KNOXVILLE—Tennessee put the pads on for the first time this spring practice Thursday.
And while the Volunteers players certainly enjoyed getting that first taste of contact since last season, it’s more about establishing an identity for Derek Dooley.
“The first word is physicality,” the Vols’ second-year head coach said, “and I told the team yesterday that there’s never been an SEC champion that didn’t play physical football. It’s a mindset. There’s going to be a lot of mistakes, but we’ve got to have guys moving fast and hitting hard, and then we’ll clean up the mistakes as we go.”
Said linebacker John Propst: “I was looking forward to today after the first two days in helmets got kind of boring. We got out here and really got to hit people, and that’s when football really started.”
Propst, who made 14 tackles in 10 games last season as a freshman, has been getting first-team looks at linebacker, flanked by rising seniors Austin Johnson and Daryl Vereen.
Starter Herman Lathers has been limited this week following offseason shoulder surgery, opening even more doors at a position where the Vols lost Nick Reveiz and LaMarcus Thompson, who combined for 25 starts and 168 tackles a season ago.
“It’s not really pressure,” said Vereen, who played in 11 games last season and started against Ole Miss. “I’m putting pressure on myself because I hate to embarrass myself and I hate to embarrass my teammates, so I just want to pick up the slack and pick up where they left off at. I’m really just working on my eye discipline and playing physical.”
Greg King, Raiques Crump, Nigel Mitchell-Thornton and Martaze Jackson also figure into the mix this spring. The Vols are making sure their linebackers know each of the three positions in trying to get the best guys on the field.
Though he’s probably smaller (6-foot, 219 pounds) than the UT coaches might prefer for their linebackers, Propst has intelligence that draws consistent praise from his coach.
“He’s one of the most instinctive players on defense,” Dooley said. “You can’t have a better quality as a defensive football player. Obviously what he lacks is, he’s not very experienced, he’s not a burner, his size and speed aren’t top-shelf, so he’s got to make up for it with his instincts, his effort and his toughness.”
Propst showed all of those attributes in the fourth quarter of UT’s blowout loss at Georgia last October, when he made six tackles. Also a stalwart on the Vols’ special teams along with Crump, the rising sophomore knows he’s another guy the Vols hope can make a second-season leap.
“It’s a process, like Coach Dooley says every day,” Propst said. “You’ve just got to keep working on it — get in there, learn it, study it and just keep learning. It’s going good right now.
“You can’t really replace Nick. He was the leader of this team; he did everything right; he’s a guy you look up to. But all I can do is come out here and compete every day and just try to do the best for the team that I can.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...