Monthly Archives: November 2013

Ja’Wuan James on his relationship with Butch Jones (video)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — When Butch Jones has an idea or wants to get the pulse of the team, he talks to senior offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James.

Here’s an excerpt from a subscriber-only story about James in today’s News Sentinel.

James said it took him a while to get used to that degree of openness from a head coach.

“It might be one o’clock in the morning and you get a text or call and he’s just thinking football, wanting to call you and talk to you. He says, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about this, I thought about that.’ You’re scared at first, thinking ‘Why are you calling me at 12?’ ”

James recreated a conversation for reporters on Tuesday:

James: “What’s up?”

Jones: “Man, I’ve been watching film and I can’t wait to play on Saturday. How are you feeling?”

James: “Well, I’m kind of tired …”

Some more videos worth checking out…

Clips from Jones and highlights from Tuesday’s practice, plus the latest installment of GVX Spotlight.

Vandy’s James Franklin says there’s no ‘hate’ between coaches: ‘I like Butch’

Butch Jones speaks at a post-practice press conference (Photo by Evan Woodbery)

Butch Jones speaks at a post-practice press conference (Photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said the budding rivalry between his team and Tennessee in football hasn’t created tension among the coaching staffs, despite what many fans believe.

“There’s respect toward their staff. There’s respect toward their team, the history and traditions,” Franklin said on the SEC teleconference Wednesday.

As for the perception of a chilliness between Franklin and Tennessee coach Butch Jones?

“I like Butch. I know Butch,” Franklin said. “I know the fans on both teams get all worked up and think there’s hate, but there really isn’t.”

Jones said much the same on Monday. Jones and Franklin met, and seemingly got along well, when Vanderbilt played the Jones-coached Cincinnati Bearcats in the 2010 Liberty Bowl.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Franklin and what he has done at Vanderbilt,” Jones said.

Vandy QB on Jordan Matthews: ‘His strengths are endless’ (video)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt senior receiver Jordan Matthews is nearing the end of a remarkable career.

The Madison, Ala., native will go down as one of the best receivers in Vanderbilt history and many are bullish on his future in the NFL, as well.

He surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the second season in a row with a 12-catch, 141-yard performance last week against Kentucky.

To say that he’s quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels‘ favorite target might be an understatement. They connect so often it sometimes seems like he’s the only target.

“I don’t see any weaknesses,” Carta-Samuels said. “His game is so complete. I see his speed, he’s got an unbelievable football IQ. His brain is unbelievable. He does a great job off the line of scrimmage. There’s not a knock on him. His strengths are endless to me.”

The Vols (4-6, 1-5 SEC) play Vanderbilt (6-4, 3-4) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m.)

Watch the rest of the Vandy player interviews (including a steady stream of clichés about how the Tennessee game is just the next game on the schedule) in the video above.

Running backs coach Robert Gillespie watches practice on Tuesday.

KNOXVILLE, TennesseeButch Jones said running backs coach Robert Gillespie was “progressing” from an injury suffered on the sidelines Nov. 9 against Auburn.

Gillespie wore crutches during Tuesday’s practice and was sometimes driven by a manager in a motorized cart.

Tennessee football continues special teams focus in preparation for Vandy (with practice video, photos)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — After spending the bye week indoors, Tennessee moved back outside on Tuesday afternoon.

The temperature plummeted when the sun went down, but that didn’t stop offensive line coach Don Mahoney and tight ends coach Mark Elder from donning shorts. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie was on crutches and was sometimes driven around the field on a motorized cart. Gillespie was injured in the first half of the Auburn game while celebrating a touchdown.

The media viewing period contained more special teams coverage work. Michael Palardy boomed some incredible punts in the early period.

Watch the video montage in the highest possible setting for best results. We’ll have less mournful video later this evening.

In press conference, Vandy coach James Franklin wants to talk Tanzania, not rape scandal (video)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Vanderbilt coach James Franklin doesn’t talk about the rape case involving four players arrested in August on charges of raping an unconscious student.

His press conference on Monday showed one way of redirecting uncomfortable questions: Talk about the good stuff the team does.

A reporter asked Monday about a recent report that said a fifth player in the case, Chris Boyd, was still attending classes at Vanderbilt. Boyd was not charged with rape, but he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor related to helping cover up the alleged crime. Vandy dismissed him from the football program, but as the charge was not a felony, Boyd was not expelled from the university or barred from campus.

Rather than say just that, or ask that the reporter seek clarification from the university about its official policy on students charged with misdemeanors, Franklin icily changed the subject: “I don’t know if you saw, but there was an unbelievable video that was released today by the Vanderbilt athletic department on our trip to Tanzania and Africa. Shoes for Souls, I think it was. Unbelievable video. So if you guys get a chance to check that out, I strongly recommend you do that.”

The reporter asked a follow-up question.

Franklin raised his voice: “It’s a GREAT video that we’ve released talking about the impact that our kids make not only this campus but also reaching out across all different aspects and try to make a difference in people’s lives.”

With that kind of pitch, how could we not watch the video?

