published Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

Vols' offense aiming to 'start fast' after poor recent openings

Mike Bajakian
Mike Bajakian
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- It's been four games since Tennessee scored on the opening possession of a game.

The Volunteers haven't come close to bucking that trend, either.

Since taking its first drive of the season down for a touchdown against Austin Peay, the Vols have fumbled twice and punted twice on their opening series of the past four games.

Tennessee trailed in two of those games when it faltered, and that's a position the Vols want to avoid when sixth-ranked Georgia visits on Saturday.

"Focus on the details and focus on our habits and fundamentals and protect the football," offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said after Wednesday's practice.

"You can't do anything but stress it and practice it and address it."

Tennessee put the ball on the ground on its second play from scrimmage at Oregon and Florida, failing to strike first after its defense forced a punt. Against Western Kentucky and South Alabama, the Vols failed to answer their opponents' opening-drive scores. The Bulldogs scored on their opening possessions against South Carolina and LSU.

"[It's] continuing to work the script and focus on execution as a offense as a whole," center James Stone said. "Just execution and everybody being on the same page. Execute from the very beginning of the game and start fast."

Nickel needs

After freshman walk-on Devaun Swafford took the majority of the snaps at nickelback against Florida and started last week against South Alabama, JaRon Toney, himself a former walk-on, reassumed the first-team spot midway through the Vols' win against the Jaguars.

Though Swafford returned an interception for a touchdown against the Gators, Tennessee has struggled at the fifth defensive back spot as opposing offenses find success exploiting the middle of the field, and the coaches are trying to find a solution.

John Jancek bluntly said he's disappointed in the play at the position.

"Guys go out there and they're making mistakes," said the defensive coordinator. "We're looking for a level of consistency from that position. It's hard.

"You can't just go base people and throw a linebacker out there [when] you're playing these teams that are running three and four wides. You're at a strategic disadvantage. You're at a disadvantage in space, so we're trying to get somebody to come alive at that position."

The Vols toyed with moving Justin Coleman to nickelback some last week, but the lack of healthy and able bodies at cornerback -- freshman Malik Foreman hasn't played the last two weeks and Riyahd Jones and Michael Williams are coming back off injuries -- has derailed that.

"We wanted to move Coleman to look at him at nickel," Jancek said. "That hasn't come to fruition at this point. We are what we are, and we've just got to keep getting better and focus on us each and every week."

Backup backs

On his weekly radio show Wednesday night, Tennessee coach Butch Jones said Marlin Lane (lower extremity injury) is "50-50" to play on Saturday after tailback missed his third consecutive day of practice.

Rajion Neal again wore a non-contact jersey for precautionary reasons, and redshirt sophomore Tom Smith, walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill and redshirt freshman Alden Hill would be the options behind the senior if Lane can't play.

"I feel confident with their ability execute the offense," Bajakian said of the trio, "and they've gotten good reps this week."

Monitoring McCullers

Daniel McCullers, Tennessee's big defensive tackle, doubled his tackle total for the season with six stops against South Alabama, and Steve Stripling said he's noticed some improvements from the 6-foot-8, 351-pounder.

The veteran defensive line coach said he thought his entire unit, including McCullers, "got some confidence" from last week and have responded this week in practice.

"We had a long discussion on Dan today, and as we've said he's a work in progress, but he is progressing," Stripling said. "If you look at his pad level, if you look at his effort, it is improving. There's still a long ways to go, but yeah, when you start doing things better, your production shows up."

McCullers had just four tackles through four games last season before an 8-tackle performance at Georgia, and he made 27 tackles in the last seven games of 2012.

"He's always had a good attitude," Stripling said. "He's just so quiet you don't know it all the time. He's always listening, learning and trying, so I've never had an issue with his attitude. He's had a good week of practice.

"I thought today he was really lively, probably the most lively at the end of a practice as I've seen him."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

about Patrick Brown...

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 ...

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