April 17, 2013

Sudden change remains constant

The finish line in sight and his team's final full-scale practice of spring midway completed, Butch Jones barked orders on Haslam Field to unveil a new punt block/return drill Wednesday morning.

Sudden change, it seems, doesn't suddenly stop because the Vols will wrap up Jones' first camp with Saturday's Orange & White game inside Neyland Stadium (2 p.m., free admission).

"We did do a new special teams drill. We wanted to get it on film and evaluate it going into training camp. But again, it's constant never-ending improvement," Jones said. "Coach Z (Zach Azzanni) had done that drill in some other spots, and we wanted to play it.

"I think they're going to see a football team that, it's not clichés, they're going to give their all for Tennessee." - Butch Jones

"I liked it, and you'll see that: everything is about putting your players in positions to win and develop."

Development has been at the forefront of the coaches' spring goals, and Jones made clear in his comments Wednesday that the emphasis won't end with the final spring session. So wideout/return man Devrin Young wasn't too surprised with the all-new drill or staff's continuing to push the unexpected elements of the game.

"You learn just to be a part of the sudden-change thing," said Young, the Knoxville product who was thrust into the middle of the new work. "Like I said, coach Jones likes to throw curveballs at you and the best thing to do is just respond to it. Not get uncomfortable or freaked out and just play ball."

The Vols have encountered plenty of adversity this spring, both from the coaches' machinations and from the haphazard nature of the game. If it hasn't been change shifting unprompted into goal-line, game-winning situations to test his team's mettle, there have been players injured or absent.

"Our guys can really handle some adversity because they do a really good job of throwing a whole bunch of curveballs at us as far as our workouts and practice," senior tailback Rajion Neal, who's carried more of a load with Marlin Lane indefinitely suspended, said. "There's so much stuff he can throw at us it's not even funny. We could be in a live team period and he can blow the whistle and we are one-on-one fighting someone [to win a drill-. It's kind of fun because it's out of left field. You come to practice not knowing what is going to happen and kind of excited to see how the day is going to end."

Neal and other players said that comfort in being uncomfortable should pay dividends during the season.

"Yes, because it will happen in a game. I'm not going to lie, when things don't go the way we planned it and scripted it, everyone starts looking crazy," Neal said. "But if it's happening every day then it's something that you will eventually get used to."

Added senior right tackle Ja'Wuan James, "I feel like what we have is effort. That's what coach Jones' main point has been all spring. The offensive coordinator (Mike Bajakian) tells us if we play with two things, effort and for each other, then we will be fine. I feel like I have seen everyone's effort increase a lot. That's been the biggest emphasis."

Jones, too, has embraced his inaugural Tennessee team's effort if not its production. Jones said he's learned some of what he wanted to see in the Vols' first spring camp under his tutelage, but he reserved full judgment until the weekend.

"Great question. I still need two more opportunities. I think they're willing. I think they're trying to give everything they have," Jones said. "I think we need to continue to demand more from ourselves. Our leadership needs to continue to demand more. But I like this team, and I really do believe, I've said it, our margin of error is very, very small. But you know what? I really think our fans are going to like this football team. I think they're going to see a football team that, it's not clichés, they're going to give their all for Tennessee.

"And that's something that we're working on. I enjoy coaching these players. They're coming in and they want more and they want to know how they can improve. When you do that, you're going to continue to get better."

Jones urged his team's leadership to continue to evolve moving into the summer, again stressing the success of the offseason would hinge on this being a "player-led" squad, and he challenged all players to improve.

Young said the approach of Jones and his staff, as well as their conversations with some of Jones' former players at Cincinnati, let the Vols know they simply needed to embrace the system.

"(Coach Jones') whole thing is just giving effort, and when you give effort, good things happen," Young said. "The thing you learn real fast with coach Jones is that when you think he's not watching, that's when he's watching the most. I'm not going to lie. There have been a few times I feel like I've gotten away with my hands on my hips and boom, somebody is saying something. He's got that eye in the sky on point. It forces you to stay on top of your game, and it just shows you how much coach Jones cares. …

"The sooner that we buy into their way, the better we're going to be off. We've got friends from Cincinnati, and they 'Just say buy in.' When they tell you to buy in, there's nothing else you can say."

Except, perhaps, that sudden change remains a constant theme for the Vols moving forward.

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