Tennessee didn't name a starting quarterback Monday night following the Vols' final practice before fall semester classes open this week, but a number of position battles began to clear up.
First-year head coach Butch Jones said on The Nation radio Aug. 11 that he was going to have a freshman starting at cornerback. Jones went on to say last week that he expects to play 13-17 freshmen this fall.
Pencil in freshman Cameron Sutton at the cornerback spot opposite Justin Coleman, according to defensive coordinator John Jancek.
"We got Cameron Sutton, who is a true freshman, who is going to be in there," Jancek said. "I'm real pleased with how he has progressed. He still makes freshman mistakes. But he doesn't get rattled and has really responded in the right way.
"I think we have our base, we have our sub-packages. We feel pretty good about the guys right now who are out there getting the reps. It's always on-going. We always want competition, so hopefully some of those guys getting second team reps will push and challenge for the starting spots making everyone better, everyday."
Included in that base 4-3 defense is sophomore LaDarrell McNeil over senior Byron Moore at safety and Brent Brewer at the SAM linebacker position.
"I'm going to be honest with you when we left spring I wasn't really sure (about Brewer) because we moved him from safety," Jancek said of the senior. "This spring we were really concerned about where he was going to fit in at linebacker, but he has done a great job. He has really worked hard. I'm really proud of Brent.
"He's more physical and his keys have really improved. His reads are better and he's just got more of an overall comfort level playing linebacker."
While Jancek is set with his lineup, he's not comfortable with where he is at up front in one key area. A familiar theme for the Vol defense: getting to the quarterback.
"Up front we really got to get better with our pass rush," Jancek said. "McCullers is a big body inside, but he's got to give us more on third down and be more of a three down tackle instead of a first and second down guy. We have to continue to rotate guys in there and bring them along.
"I think our personnel right now is probably geared a little more towards stopping the run with our body types we have right now. The loss of Jacques (Smith) and Corey (Vereen) you just saw the drop off in the edge presence. We just don't have that surge. You are not always going to get a sack, but you want to impact the quarterback by making him move his feet and having to relocate. Or forcing a bad throw. We just don't have that right now."
Offensively, Zach Azzanni praised slot receivers Alton 'Pig' Howard and Devrin Young as guys who had been productive this camp, but Azzanni noted he hoped to foster competition at the wide receiver spots week by week.
Azzanni also praised the growth and coachable nature of freshman wideout Marquez North, who was not deemed a starter but has consistently worked with the Vols' first-team offense across the past two weeks of camp.
"I've challenged him; he's a big receiver and he needs to play like a big receiver," Azzanni said. "He's a very coachable young man. He's a very prideful young man. That's why he'll be a good player here.
"I can't tell you when it's going to happen, when the light will flash on finally. It's different for everybody. But he's willing. I love guys like that. I'm recruiting guys like that. Guys that want to jump out there first in line; that's what we're trying to build here with our whole team. I love it. And that's why (North) will get better. He's not hiding. He's right out there. He wants to be the guy. He knows what he's got to work on. He's got a long way to go, because he's a young pup. But he's getting better."
Junior Justin Worley has consistently taken many first-team reps at quarterback and has appeared in line to formally claim the starting job. But Worley has been pressed particularly in recent weeks by freshmen Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs. Nathan Peterman, the redshirt freshman from Florida, remains in the mix as well.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian reaffirmed that little has seemed to faze the two newcomers.
"They don't get flustered very easily, that's for sure," Bajakian said of Dobbs and Ferguson.
Bajakian also noted that the Vols' penchant for allowing those two rookie signal-callers to be "live" for the defense at times during practices was to help both sides of the ball grow.
"It has multiple purposes. Number one, is again to add a little more pressure to them. To put them in a game-type situation," Bajakian explained. "Frankly, another part is for the benefit of our defense. We want our defensive front and any blitzing secondary members or linebackers to get a feel for finishing the pressure and finishing the blitz. So I think that it's not just to add the pressure on the quarterback but to also help out those guys."
While Bajakian said this coaching staff has gone until the day before a game to name its starting quarterback, Azzanni said the revolving-door situation at receiver probably hadn't helped the quarterbacks much.
"I'd probably say it's the other way around [than the quarterback battle impeding receiver development]; we've kind of hampered them being so young, honest to God," Azzanni said. "It's going to be nice to find a consistent group of guys and when coach finally names a starting quarterback, yeah, I think we can get in more of rhythm there. But I think we've probably held them back more than they've held us back.
"It will still be a work in progress all season on who those guys are going to be with that guy (at quarterback)."
Bajakian, as did most assistant coaches, made clear that any major personnel announcements would come from the head coach, but the veteran offensive coordinator did praise his unit's approach to pre-season camp.
"It's been productive, obviously very productive," Bajakian said. "Some guys have had to grow up very quickly. We've had our peaks and valleys, which is understandable over the rigors of camp. But overall I like the approach the guys have taken. We've had to kind of smack them on the butt a few times to get them going, but overall they've come to work every day and we're happy about that."
WAIT GAME CONTINUES
Junior linebacker Curt Maggitt continues his return from a torn ACL. Maggitt has done more this week, including more 11-on-11 work and he did so extensively at times on Monday night. However, Jancek said, the SAM linebacker isn't close to being ready to play.
"I'm not counting on Curt in the first game," Jancek said. "He is getting more and more reps. But he's nowhere near full-speed so I'm not counting on him.
"I will play him as soon as he's ready to go. I think everyone has to be patient. There are good days and bad days. It's hit and miss depending on the volume the day before it can flare things up. We are just going day to day."
COACHES STAYING CAUTIOUS WITH LANE
With a history of injuries during his prep career that's followed him to Tennessee coaches are being extra careful with Marlin Lane this fall and working to make sure he doesn't sustain more injuries just a week before Austin Peay preparations begin.
Monday night, Lane was in 'The Black Hole,' on the sideline sitting out drills as the coaches continue to take precautions with the junior running back. But those precautions are also costing him valuable game reps and the coaches are hoping to have him ready to go beginning next week.
"We just have to be smart. Coach (Butch) Jones always tells us as position coaches to manage our group and we meet daily and talk and we talk individually and it was just a decision right now that we want to rest him a little bit," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "He's further behind from a practice standpoint. Some of those other guys have busted through the wall, but I think he's busted through that wall a little bit. We just want him to rest and also get some reps in there with Alden Hill and Tom (Smith)."
SMITH EARNING CHANCES
While Tom Smith has had trouble breaking into the lineup his first two years at Tennessee, this fall camp has given a healthy Smith a new chance. The Florida running back is taking advantage of it, Robert Gillespie said.
"He's stayed healthy. That's the main thing for a running back. The longer you stay healthy you're going to get those opportunities and right now he's done a good job," Gillespie said. "This spring he was a little banged up and he wasn't able to get those reps. But so far this fall camp he's been healthy and he's shown us we can give him the football. The past is behind us and hopefully he can be a guy who can come out and make some plays because we need him to this fall.
"The first thing I said on Day One was, 'I'm not worried about the past, I'm not watching old film. I don't want to hear anyone else's opinion, I want to form my own opinion. I think that's one of the things that made him perk up and a lot of the other guys in the locker room. With that being said he's just really bought in to what we're telling him to do. I was disappointed this spring because he didn't get a lot of reps because he was banged up."