We talked to seven on-field assistants and one strength coach today. Two assistants — receivers coach Zach Azzanni and assistant head coach/defensive line coach Steve Stripling — are preparing for bowl games.
That’s a lot to sift through, and some of the coaches’ answers will find there way into stories in the next week or so. For now, here’s a roundup of the most interesting notes and quotes from today’s media session.
Defensive coordinator John Jancek
* Jancek said Tommy Thigpen would coach linebackers, while he would be a “walk-around,” coordinator, meaning he works without different position groupings throughout practice while supervising the entire defense. Willie Martinez, originally identified as safeties coach, will handle the entire secondary.
* Is the personnel here a good fit for the 4-3? “I know that we’ve got some work to do. It’s exciting. We’re going to roll up our sleeves.”
* Where does Daniel McCullers, who was recruited with the idea of being a nose guard in a 3-4 front, fit into all of this?
“When you have a guy that big, he’s got to help you do something,” Jancek said. “It’s about getting production. This is a results-oriented business.”
* Jancek on his style: “If I could have my perfect style. I would want to describe it as a defense that plays with great effort. That plays with great intensity, that doesn’t beat itself.”
* Side note: Jancek reminds me of Paul Rhoads in his Midwesternyness. That’s a good thing.
Secondary coach Willie Martinez
* Martinez first real college job was with Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State. The Miami native spent eight seasons with three schools in the state of Michigan and said the area still has a special place in his heart because his kids spent part of their childhood there.
* Martinez: “I’m from the South. I know a lot of people don’t think Florida’s the South.”
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen
* I covered “Thig” at Auburn. He’s a good guy and I think fans will enjoy him.
* Thigpen said Martinez, his colleague at Auburn, vouched for him with Jones. But he has another connection to this staff in receivers coach Zach Azzanni. Thigpen and Azzanni worked together as young coaches at Bowling Green.
“(Azzanni) was my GA about 10 years ago. He used to tell me, ‘There’s this guy named Butch. Just watch: He’s going to move through the ranks.’ Lo and behold, it’s come to life.”
* Thigpen on the SEC: “Coaching is coaching. It’s the same everywhere: You’ve got to get players. They understand that. Butch understands that. The great thing is they ask me, ‘Is there a real-life boogeyman in some of these states?’ I tell them, it’s as different as any place you’re going to be. This is the most competitive conference in America.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian
* Bajakian emphasized that he would look at UT’s personnel without any preconceived dogma and try to find the best offensive fit to be successful. “We’ll mold the system to the strengths of our personnel. That’s the bottom line. We’re not going to try to be something we’re not.”
* Bajakian and Jones worked together at Central Michigan but went their separate ways during the Brian Kelly regime. Bajakian worked in quality control for the Bears, while Jones wor
ked with Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia.
“I knew when we reunited that whatever we were doing we were going to be going as fast as we could,” Bajakian said.
Tight ends/special teams Mark Elder
* Elder said he’s recruited Tennessee for years, so he knows it east to west.
* Elder is a Cincinnati native, so spending three years at his hometown school was pretty cool. “Growing up in Cincinnati, it’s a special place for me. But this opportunity was tremendous….Who wouldn’t want to come here?”
* In the last four years alone, Elder has coached safeties, running backs, tight ends and linebackers. In 2013, he’s back on the offensive side of the ball.
“Having experience on the other side of the ball as a player or a coach is big, so you can tell them what to expect from the other side.”
Running backs coach Jay Graham
* Graham has been on a pretty new staff the last two seasons: “It’s a change, but I’m used to it. His assessment of his new colleagues: “No egos. They work hard. Blue-collar coaches.”
* Graham on potential changes on offense: “That’s hard to say, because everything has been about recruiting.”
* He said it wouldn’t be tough to learn a new offense. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. I was a journeyman in the NFL for a while. Six months to learn it is easy.”
* Graham admitted that it was tough being in limbo after Derek Dooley was fired. “I was uneasy.” But Jones won him over. “People like spending time with him. You walk away saying, `I really like this guy.’ That’s how I felt when I met him.”
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney
* Very similar to Bajakian in some of the things he said about adaptability to personnel. I especially like what he told some of the veteran linemen: “I’m willing to do what’s best for us. I’ll tweak some things if we need to. I’m not about creating confusion.”
* With the exception of Jay Graham, the offensive staff knows each other well. “Mike Bajakian and I have been together for six years. We know what we like, we know what can present problems. We’re on the same page. We work well together.”
* Mahoney said the UT game was the the “wives’ trip” in 2011, so all the families came down to Knoxville. “My wife left saying, wow.”
Dave Lawson, strength coach
* I don’t want to say he didn’t enjoy the interviews, but let’s just say he wasn’t in his element. He gave me a great quote: “This is not a strength coach [pointing to his starched shirt and slacks]. A strength coach is wearing shorts, a pullover and running shoes with a whistle around his neck. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Follow me on Twitter.