Tennessee recruiting: Vols have needs but also flexibility on defensive line

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Butch Jones watches practice last week (photo by Evan Woodbery)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee’s aggressive recruiting efforts show no signs of slowing, even as the Vols push past the 30-man limit in their class.

Cory Thomas was the latest player to verbally commit to the 2014 class.

Here’s a look at Tennessee’s class within the context of its current roster. Be sure to check out the disclaimer and details below.

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I’ve tweaked the breakdown above, adding a section for roster non-contributors. These are players who are in at least their second year in the program and have not contributed and don’t appear close to contributing right now. I didn’t want to single anyone out, but in order to provide a clear picture of the recruiting efforts, those numbers needed to be considered.

The usual caveat applies: This is a speculative exercise and may not match UT’s goals, strategy, etc.

The only major issue remains at defensive tackle, but that’s somewhat misleading, as many defensive tackles start their career at end.

Daniel McCullers (facing camera) chats with Trevarris Saulsberry before the Auburn game.

Even so, with Daniel McCullers and Daniel Hood graduating, the Vols would love to have more depth inside — both on the current roster, and in the 2014 class.

Who could grow into a defensive tackle? Anyone, really, including several options on the current roster. But if you’re looking for a big run-stuffer in the mold of McCullers, the options are more limited.

Dimarya Mixon (6-3, 265) is the only player listed as a tackle among the current group of commitments.

DaVonte Lambert (listed at 6-3, 275), Derek Barnett (6-3, 265), Thomas (6-6, 270) and DeWayne Hendrix (6-5 254) are all big ends, while Joe Henderson (6-3, 228) is in the lighter, weak-side mold.

Obviously, all heights and weights should be taken with a grain of salt, but compare those numbers to Hood (6-4, 277), McCullers (6-8, 351) and reserve tackle Trevarris Saulsberry (6-4, 291). Except for McCullers, the differences aren’t immense.

Marlon Walls (6-2, 272) is mainly an end now, although he’s played tackle before and frequently will move inside on passing downs when speed rushers come in.

Vols freshman tackle Jason Carr (6-5, 285) played briefly this year but will have a chance to earn more playing time in 2014.

Long story short, will defensive tackle be a concern in 2014? Probably. A crisis? Perhaps not.

Q&A with ESPN’s Tom Luginbill on Tennessee recruiting, its growing class and Butch Jones

Butch Jones has used the brick-by-brick metaphor in building his team and his 2014 signing class.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — On Sunday we took a deeper look at Tennessee’s bulging 2014 signing class, which is now up to 31 verbal commitments.

The full story is for subscribers only, but here’s the key takeaway.

There are two rules for which there are no loopholes: Tennessee can only offer 25 new scholarships — “initial counters” in NCAA lingo — in each class, and the maximum number of players on scholarship cannot exceed 85.

So how does Tennessee plan to sign 30 if the limit is 25? Teams are allowed to “count back” the scholarships of midyear enrollees as long as the 25-scholarship limit is not exceeded in any single year. The Vols counted two of their 22-man class in 2013 against the 2012 scholarship limit.

This year, UT will count five players against the 2013 class and then take a full 25 in the 2014 class.

So that brings the Vols to 30. But what about 31? Or 32, 33 or 34, if UT keeps adding more verbal commitments?

There are some strategies that teams can use to manage overflowing classes:

Gray-shirting: A grayshirt agrees to delay his enrollment for at least one semester to count against the following year’s class.

In this case, a prospect would agree to push back enrollment from the summer of 2014 to January 2015. Grayshirting can be a great solution for a player who is rehabilitating a serious injury or who needs time to mature physically. But the player must be self-motivated, working out on his own and paying his own way to take classes for a semester.

Blue-shirting: This scheme was originated by New Mexico State but has not been practiced widely around the nation. Here’s how it works: Officially, a player arrives in the summer as a walk-on. Once football practice begins, he’s awarded a scholarship. The school is allowed to count the scholarship forward — against the 2015 class — but the player can play immediately.

There’s a big catch: The student-athlete may not have been recruited, as defined by NCAA bylaws. That means no official visit to campus, no in-home visits from coaches, no signed National Letter of Intent or athletic aid.

Only a handful of players, if any, would meet that criteria.

I spoke to Tom Luginbill, ESPN’s national director of recruiting, to get his thoughts on the Vols’ 2014 class and the recruiting effort of Butch Jones and his staff overall.

Here’s some of the stuff that didn’t fit in the story.

(On how Butch Jones built his staff with largely his own guys, with only linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen qualifying as well known name among those who follow SEC recruiting)

If you look at the places that Butch Jones and his staff have been, they haven’t been places that are easy to recruit to. So when you’re successful at programs that are difficult to recruit to, I think that speaks volumes to what type of recruiter you are. So whether it’s Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he knows what (his staff) brings to the table and he has a comfort level with their work ethic. They understand, more important than anything else, the type of player that they want. And proof has been in the pudding on whether they can get them.

