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August 21, 2014

Vols trying to tackle DL concerns



The notion made even a confident Danny O'Brien sigh. The redshirt sophomore with 12 career tackles in 12 career games will not only be the most experienced defensive tackle when the Vols take the field Sunday night Aug. 31st against Utah State, he might be the only defensive tackle who's ever played a snap on first down.

Senior Jordan Williams has played in the defensive interior but it's been as a pass-rush specialist in specific packages; any first-down work for Williams previously has been at end.

But even at that it's been a limited amount of work in the defensive tackle trenches.

"That's crazy. I wouldn't say it's scary. It's the most concerning,," O'Brien said of the lack of experience. "These guys haven't gotten out there in front of 100,000. I remember we were out there in the open practice and we were about to go out for the first team period. I looked over and Owen and he was just looking around at the orange. I said, 'Buddy this ain't nothing compared to what Sunday night's going to be like'. It's going to be loud and I think you have to grow up fast."

That's a step --- along with generating more depth --- that can only begin to be taken, defensive line coach Steve Stripling explained, once the Vols begin their season in 10 days.

"I think they are ready to play a game," Stripling said. "I think as a coaching staff we have 10 days. We are going to utilize those 10 days. Inside we are five right now. I would like to be a little deeper in there. Outside we are probably at six."

"Mike Sawyers is a typical freshman. He has along ways to go as far as understanding what college football is all about. The total commitment of taking care of your body, eating three meals a day, getting enough sleep, intensity everyday. He's a work in progress."

Yet despite the scary thought regarding the overall lack of experience, the cagey veterans of O'Brien and Williams remain confident in what the defensive tackles can get done.

"I have tremendous confidence in what we can do," O'Brien offered. "We have weak points too, but me, Owen (Williams), Jordan and (Trevarris) Saulsberry when he gets back and Dimarya Mixon we all have a different style of game and I think it bonds really well together. Jordan is a guy who can play both pass and run. He has the length. He can get up the field. He's longer and quick. Owen is like a little wrecking ball in there. He just shoots through the line and makes plays all over the place. Mixon is a real athletic kid. We just have to keep the weight on him, but he's real athletic. We all really play well together."

O'Brien also said it's not just the chemistry that's improved it's the knowledge. The continuity of having the same coach and the same system has been a huge benefit to a unit who now understands not just what they are supposed to do, but why they are being asked to do it.

"The work ethic is through the roof. The guys want to know everything," O'Brien said. "They want to be in the film room. They want to learn the defense. Not just what we are doing up front, but why the linebackers are making those calls. Why coach Jancek is giving us this call. Just really understanding the whole defense."

Williams, who has played linebacker and defensive end as well as tackle in his career, feels like it was a good fall camp for the defensive tackles. He thought they showed consistency and more athletic ability and with just over a week to go, the focus isn't as much on him and O'Brien as it is on getting the youth ready to help.

"We have done well. We have made a lot of strides. The most important thing that we didn't have last camp and last spring is consistency. We would have a good practice then come back and have a bad practice. A good practice then a bad practice, but we have had consistently good practices. We have made a lot of strides."

"Just getting younger guys ready," Williams said of what must be accomplished over the next week. "We don't have too many inside. Everyone is going to have to play. That's the biggest things. Mixon, Owen and definitely Sawyers. We have to get Sawyers right.

"As a whole, we are definitely a lot more athletic. A lot of movement. A lot of good hand techniques. We have definitely improved that. We are a little undersized, but we are moving around a lot and we have definitely been making plays in there."

SAFETY BATTLE CONTINUES

Brian Randolph is obviously the starter at one safety spot. Devaun Swafford has worked as the first-team safety opposite Randolph most all of fall camp. Martinez said that while Swafford is holding on, the battle there is clearly not over.

"Devaun has done a nice job," Martinez said. "We would like to see more consistency like Brian Randolph. I think there is still an open competition at the other safety position that Devaun is holding onto, which is really good for us. That's not to take anything away from Devaun. I think it's more of a push from the other guys whether it's LaDarrell (McNeil), Todd Kelly, Cortez (McDowell), or Evan (Berry). It's really a great competition going on. It's only going to make us better."

CONSISTENT AT CORNER

For the last four practices, Michael Williams has been working as the first-team cornerback opposite Cam Sutton and ahead of Emmanuel Moseley. Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez made it clear the competition for the starting spot was not over, but also stressed that Williams is making his case.

"He's been the most consistent out of all the corners besides Cam (Sutton) and Justin (Coleman)," Martinez said of Williams. "That's where he's been the third guy right now and that's why he is playing more."

STRIP FEELS GOOD ABOUT CURT

Though extremely limited the past two weeks with a high-ankle sprain, Curt Maggitt is not a player whom Stripling worries about being ready for Utah State --- though Stripling admits he's hoping to see more of Maggitt on the practice field.

"I always feel good about Curt because he is older, he's mature," Stripling said. "He's a great leader. He has all the qualities. I would like to see him get more practice, but we are still 10 days out. He's going to get more work."


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