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April 8, 2013

Vols' staff makes field their classroom

Mark Elder blitzed off the edge. Zach Azzanni helped a receiver examine the defense, while offensive quality control assistant Derrick Lett, a former wideout at Bowling Green, provided additional insight.

Don Mahoney already had been in an instructional stance with his offensive linemen.

And offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian? He donned an arm-pad, barked instructions and then smashed a Vols player as Tennessee worked through a practice in the middle portion of its first spring camp under new coach Butch Jones.

Now with just six practices, five of them true teaching opportunities and the annual Orange & White game on April 20, remaining in camp, Tennessee's coaches have emerged as very hands-on instructors.

The reason, Elder explained, is simple.

"That's who we are, we're teachers. Just our subject is football," Elder explained. "I think that every single coach that's here really envisions himself as a teacher, first and foremost, because that's what we're doing. We're teaching them the game of football, the game of life."

Added the self-effacing Bajakian, "We're teachers. That's coaching. Since way back when, when I recognized my future of playing football was limited, and I recognized that pretty early on, I knew I wanted to go into teaching and coaching. In many ways, we're in the field of education.

"I think so much of is what you do in the classroom. I think so much of coaching is what your guys are able to absorb. And your product is what you see on video. So we're going to make sure that we approach the game from a standpoint that we're going to focus on details and we're going to improve on details and we're going to coach every little thing that we need to improve upon."

Players see it throughout practice, without fail. Coaches coach on the field and in the meeting rooms; they teach in meeting rooms and on the field, as well.

"That is a big part of the scrimmage, getting into a game situation and also stopping to evaluate and teach, getting teaching out of it as well," sophomore tight end Brendan Downs said. "That is really important for us."

Repeatedly labeled on of the top position coaches in the nation by Jones, Azzanni explained the staff's philosophy for instant instruction as critical for players growing up as part of what some have labeled 'Generation Head Down' because they're constantly checking their iPhones and other personal devices.

"I think kids need immediate instruction; they need it right now," Azzanni said. "You know, kids these days go to the drive-thru and get their stuff right now. Press play on iPad, it's right there in their face. When they turn around i'm right in their face correcting so we don't go next the two hours of practice and do it five more times. I see the golf swing. Whatever I see, I've got to correct it right there before I get to the meeting and the rest of the stuff that I don't get to, we'll get to in the meeting."

Even players who aren't full-go in practices and scrimmages see the coaches finding ways to make everything teaching opportunities. Senior defensive lineman Maurice 'Mo' Couch, not cleared for full contact as he rehabs his shoulder following offseason surgery, took note of the manner in which Jones handled his temporary ejection Saturday of freshman defender Corey Vereen.

"As an older guy, it's our job to talk to the younger guys and let them know things are going to happen in a game that the referee doesn't see so you can't react like that," Couch said. "He got his head together and went back out there. He talked to coach and everything was fine."

Mahoney explained that the staff's on-field actions are a trickle-down effect from Jones' example and leadership.

"No," Mahoney said simply when asked if he had been around staff this devoted to teaching. "Being an offensive guy, (Jones) is in with us a lot, so we are held to the flame, so to speak, right away. We know really what is expected.

"It is how the players react to it and how we react to it that makes us better. We know that we see something that needs to be addressed and it is immediate."

It's part of taking the football field to the classroom, and the classroom to the football field. It's the way this staff approaches every day.


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