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September 24, 2013

Brice's Off the Beaten Path

It's the sixth year of "Off the Beaten Path," and six is the number of tackles for losses Tennessee's defense recorded Saturday at Florida, a game which also saw the Vols and Gators combine for six punts.

And speaking of six, there were at least that many former Vols -- more actually --- playing during the Monday Night Football broadcast: Peyton Manning, Michael Rivera, Denarius Moore, Malik Jackson, Robert Ayers, Britton Colquitt and Kevin Burnett. Alas, lest he be cheated, make that seven: Jim Bob Cooter also got some MNF love.

Also, South Alabama has six starters on each side of the ball who are Yellowhammer State natives.

Justin Worley, who has six career starts at quarterback for the Vols, has thrown for six touchdowns this season. And speaking of six, the Vols have three defensive backs --- Justin Coleman, Cam Sutton and now Devaun Swafford --- with pick-six interceptions this season. Now, it's on to the Path.

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There was a collective groan in pre-season camp when, on the same day, both Jacques Smith and Corey Vereen suffered injuries that would cause the pair of Tennessee defensive ends to miss portions of the 2013 season.

Smith had emerged as a much more consistent player who would definitely contribute to the Vols' defensive front. And the freshman Vereen?

Well now from seven short plays at Florida it's easier to understand why first-year Tennessee coach Butch Jones had called Vereen his most explosive playmaker off the defensive edge. Vereen had an undeniable impact in his first collegiate game during the Vols' 31-17 loss at Florida, though Vereen wasn't technically credited with any statistics.

"They were a very productive 7 snaps; just having (Vereen) back on the field gave us another edge presence," Jones said. "You could see the difference on the get-off, he impacted the quarterback on a number of plays. We anticipate, obviously with his health, he'll play more plays this Saturday as he continues to progress."

Jones said in his post-game press conference at The Swamp that Vereen would be the type of player around which the Vols would rebuild; that he wanted more players like Vereen in his program. Jones reiterated that notion and further explained why during his Monday press conference.

"Just his whole mindset is what we want here. You know his preparation --- the kids laugh --- he stretches for an hour a day. All you have to do is tell him one thing. If I say, "'Hydrate, here is a gallon of water,' he'll go drink two gallons of water. He is hungry for greatness. He has that inner drive that the special players have. He's always in watching extra film. There are a couple days I'm going home and I look out in the indoor and there's a guy running sprints and it's Corey Vereen.

"It's important to him. He's a good student, he does everything that we ask of him. I'm excited and it's a complement to our training staff, to our doctors, and to him that he's back at this point in time after going through knee surgery and again that's his work ethic, that's his mentality." Senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls has seen similar actions from Vereen.

"I think just him just having his time that he was out, just sitting around and watching, I saw him in the film room all the time and he was always asking questions like he was going out there [to play]," Walls said. "And I think that helped him. Just being able to ask questions and watch the film and see what was going on, and I could see it starting to help him over there. Like I said, we can always use another pass rusher. He's by far the most explosive guy on the defensive line, so it's exciting to see that guy make plays."

Both Jones and Walls said the importance of Tennessee football to Vereen, who's become something of an Internet hit with his guitar version of 'Rocky Top' and highlight-reel slam of an unfortunate offensive lineman, remains obvious.

"Oh man, Vereen's been like that since Day 1. When I see him in the game it's a confidence-boost and I don't see any letdown because I know that guy does his homework. He's studying and Tennessee football is very important to him," Walls said. "Defensive line play is very important to him. When he's out there, I know he's going to get the job done."

COACH Z'S LABORATORY: Zach Azzanni was headed to the practice field on a recent afternoon when inspiration struck.

Disappointed that his players weren't doing a better job of fighting through defensive backs in some jump-ball situations, Tennessee's first-year wide receivers coach concocted a grueling new drill for his position group. A football sled-dummy was moved several yards onto the Haslam Field turf, and Vols wide receivers were made to stand behind the device, catch passes over its rubber-padded shoulders and deal with their teammates who waved their arms and basically did everything except physically interfere with the pass-catchers.

"I came up with that one last Monday. Remember in the Western Kentucky game when Marquez (North) didn't attack that ball in the air? (Some guys) just don't go out and get it yet. So I was jogging out here one day and I was like, you know what, I changed it up on them one day just to get it," said Azzanni, the Vols' recruiting coordinator who's coached in myriad big games at both Florida and Wisconsin. "We don't have the best ball skills yet, so I'm trying to develop some ball skills. So I just make 'em up, man. What can help us? What can translate Saturdays to the games?"