Tommy Thigpen coaches Malik Foreman in August (photo by Evan Woodbery)

Going out and hiring the high-profile guy, is that a necessity? Probably not. In the case of Tommy Thigpen I think one of the reasons why he went that route was being mostly a Midwest staff, he was getting into somewhat uncharted territory as far as the recruiting pool and the landscape down here in the Southeast. So I think it was wise to bring a member to the staff that had deep-rooted recruiting experience in the South.

(On the importance of this class given its size and the amount of gaps on the current roster)

A: The importance of this class is that it’s going to be 30 guys, so it’s going to be a big class. The most important thing about this class is the number that will be mid-year enrollees. That’s critical because they’re going to have to have those guys play and have a role. So going after a player that you know can come in mid-year becomes a part of the plan, a part of the blueprint. A lot of people don’t think of it that way. You’re trying to get the best player, the player that fits — that’s true. But in their particular case, they need guys who can come in and get acclimated quickly and be part of the equation.

I think the one thing that Butch Jones and his staff have going for him, or have on their side that maybe Derek and his staff did not, is you’re off the APR list now and they have completely overhauled and revamped their academic support service program, which is not only going to be critical for the current roster, but is huge from a recruiting standpoint. I just think the resources available to Tennessee right now so far outweigh the resources that may have been available to previous staffs, and that’s going to be an advantage of them.

(Butch)  knows there’s no magic wand here. This isn’t going to happen overnight. But I think the pieces of the puzzle are in place. And it’s not just Butch and the staff and their philosophy. Keep in mind, Dave Hart knows what it takes to be great in football, as far as building a program. They hired Mike Vollmar, who was instrumental in the implementation of the Alabama process. He was with Nick (Saban) for a lot of years. So they’re putting all the components in place to blanket the athletic, academic, social atmospheres of Tennessee so that it can move forward in the right direction.

(On whether geography is a liability for Tennessee in recruiting)

Not just the city or the region, but the state. That’s always been a challenge at Tennessee. You might have, on average, four to six big-time, BCS-caliber players within your state every year, which basically means you can’t lose any of them. You have to get all of those guys, and then to supplement your roster you have to go into Nick Saban’s backyard and Mark Richt‘s backyard and Will Muschamp‘s backyard. And not just in the SEC, but in the ACC, too. So the competition is intense.

What Tennessee has — let’s just compare it to Missouri or Arkansas, two other teams that are in states that, by in large, don’t have great pools of talent, year in and year out. Tennessee has a national brand, nationally branded tradition, fan base, facilities, resources that allow for them to compensate and be able to go into other areas in recruiting and immediately be a recognizable figure. Whereas those are challenges for, let’s say, a Missouri or an Arkansas. Missouri goes down and recruits in Alabama and people are looking around: ‘Really?’ Tennessee goes into Alabama and they’re recognized immediately. So those are some of the things that allow them to maybe compensate or have a chance in other people’s backyards.

Tennessee’s outdoor practice fields with the Anderson Training Center in the background (photo by Evan Woodbery)

(On the importance of facilities or whether they are rapidly being equalized)

It’s more about staying caught up now. Ten to fifteen years ago, it was about getting out in front of it and having something no one else did, which a lot of programs were capable of doing, but by and large, they were all programs that had money and resources. Not everyone was playing with the same deck of cards — not that they are now. But when you look now and fast forward to this point, just about everybody in major college football has a football operations facility or an indoor facility or an academic services center for athletics. All those sorts of things came at some point in the last 10 to 15 years.

So now what’s happening is a one-up type of scenario. ‘All right, we’re pretty much on par with them, how can we offer something they don’t offer?’ Or, just a general overhaul and enhancement of facilities as a whole. That’s where you need the money. That is an area right now where Missouri is frantically trying to keep up. Because from a stadium standpoint and a football operations standpoint, they’re not at the level of their competitors in this conference. They know it. They know that’s the next phase, the next step.

It is a bit of a rat race. People like to call it the arms race.

Then you’ve got Oregon and they’re in a different class all their own. But I would argue that this facility here (at Tennessee) being finished now rivals anything in the country, certainly in the conference.

(On how Tennessee will handle having so many prospects)

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Changes coming on special teams for Vols? Butch Jones says unwise to ‘panic’

Butch Jones meets with the media on Nov. 18, 2013.

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — Don’t expect to see any major personnel changes on the kickoff and punt coverage teams against Vanderbilt this week.

The Vols allowed two touchdowns — one punt return, one kickoff return — in a loss to Auburn on Nov. 9.

Butch Jones said he wants to get the best 11 players on the field in special teams, but heaping more responsibilities on starters who are already playing every snap is difficult.

Beyond that, Tennessee’s coverage units have generally been pretty good this year. And to shake up the units for the sake of change might also be unwise.

“The thing you don’t want to do is have individuals who have taken those repetitions and trained for those positions all year long and you panic and you make wholesale changes,” Jones said. “Now you go out there and they haven’t been through the nuances of playing that position and live game-speed repetitions. So it’s a balancing act. On the flip side of it, you’re always trying to find the best 11 to put on the field. It’s an 11-man mission.”