to become a habit. With him calling you or it out, then you know what you did wrong and to correct it right then. The whole team is held to the same standard."

And while other teams the Vols have been chasing have maintained a standard of consistency at the top, Hood readily admitted this Tennessee team must not eschew any opportunity for improvement.

"We do [recognize a thin margin for error]. We know that we didn't have the bowl game to get those extra 15 practices in. It's a new system. New expectations. New strength coach," Hood explained. "So, you know, if we're not completely bought in, how can we compete with someone like Alabama who's had the same coach for four or five years with two national championships?

"We know that the margin is so very small that we've got to attack each day. We can't stand to lose a day, we can't stand to lose a practice or have a bad practice. I think the whole team has bought into that."

It's as good a place to start as any.

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