Translating practice field repetitions into gameday production is arguably the biggest challenge Azzanni faces this season and can remember facing in his coaching career. Tennessee's starting wideouts consist of two true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a sophomore who didn't play a full 2012 season because of injury.

Experience is short; the challenge is long.

"I would say no," said Azzanni when asked if this situation compared to any other in his previous 14 years coaching. "Western Kentucky (2011) was tough because we were changing the culture, but I came in on coach (Willie) Taggert's second year, so it was starting to change. But we're doing everything. It's a total rehaul of changing the culture with coach (Butch) Jones' brand. Players that have no idea about our expectations. Starting two true freshmen in the SEC. And the injuries at the slot position. Yeah, it's been difficult.

"But it's like (UT defensive coordinator John) Jancek always says, 'Dig, dig little pig.' Just gotta keep going, man. And just keep pressing. No one feels sorry for us. No one cares. We get that. And at places like Tennessee, places like Florida, places like Wisconsin, they expect a national championship every year. And they don't spend those 17-hour days locked in that room trying to figure out how to get a first down with guys who were probably fourth-stringers and now have to play because of injuries and things like that. We're just plugging along and seeing what we can do."

Azzanni isn't afraid to prod his players in order to expedite that plugging process. Though he doesn't possess the head coach's microphone, Azzanni does flash an edgy approach in teaching his wideouts.

"Well, he's sincere. He truly cares about his guys in every aspect of their lives. Not just on the field and executing the offense. That's some of the stuff that you don't see, even out on the practice field," UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. "You don't see when he enters a meeting and he's talking about academics and handling adversity. All those other things that come into being a college-age student-athlete. He addresses that on a daily basis and those guys appreciate that."

So, too, does Jones. He routinely praises Azzanni as the "best wide receivers coach in the country." Bajakian concurs.

"Improvement and development. We talk a lot about developing our players; our guys have been thrown into the fire. And I truly believe there's no guy better in the country at developing young football players," Bajakian said. "Developing young receivers. He challenges, yet at the same time he loves them. And they understand that. They know he can coach them hard because they understand he has their best interest in mind. And he wants to make them the best players they can be. And make them the best men they can be."

Azzanni also insists he's committed to helping Tennessee. So much so, in fact, that the former Central Michigan player admits he coaches even when he isn't conscious. Such is the life of a first-year coach on a new staff with all-new starters on the perimeter, injuries mounting in the wide receivers corps and a schedule as challenging as any in the nation.

"I think coach Jones knows there's no one tougher on me than me, probably to a fault. He constantly pushes me, and I constantly am trying to respond," Azzanni said. "He never has to get on me, because he understands that there's no one more frustrated walking off the practice field if his guys don't perform than me. That's why I find new ways to motivate them. I'm never going to be the guy that gets called out for anything. I told him I want to be the best. And if you don't like wake up and want to be the best receiver coach, slot, outside guy in the country, I don't know what you're doing. I'm just not wired that way.

"I'll go home at night, and my wife said (recently during) three nights 'What's wrong with you?' I said 'What do you mean?' [She said], 'You're not sleeping. You toss and turn. You're coaching in your sleep.' She said 'You were doing some drill the other day and you were dropping cuss-words like crazy, sleeping.' I'm like 'Oh my gosh. What has my life come to?' but that's how I'm wired. I live it every day."

JONES, SENIORS MEET: Wanting to help his team flush back-to-back road losses and focus on moving forward, Jones made plans to meet with his seniors before returning to the practice field this week for South Alabama preparations.

The move was well received in advance of the meeting by seniors Marlon Walls and Ja'Wuan James, two players who have emerged as central leaders for the Vols.

"The meeting (was Monday). I'm pretty sure it's just going to be one of those speeches, 'Don't leave your season in Gainesville, Florida.' We cannot let this loss affect us to where we shut down and we're not playing the way we're supposed to play," Walls explained. "Just getting the seniors and the leaders to come out and push the tempo (Tuesday). It's going to be pretty dead because guys are still feeling down; it's our job to get everybody refocused and get ready for this South Alabama game."

Added James, "I feel like it's really important [to set the tone with that meeting]. Coach Jones does a good job of involving us seniors a lot. A lot of new coaches, you know, they focus on their younger guys. Guys who are going to be here for a while. But he does a good job of giving the seniors a voice and helping us out and trying to give us what we need to be successful."

