Since spring camp, Tennessee's coaches have stressed the importance of special teams play and the difference that a successful performance this season in that aspect of the game could potentially bring.
Roughly one-third of their way through pre-season camp, the Vols seem to be embracing that notion and showing progress according to special teams coach Mark Elder.
"We feel our edge is going to be on special teams this year to win some ballgames for us," Elder told VolQuest.com. "We're getting all the details of that stuff worked out.
"Guys understand how important it is. Guys undertand that's one-third of the game. We're going to win or lose more ballgames this season based upon how we perform in that criteria. Guys see it, they know it and we're emphasizing it. I think that emphasis is showing and guys want to compete to be in that area. We're putting the best guys on special teams. So, it doesn't matter who it is. They're going to be out there if they can help us win ballgames. We're not saving anybody. As far as that stuff is concerned, we're putting an emphasis on it."
In some cases that means plenty of freshmen or first-year players are dotting the Vols' special teams' lineups. Just as secondary coach Willie Martinez made clear to VolQuest.com on Monday that he has no problem playing rookies, Elder also said special teams can be a quick avenue onto the field for freshmen.
"It's an opportunity to show what you've got. It's an opportunity for anybody to show what they've got," said Elder, who also coaches tight ends for the Vols and has proven an effective recruiter as well. "Freshmen get their opportunity to shine in that area, they're trying to get on that bus and make that travel roster. Get out there and show, hey, whether I'm playing 40 or 50 snaps on offense or defense, if I can go perform at a high level on special teams that's going to help the team."
What also can't be overstated, Elder explained, is the active role and example that first-year coach Butch Jones sets in emphasizing special teams play.
"What coach Jones emphasizes is going to be noticed by the coaches and by the players, absolutely," Elder said. "Coach Jones realizes how important special teams is for us to be successful and he emphasizes and that's a clear message to our guys."
COACH G SEES PROGRESS
Any team breaking in a new starter at quarterback would like to have a strong ground game to lean on, especially early in the season. Most observers would agree that the Vols have the offensive line to make that happen. What's less clear here in early August is whether or not the Vols have the horses in the backfield to hold up their end of the bargain.
Senior Rajion Neal is trying to make the case that he's capable of carrying the load for the offense this season and is off to a strong start in August.
His 98-yard touchdown run in Saturday night's scrimmage was a highlight, and served notice that his big play ability is more than just a rumor.
"I hadn't seen that, as a staff we hadn't seen it. We'd heard he had the ability to break long runs, heard he had the speed, but that was our first time seeing it as a staff. Obviously it was really good for his confidence and really good for us as an offense," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said of Neal's explosiveness.
"Rajion has been doing well. He has to get better in some areas with pass protection. He sometimes still gets his body in bad positions, overall though his attitude has been good. The competition has made him step up and be a better football player."
That competition Gillespie speaks of has mainly been provided by Marlin Lane to this point in camp.
Lane has responded well this August, after being disciplined during the spring and summer and restricted from participating in team activities. He's running a solid No. 2 behind Neal and pushing to get carries.
Gillespie notes that he's seen a different attitude from Lane since camp began.
"You can tell he's more appreciative of being here and being around his teammates. Slowly but surely he's becoming more vocal, trying to be a good leader, encouraging guys. I can just tell that he's excited to be back and he's been a really good teammate so far," Gillespie said of Lane.
Lane's return in good graces has been a positive, but the most pleasant surprise in the offensive backfield has probably been the play of Maryland transfer Justus Pickett.
While Pickett is still waiting word on an NCAA appeal to grant him immediate eligibility this fall he's already proven that he'll earn some playing time if he has the opportunity.
Specifically, Pickett looks like an excellent change-of-pace guy to Neal and Lane. Someone who's smaller, has some excellent lateral quickness and is a solid receiver out of the backfield.
It's in that last role where Pickett has been noticeably effective at times during camp.
"He's been a good addition from a lot of aspects, but really good for our meeting room. He's very mature, he understands it, he has a great attitude and he works hard. He's slowly, but surely starting to make all his teammates know who he is. That's always a big step, when the other guys on the team respect how he plays," Gillespie said of Pickett's early progress.
"He gives us a little bit of a dimension as a receiver. Obviously Rajion and Marlin are a little bit bigger. At his last school Justus was primarily a third-down guy, which tells you he was very solid in pass protection and that they threw the ball to him a lot. He's a good change-up guy to have."