Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was looking for a lot of things Saturday night during the open practice, but specifically three key things: One, improved communication, alignment and assignments from his defense; two, a quest for some consistency with his specialists in the kicking game; and three, a reduction in mental penalties.
Jones left Neyland Stadium feeling a little better about all three areas, but quickly noted there's work still to be done.
"We are getting better," Jones said of his defense. "We didn't do much live tackling (Saturday night) so it's hard to gauge in terms of missed tackles. The thing we have to do is when we are in a thud or a tag-off situation, them understanding the fine details of what a thud is and what a tag-off is. We call it practice etiquette, and we have struggled with that. Young teams struggle with that. It's staying up off the ground practicing like an NFL team does. But you have to be athletic to stay off the ground. It's bending your knees. Putting yourself in a tackling position. Some players are ahead of others. We are still a work in progress. The other thing lost tonight is that this was a two-a-day. We were practicing at 9 this morning and we had an intense practice. For these individuals to have that type of intensity this morning and to come out of here and have these game like conditions as well. I was proud of those guys."
Offered senior leader A.J. Johnson, "It was a good bounce-back. We played a little better. Played a little harder and made more plays as a defense."
Freshman Dillon Bates said it was important for the defense to settle down from Wednesday's difficulties and credited the defense's work in the meeting rooms as a big part of the improved play Saturday night.
"It was just little things that we were working on. We might have mixed up a few things. By watching the film and getting it corrected in the classroom, we were able to take it to the field and put it to work, especially in front of these thousands of people," Bates said. "You have to really dial it in. We got things corrected. We were really flying around and really making plays.
"It was a lot better. Everyone is getting used to playing in this system. Everybody is getting those game like reps, getting a little more comfortable getting lined up and not having those game day jitters."
Sophomore Cam Sutton said he saw a defense who responded to his challenge to them this week.
"The guys that came out did a great job with the noise and atmosphere," Sutton said. "Just getting them accustomed to playing in a louder environment than they are used to playing in during high school. During the week, I kind of preached to them to not let it overwhelm them take it one play at a time."
The defense show some improvements and Tennessee's penalty numbers were down Saturday compared to Wednesday but were still not where Jones wants him, a stance he made clear after Saturday's workout.
"It's jumping off-sides, which we did (Saturday night). It's procedure penalties, which we had. Our team knows our margin for error is really small," Jones said. "We can't hurt ourselves. We can't be a team that hurts ourselves and beats ourselves. I thought we did some better things (Saturday), but it's not where we need to be in terms of the overall discipline in terms of penalties."
The reviews on the kickers were mixed. At times punter Matt Darr boomed the ball. Other times, he didn't turn it over. The place-kickers started well with Aaron Medley only missing one kick going into the north end zone and George Bullock missed two. When the kickers went into the south end zone, all three kickers missed multiple times from 51 yards.
"A level of consistency," Jones said of what he wants of his kickers. "We put them in some challenging situations kicking 51 yard field goals is a challenge in itself. We just want consistency. They are continuing to get better and better. It was invaluable tonight for them to come in here and kick in front of a great crowd. You can't simulate that in practice. So that was great for us. It will be a great evaluation for us and it's one of those competitions that will go right down till game day.
"They have great leg strength. It's confidence and going out there and making the kick. That comes from maturity and we don't have time for maturity. The clock is ticking right now. They will be ok and we will practice that a number of times."
All in all, Jones got what he was looking for overall from his team tonight and acknowledged that early next week, he and the coaches will hone in on a starting line-up on both sides of the ball.
"Tonight will serve as a great evaluation tool for us then moving forward into next week, we will conclude practice tomorrow and then on Monday we will start working on our starters and guys who we feel will be out there when we take the field against Utah State," Jones offered.
GAULDEN SHOWS UP
Typically it's Jones who is doing the challenging, but he had the tables turned on him earlier this week when freshman Rashaan Gaulden ask his head coach for a favor. The favor? Be harder on him. Gaulden admitted to his head coach that he must get mentally tougher. Saturday night Gaulden as healthy as he has been, had his best night in the defensive backfield.
"Rashaan Gaulden is an individual who about the last three or four practices has really picked it up," Jones said. "Again, he's one of those individuals that I spoke about where the game is finally starting to slow down for him. He has great instincts. He's very, very competitive and very, very tough. We see him starting to make more and more plays not just on defense but also in the special teams game as well."
Gaulden's teammates took notice as well. Sutton said he has been seeing Gaulden make big strides the last week.
"He had that minor setback with the injury but he's doing very well. He's coming to me and the rest of the leaders in the secondary, he's staying in the books and getting ready to play," Sutton said.
Veteran Brian Randolph has been impressed as well.
"Rashaan Gaulden did really good in the one-on-ones," Randolph said. "He got him a pick. He came out with passion tonight and he is starting to eliminate the missed assignments. The (injury) set him back but he has bounced back in the last week."