PICK UP THE PACE: Asked on Monday if his offense was remotely approaching the pace at which he expects to play, Butch Jones didn't hesitate to say no. In fact, the Vols' first-year coach made clear his team's offense isn't close to that pace.

The numbers bear out Jones' statement. After snapping 73 offensive plays against dreadful Austin Peay, the Vols have averaged just less than 63 offensive plays per game against Football Bowls Subdivision foes. The number hit its lowest point of the young season in Saturday's loss at Florida, when UT managed just 57 snaps.

And that contest continued another trend that flies counter to Jones' system: foes are getting more offensive plays. Tennessee's last three opponents have averaged 74 offensive plays per game, with both Oregon and Florida tallying 76 snaps apiece in their wins over the Vols.

A year ago as his Cincinnati squad was firing out to a 4-0 start, the Bearcats easily did more offensive work than their foes --- with the exception of their season-opening win against Pittsburgh. The Panthers had 79 offensive snaps to Cincy's 59 in that game.

The Bearcats responded with a trio of strong efforts: 76, 75 and 73 snaps in their following three contests. They averaged almost nine offensive plays more per game than opponents during that three-game stretch.

JOEY ON THE SPOT: South Alabama coach Joey Jones, a former Alabama Crimson Tide standout, spoke highly of the Vols and Butch Jones on Monday:

"They lose by 14 points to one of the top 20 teams in the country last week, a lot of teams are going to lose by 14 points to a team like that, or by more. They have a real good football team, I've been impressed with their coaching. I watch film, I understand the guys are teaching technique, they are very well-coached in all phases.

"It's going to be a great challenge for us, but one our kids are looking forward to." USA linebacker Clifton Crews called the Jaguars' impending trip to Knoxville a prime opportunity.

"Florida's defensive line got after (the Vols') offensive line pretty good. Tennessee turned the ball over a lot, but this is another SEC game. I think we can capitalize if we can rattle them and get them on their heels."

