KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s first Southeastern Conference road trip to Georgia on Saturday (noon kickoff on the SEC Network) will be a homecoming for 17 Vols.
That fact is not lost on those players, from freshmen wanting to make a first impression to those, like A.J. Johnson, playing against the Bulldogs and in their home state for the final time.
"We have to go down there for one thing and that's to get the `W,'" Johnson said. "We haven't beaten them since I've been here, so that's the main goal to go down there my last time playing in their stadium, my last time playing Georgia, I want to come out with the `W.' "
This will be the third game in his home state for the Gainesville native. He played in a pair of 2012 games, one against the Bulldogs in Athens and a season-opening win over North Carolina State in Atlanta.
Sophomore Cameron Sutton will be playing in his home state for the first time. While none of his high school teammates from Jonesboro will be suiting up for UGA, he knows plenty of the players on the Bulldog roster and plenty more that will be in the stands.
"We're going down there with our road focus to try and come out on top," Sutton said. "It's always good to play in your home state, but we're competitive. We're not worried about being friends on the field. We can talk and hang out and all of that after the game is over, but on the field we're competing trying to get that `W.'"
Likewise, Johnson won't face any former teammates, but knows he will see plenty of familiar faces.
"I know a lot of those guys," said Johnson. "I've been in camps with them. But at the end of the day, we're competing for the win."
Eight of the 17 Vols will face off against 12 former high school teammates.
For instance, Joshua Dobbs once threw passes to the Bulldogs' leading receiver, Michael Bennett, at Alpharetta High School. Ryan Jenkins was a target at wide receiver for Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason at Lassiter High School in Marietta.
The one-time bonds now help forge a rivalry among the players. Now the players are ready to go out and take care of business on the field. To do that, the Volunteer defense will have to rise to the challenge posed by the potent Georgia rushing attack.
"That's our job, we have to get the ball back to our offense any way we can," Sutton said. "That takes a lot of pressure off of our offense, when we can get the ball back to them. The more opportunities they have with the ball in their hands, it's better for the team."
Meanwhile, freshman tailback Treyvon Paulk has been dismissed from the team after being accused, but not charged, with domestic assault, according to the Knox County Sheriff's office. Paulk, who is from Alpharetta, Ga., has simulated Georgia running back Todd Gurley is last week's preparation for the Bulldogs.
"It is good to see everyone after a bye week, back to game week preparations. Just one announcement before we get started on the University of Georgia and the great challenged that lines ahead of this football team. Today we have dismissed Treyvon Paulk from our football program based on a personal conduct issue. As you are all aware, we hold our players to have very high standard and expectation with being a member of our football family. So in moving forward that is what will occur, I will not answer any more questions regarding the situation.
"Now we are on to the great challenge of going on the road in Sanford Stadium, our young football team is going to find out what life is in the SEC with the grind that we are about to embark on. I think there is no secret, when you think of the University of Georgia, you think of their stable at running backs and it is a stable. Very talented, very physical. [Todd] Gurley, [Sony] Michel, [Nick] Chubb, [Keith] Marshall, they all bring a different element to their back field. A very physical and imposing offensive line. Hutson Mason, very familiar with him, we went through the recruiting process with him when we were at Cincinnati. He is managing the game exceptionally well and playing winning football for them at the quarterback position. When you look at their stable at running backs, the first thing that sticks out to you is the yards after contact. It is really incredible. So obviously, make no mistake about it, we have to be a great tackling football team. They are a team that doesn't beat themselves and very talented at the receiver position as well. There is a reason why some people picked them to win the SEC East this year.
"Then when you look at them defensively, it all starts with [Ramik] Wilson the linebacker, he is extremely active. He will be one of the best linebackers we face all year. They have an inordinate amount of depth on the defensive front and on their (entire) defense. They have different starting lineups which I think is a by-product of them trying to create a competitive nature which we talk about, which we are trying to develop here. Whoever has the best practice probably plays for them, starts. They play a number of guys in the backend, up front, very, very explosive. It starts with [Jordan] Jenkins. The thing I have been very impressed with their defense is their turnover conscious, ball disruptions, they do a great job of creating turnovers and playing with a hard edge. Again, it is going to be a great challenge for this football team going on the road, in a hostile environment. (It’s a) noon game versus a great, great opponent. As we all know that is life in the SEC. So I will answer any questions that you have at this time.
(On handling disciplinary actions)
"Every circumstance is different. I am a father figure. Unfortunately some incidents are out of my control and some incidents you try to control. We do a tremendous job in the overall growth and development of every individual in our football program, with our Vol For Life program, a personal development and growth program. We spend an inordinate amount of time, as you all are well aware of, with outside speakers, using real life illustrations, we are constantly having dialogue and talking about it. We always talk about the one second rule, it is split second decisions. You try to educate them and move on just like they are your own kids."
(On Derrell Scott)
"It is still ongoing. It is very good to have him back on the football field and he brings another element to the back field. Also competition. Not quite game ready yet but we will make a determination on his status if he will be on the travel squad or not going on the road. When you go on the road in the SEC you have travel restrictions so a lot of it is special teams value as well."
(On Josh Smith's status)
"We'll know a little bit more later in the week of his status for the Georgia game. Von Pearson will be out. Daniel Helm practiced yesterday, looked great, so we'll have him back for the game. Ethan Wolf is back full speed, so it's been great to have the tight ends back in our offense."
(On the receiving core without Smith and Pearson)
"Well, Josh Malone will be an individual who has gained valuable repetitions, but his role will continue to expand and very rightfully so. He's worked exceptionally hard. He's starting to understand the small details of what it takes to play championship football at the receiver position: the work ethic, the practice habits. I thought he had a very good work week last week. So, he's an individual. We'll move Alton Howard around outside to the slot, which is like riding a bike to him. I'm excited. We have capable players. It's going to come down again, football is a game of one-on-one matchups whether it's up front or out on the perimeter. Again, we're going to have some one-on-one matchups Saturday, but Josh Smith and Von Pearson are very good football players. It's all about working to create depth through recruiting. It's just another opportunity for another individual. Like I said, we'll know more about Josh as the week continues to progress."
(On long term impact of last year's game against Georgia)
"Well, it's a new season. It's a new football team. Half of our football team didn't even participate in that football game. Now, probably a third of the newcomers were actually at that game on a recruiting visit, but again they didn't perform in it. I think it adds confidence for everyone, but just like Georgia, they're a new football team. Now, you're not playing in Neyland Stadium. You're playing in Sanford Stadium. You have to go on the road just like we did at Oklahoma. You have to be able to block out the clutter, the distractions, and the crowd noise. I think it's a whole different dynamic just because the team is half new, they didn't go through it."
(On rush defense)
"It has been a strength of ours, but now we'll really find out heading into the Georgia game obviously, with their stable of backs and their mentality that they want to play football their style of play. They also do a great job in terms of their personnel groupings with their big packages and the different personnel. Again, it'll be a great challenge for us moving forward. Our safeties have to do a great job, but this is a game that challenges your overall discipline because they do a very good job in terms of their play-action pass game. It gets back to the eye discipline. Just doing your job and follow the fundamentals and follow the job description of every call."
(On the offensive line's cohesion)
"Well, I felt that cohesiveness occurring all the way throughout training camp and the next individual in. Even though you have a starting five, your depth is critical. The team's that consistently win in this football conference have tremendous depth, whether it's in the offensive front, whether it's in the defensive front. It's really program depth more than anything. That's a luxury we don't have right now, but we'll get there. We'll get there through recruiting and we'll get there through development. You look at Georgia, they have four great great running backs, really five, the other individual who played against us last year that I didn't even mention. So, they have a full stable and they do a great job of playing to the strengths of those running backs and even their wide receivers. Our offensive line has done a great job every day with a workman like approach and having that mentality of just getting better no matter who is in there."