Brice's SEC Power Rankings Week 5
1. ALABAMA (3-0, 1-0): The Crimson Tide had just 66 net rushing yards against Colorado State and punted a pretty large five times before pulling away to a 31-6 win. 'Bama snapped just 48 plays and also lost the time of possession battle. Sure, it's nitpicking but we've been conditioned to see the Tide as virtually flawless. Now we see more why Nick Saban continues to stew. (This week: vs. OLE MISS, 6:30 p.m., ESPN; UP NEXT: vs. GEORGIA STATE, 12:21 p.m., SEC TV)
2. LSU (4-0, 1-0): This long has been the scary proposition for the Tigs; what would happen if they had an offense to match --- maybe in this case exceed --- their defense. LSU ranks third in scoring offense and fifth in scoring defense. It's a Seinfeldian, Bizarro World scenario. Jeremy Hill nabbed SEC POTW honors Monday for his 184-yard, three-touchdown performance. And somewhere TCU coach Gary Patterson shakes his head. (This week: at Georgia, 3:30 p.m., CBS; UP NEXT: at MISS. STATE, TBA)
3. GEORGIA (2-1): Uga didn't exactly come roaring out against North Texas; the Dogs and Mean Green were knotted at 21s in the third quarter, before Georgia scored the game's final 24 points. And that was on the heels of an open date. Tennessee must hope there's precedent in its past to upset Georgia in its immediate future; the Dogs beat a highly touted LSU squad in 2004 and then lost to the Vols the ensuing week. UT's schedule is brutal, but Georgia's isn't far behind at all. (This week: vs. LSU, 3:30 p.m., CBS; UP NEXT: at TENNESSEE, TBD)
4. TEXAS A&M (3-1, 0-1): So Floyd 'Money' Mayweather bet 200 grand on TAMU but specifically referenced Johnny Inc. in tweeting about it? Do both Manziel and Kevin Sumlin head to the NFL after this season? Or if Texas can't get its top choice should it replace Mack Brown, would the Horns dare target Sumlin? (This week: at Arkansas, 7 p.m., ESPN2; UP NEXT: OPEN)
5. SOUTH CAROLINA (2-1, 1-1): Instead of Austin Peay, Steve Spurrier saw his team get the week off. So Spurrier said he might check out the beach. He's no doubt seen that his next foe, Central Florida, owns a win this year against Penn State. Too bad UConn didn't hang on against Michigan, if only so that UCF and the Huskies could've played in the Big 12 championship, right? I kind of want to poke fun at Plucky playing at UCF, similar to Mizzou playing at Indiana, but I think the Gamecocks' trip to Orlando is a good recruiting tool and should be a win against a salty team. (This week: at UCF; 12 p.m., ABC; UP NEXT: vs. KENTUCKY)
6. OLE MISS (3-0, 1-0): I'm beginning to think the Rebels are in many ways the SEC's version of Oregon. Extremely impressed by the Imperial Black Bears' team speed, particularly in key spots on offense and defense. Jeff Scott had 243 all-purpose yards at Texas, including a 73-yard punt return for six that transformed the game into a blowout and helped Scott nab SEC special teams honors on Monday. (This week: OPEN; UP NEXT: at ALABAMA, 6:30 p.m., ESPN)
7. FLORIDA (2-1, 1-0): If Florida had met its red-zone average against Tennessee, what might have been? The Gators entered scoring on only 50 percent of their red zone trips but were highly effective against the Vols. Still, this is pedestrian Florida offense and the defense features lots of ballers --- many of them who will be playing pro ball next year. (This week: at KENTUCKY, 7 p.m., ESPN2; UP NEXT: vs. ARKANSAS, TBD)
8. TENNESSEE (2-2, 0-1): Good move by Butch Jones openly and unsolicited seeking the help of UT's students. Everyone knows attendance this week is going to be bad, and don't let anyone act as though only UT is struggling. We talked in the press box about the poor crowd at Florida; lots of empty seats and cheap tickets on the street pre-game. If Jones wins, he'll get the fans back --- particularly the students. Because that will mean less early kickoffs and more primetime affairs. (This week: vs. SOUTH ALABAMA, 12:21 p.m., SEC TV; UP NEXT: vs. GEORGIA, 3:30 or 7 p.m.)
9. AUBURN (3-1, 1-1): I didn't think Aubie could get to 21 points at LSU, in the battle of former Georgia Bulldogs playing for other SEC teams. The Tigers are eighth in scoring defense and ninth in scoring offense; I still think they'll win a game they "aren't supposed to win." (This week: OPEN; UP NEXT: vs. OLE MISS, TBD)
10. VANDERBILT (2-2, 0-2): The 'Dores scored a touchdown roughly 10.5 minutes into the game against Umass and then didn't strike for another touchdown for more than 35 minutes of game clock. That's a Umass team that had allowed 37 and 45 points against its other FBS foes this season and ranked 114th in the NCAA's total team defense rankings allowing almost 500 yards' offense per game. (This week: vs. UAB, 7:30 p.m., FSN; UP NEXT: vs. MISSOURI)
11. MISSOURI (3-0): The Tigers might have the worst non-conference schedule outside of Vandy this year in the SEC, but they have taken care of the business before them. They eviscerated an Indiana program that was tabbed an up-and-comer in the Big Ten this season. Mizzou has slick new helmets and should be 4-0 before initiating its eight-game SEC gauntlet after hosting Arky State next. (This week: vs. ARKANSAS ST., 7:30 p.m., CSS; UP NEXT: at VANDERBILT)
12. MISSISSIPPI STATE (2-2): Guess the 'White Out' against Troy worked; the Bulldogs trampled their guests 62-7 --- and to the credit of cow bell musicians all over, MSU had a slightly bigger crowd for Troy than in its opener against Murray State. I know the money is good, but Troy: that's 117 points allowed in the Trojans' past two games against SEC foes. Remember that overtime epic last fall in Neyland Stadium? (This week: OPEN; UP NEXT: vs. LSU)
13. ARKANSAS (3-1): Bad come-from-ahead loss for the Pigs, road-trip or not. Rutgers had struggled to put away Eastern Michigan; in fact, the Scarlet Knights scored the same amount against both EMU and Arky. Team Pig had less than 300 yards' offense against a Rutgers team that allowed EMU 383 and Fresno, in overtime, 537. Just sayin: there's more than one disjointed offense in the SEC. (This week: vs. TAMU, 7:30 p.m. ESPN2; UP NEXT: at FLORIDA, TBD)
14. KENTUCKY (1-2): I was too conservative in this space a week ago, saying the Cats had a week off before resuming their losing stretch. It will go to five-straight losses when it's all done. Who sees Kentucky winning against Florida, South Carolina, 'Bama or Mississippi State after last losing to Louisville? Who sees the Kits losing many of those games closer than the respective spreads each week? Gators are favored by 13.5 this week. Anyone? (This week: OPEN; UP NEXT: vs. FLORIDA, 7 p.m., ESPN2)


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