(On Josh Malone)
"Practice habits. Work capacity. The volume of repetitions, mental toughness, all of that. And that's a byproduct of enrolling early, and that's attributed to him, but also, it's Zach Azzani. I continue to say it, and I mean it, but I'm a receiver coach by nature, and he has a knack for developing receivers, and Josh holds on every word that he says, and he's working exceptionally hard now, and he's really worked his practice habits, and you have to be able to take the practice field to the game field, and he's been able to do that. And he's played consistently, every time he's gone in there, he's caught the football, he's advanced the football, he's blocked, he's done everything that we've asked of him. He's been a quiet, consistent performer for us."
(On Austin Sanders and Ryan Jenkins)
"Ryan continues to develop. You know, again, it's just a level of consistency, day-in and day-out with the mental part of it, in terms of understanding schemes. There isn't anyone who works any harder in our program than Ryan Jenkins, and he'll continue to develop because it's important to him, he's very high character. It's just an overall of consistency and performance every day. It's the same thing with Austin Sanders. You know, Austin is playing in the offensive front, that's a developmental position, and we still forget, he's a redshirt freshman, and after this year, he still has three years left. Again, it's just the overall level of consistency each and every day that's associated with getting on the football field for us. And Ryan will be an individual that we're going to rely heavily on special teams as well, and he's earned that role, he's earned that right, we'll see how he performs on Saturday afternoon."
(On being more disruptive on defense)
"Well, it's the overall effort to the football, and it's creating habits and it's creating instincts. You know, you're training so it becomes instinctual. Like ball disruptions, you know, secure the tackle, work what we call the `lawn-mower,' those are all practice habits, those are things that need to be developed each and every day, which we do, we have a period in practice that's for that, but I'm not quite seeing the fruits of our labor. I'm not seeing the investment in time really manufacture itself on gameday, and that's what we need to see. We need to see the inordinate of time we talk about we practice ball disruptions, we have to do a better job of that. And a lot of times, that's getting 9, 10, 11 hats to the football and playing with a high level of physicality. So when I talk about ball disruptions, tipped footballs, you know, you look at a lot of interceptions, they're generated off of tipped footballs. And you may not even tip the football, but what you do is you impede the vision of the quarterback and he has to reset more in the pocket, so there's so much that goes in to it, we have to practice it and we have to live it every snap. It has to be in our DNA of our defense."
(On reasons for increased scoring in SEC)
"I think there are a number of things. First of all, we have some very, very explosive football players in this conference. This conference is made up of veteran offensive lines, so they are able to control the line of scrimmage. I think some has to do with schematics-creating one-on-one matchups, creating space. Even though Arkansas runs the football, they still create space in their own way. Again, I think it's a number of things. I think it's creating space, creating one-on-one matchups. I think you see the flavor of college football around the country is bubble screens, quick smoke screens, getting the ball in the hands of your playmakers and letting them make plays. Also, again, even though we may have some quarterbacks that don't have the game experience that we've had in the past, they're very good football players. I think it's a combination of a lot of factors."
(On Georgia's young secondary)
"They're very skilled, very long with great length, speed, quickness and athleticism. They have it all but when you look at them, they all kind of look the same. They have great length and they have great range."
Senior Linebacker A.J. Johnson
(On defense being disruptive)
"Pretty much turnovers, that's the main key, getting turnovers. One thing Coach (Jones) has been harping over this week is we need more ball disruption. So, we're going to work that all this week in practice so we can carry that over to the game this week."
(On what impresses him about Georgia)
"Pretty much we all know they've got good backs, so filling up the run is the main thing. Filling up the run plays and controlling the line of scrimmage, and going out and executing our plays. It's not really about what they do, it's about how we do it on defense. If we do our job right, we'll have a successful night. Complementary football like (Marquez) North said. We get our offense in good field position, and that's all it is. Football is about field position. You get closer to the end zone, your percentage of scoring is way higher. We're trying to get good field position and turnovers. I think that'll be the big key.'
(On playing against Todd Gurley)
"I look forward to playing every opponent. I know he's one of the top running backs. I always like playing the best, so I'm glad he's back."
(On what stands out about UGA's Todd Gurley)
"He's a good runner. That's all I really can say but it isn't really anything too crazy. We see good running backs every week in the SEC."
(On what the team got accomplished during the bye week)
"We practiced really hard and we got some extra study on Georgia so that will help us. We had good practices on our bye week. We got relaxed. We'll I wouldn't say relaxed, but we got recovered. People who maybe had a little bruise or something were able to get more treatment, get our body right and we're back to the regular schedule now. We're ready to go back at it and we know we have a long stretch, a long seven-game stretch of good teams. This off-week came at the right time."
(On playing Georgia one last time)
"Pretty much, we have to go down there for one thing and that's to get the `W'. I know we haven't beat them since I've been here so that's the main goal. It's my last time to go down there, last time to play in their stadium and my last time to play Georgia. The biggest thing for me is I want to come out with a `W' and like you said, I know a lot of the guys on that team. I've been at camps with them and stuff like that but at the end of the day, we're competing and trying to win."
Sophomore Defensive Back Cameron Sutton
(On the secondary's ability to be disruptive)
"That's our job and we've just got to get the ball back to our offense. That's any way possible. We're also trying to put points up on the board as well. That takes a lot of pressure off our offense. When we're getting the ball back to them, they're able to stay in drives and keep the ball moving. The more opportunities they have the ball in their hands, it's better for the team."
(On playing Georgia in his home state)
"Piggy-backing off of what A.J. said, it's all about getting the `W' and we're going down there with our road focus trying to come out on top. Like I said, it's always good to play in your home state and all but we're competitive and we're not really worried about being friends on the field. We can talk, hang out and do all of that after the game but while we're on the field, we're competing and trying to get the `W'."
(On how much Georgia recruited him)
"They recruited me fairly enough. I mean, it was alright."
(On whether Georgia offered him a scholarship)
"I'm not sure. I really don't even know."
(On Georgia's quarterback)
"He's a good decision-maker. Coming into this game, I don't think he has any interceptions so far, so he gets the ball to the right guys. They're great with out-of-play action on offense and he's got those running backs back there also that complement the passing game with him. So, they all play together and it's just our job to limit that, eliminate explosive plays and get the ball back to our offense."
(On the dangers of Georgia's play-fake game)
"In our defense, we preach, `Put your eyes on your key' and `See a little, see a lot'. So, we just have to do our job of putting our eyes on our keys and our guys and like I said, eliminate the explosive plays. They'll try to use their run plays to set up their play action and stuff like that so, if we're stuffing the run game, it'll be hard for them to set up that play action."
Sophomore Wide Receiver Marquez North
(On what changes for him if Josh Smith does not play)
"Nothing really changes. We just prepare the same every week. Like I always say, people have to get more reps and then we've just all got to step up as a group, play complementary football and gel."
(On if he will play more plays versus Georgia due to injuries)
"I'm pretty sure I'm going to play more snaps, but I'm prepared for it and I'm conditioned."
(On who else has stepped up and could see more reps)
"I mean everyone's going to get more reps and more plays, everyone that's capable, because we play a lot of guys."
(On Oklahoma's linebacker Eric Striker)
"From the film, we know Striker is a great player. What stands out about him is probably his first step. You can tell he studies a lot but it's really that first step."
(On what he's seen from Justin Worley since Oklahoma)
"He's one of the leaders of our team. He always tells us to keep our head up, either way. He didn't let them rattle him at all. This week in practice, from Sunday on, he was just the same. Justin came out there to work."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)