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2014′s Most Important Comparative Adjective

In Tennessee Volunteers on August 7, 2014 at 7:56 pm

Above all else, Tennessee fans want the team to be better.  Better than 2013.  They want senior QB Justin Worley cooler, calmer, and more consistent.  They want his arm stronger, and his receivers’ routes smoother.  They don’t care if the offensive line is younger, or the defensive line is smaller.

On a positive note, through the first few practices, one word seems to describe Team118: faster.  That is certainly a welcome change.  However, in my opinion, there is a word more important than faster or deeper.  There is one word that makes those team labels possible.

That word is smarter.  Butch Jones places just as much, perhaps more, emphasis on mental conditioning as he does physical conditioning.  While commenting on the team’s strength improvements, he reiterates, “This is a thinking man’s game.  You can’t let the mind tie the feet up.”  Translated: It does not matter that we are in great shape if we do not win the mental game. The famed legacy class is popular for three reasons: recognizable names, standout talent, and proper rearing as football players.  The head coach’s emphasis on film study and winning all mental aspects of the game blends perfectly with the pedigree of Team118 members, young and old.  Feedback from players themselves and from coaches on the smarts of the 2014 Volunteers and the collective football IQ of the 2014 recruiting class has been exclusively positive.  The emergence of this feedback lines up with all of the hype and hope Tennessee fans have for the 2014 recruiting class.  Instincts and mental discipline, two things that lead to playing with speed and confidence, are fixed commodities on the 2014 Volunteers.

Discussion of “football IQ,” like almost everything else regarding Tennessee’s 2014 season, seems to begin and end with the 2014 recruiting class.  Former Tennessee and NFL stars passed on their athletic genes and their appreciation for guaranteeing that the mind allows the feet to flow freely.  If Tennessee is going to be successful, championship habits and mental discipline must become second-nature.  Football IQ, a term that sounds all-natural, actually comes from hard work and strict mental discipline.  It is earned in the film room, and those recruits who I will affectionately label “film-rats” have an advantage.  Football nerd and all-too-obvious film-rat Dillon Bates credits his father for being the stone on which he sharpens his football IQ.  Bill shows Dillon the value of studying football 24/7/365, learning every day about different assignments, and knowing not only one’s job on a play, but why that job is important.

Elliott Berry, in a July “legacy” media session, shyly and begrudgingly admits to carrying around notebooks of offensive and defensive plays since he was a child.  He explains that he always loved watching football and began to imagine different things on paper.  Thank goodness, a film rat was born.  Elliott has been thinking in terms of Xs and Os for as long as he can remember, and when asked what he needs to do to be ready for camp and the season, Elliott, without hesitation, replied, “Make sure I know exactly what to do on every play.”  Elliott and Evan should give plenty of credit to their natural athleticism for putting them in the position to be on an SEC roster.  Impacting the SEC as freshmen, however, will stem direction from being smarter than those with similar skillsets.  If a football player, no matter the talent level, has to slow down and think about what he is doing, he cannot reach his full potential.  He can’t be as hard to block, he can’t close as quickly he should, and he can’t recognize a route tree and make an interception.  Every team’s shifts, cadences, and formations should incite an almost unnerving, deja vu reaction in the minds of Tennessee’s defensive players.

Championing the mental game is not lost on non-legacy recruits.  Jalen Hurd, in an early-fall media session, explained that the mental game is the biggest difference while trying to adjust from high school to college football.  He realized this shortcoming soon after enrolling in January and immediately hit the books.  He knew the label of “good runner” was not quite good enough to be successful at the college level.  Spring practice afforded Jalen the real-time reps needed to mentally prepare for the 2014 season.  He got into the playbook, ran through schemes, and critiqued Madden football pass-protection philosophies as his friends played in the dorm, because he knows good isn’t good enough.  And he isn’t alone.  Ethan Wolf, another physically-imposing freshman at an offensive skill position, recalls his realization of the mental game’s importance.  “You have to know where to line up,” Ethan said.  “It is a very fast game, and you have to know what to do when seeing different defenses,” He continued.  Jalen and Ethan were wide-eyed with enthusiasm about how much progress was made from January 1 to July 31.  They made the most of their apartment subleases, one might say.  Twelve feet, eight inches, and 467 pounds of film rat.

There is a welcome outbreak, a cordially-invited epidemic, of obsessive preparation for the 2014 season.  Dillon Bates saw his brothers play college football at Arkansas State and Northwestern, and his Dad give all he had for Tennessee.  Vic Wharton saw his Uncle, Brandon, put in the work to be a successful SEC basketball player.  Todd Kelly, Jr. learned about Tennessee football and camp preparation from his namesake.  The Berry twins know about the star potential on the horizon after seeing their older brother become a living Tennessee legend.  Jalen Hurd and Ethan Wolf are young, physical specimens who came in and immediately benefited from realizing the importance of the mental game.  All of this energy, whether it stems from Vic Wharton, Butch Jones, or the plurality of newcomers on the roster, makes the 2014 Volunteers smarter, and, before long, more instinctual than versions in the recent past.

Coaches are taking notice, too.  The atmosphere in position-group meetings seems vastly different.  In my opinion, one of the reasons for harsh evaluation from Butch Jones so far in fall camp is that he knows these young players can handle the mental grind.  He knows they will respond, because they know they have to respond.  They have the physical gifts necessary to flourish, and he knows the team is ready to be held to a higher standard.  Coach Thigpen is excited when he mentions Dillon Bates’ tendency to show up in every meeting with a long list of questions.  Coach Mahoney acknowledges the mental advantage of being an early enrollee, explaining Blair and Thomas’ benefitting from experience in the offense.  This head start will allow us to play at the proper pace in game one.  Coach Martinez excitedly discussed the “extremely high football IQ” on the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers.  Perhaps due to the pedigree and enthusiasm of 32 newcomers, the team is displaying championship habits.  More than the usual number of recruits were encouraged, by their families and by Tennessee’s coaching staff, to think in terms of finding immediate success on the football field.  Fortunately, that field will be Shields-Watkins.

It’s a thinking man’s (and a thinking fan’s) game, and I think we are going to like what we see.

Pre-camp Presser: Excitement is Allowed

In Tennessee Volunteers on August 1, 2014 at 5:27 pm

“You have the Floor”

The USA Today/Coaches’ Poll’s release today does not change the difficult task facing the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers, but it certainly helps clarify the battle that will be the 2014 every season.

The Slate

vs. Utah State

vs. Arkansas State

@ #3

@ #12

vs. Unranked

vs. Chattanooga

@ #19

vs. #2

@ #9

vs. Kentucky

vs. Missouri

@ Vanderbilt

After looking at that, one wonders what Butch Jones thought about as he took the podium.  He grinned the entire time.

He is a man dedicated to each step in each plan.  He is paralyzed by thoughts of missing steps and missing opportunities.  He’s playing chess, not checkers, and subscribes to Lester Freamon’s mantra: “All the pieces matter.”  Each player’s approach, mentally and physically, matters.  “Everyone must meet their full potential in our football program,” Butch orders.  In case he isn’t clear on that point, he follows with a promise to challenge every player to meet that goal.  He calmly discusses the omnipresence of this challenge, but not so calmly that it isn’t taken to heart.

I remember Butch Jones introducing himself to the players for the first time.  I remember feeling angry when he said, “I told my championship football team that there is only one place (for which) I would leave, and that’s for the University of Tennessee.”  It sounded too similar to Lane Kiffin’s lame excuse for treating Tennessee like a pest.  It sounded like he was brown-nosing.  Babying us.  It sounded like we had been fishing for compliments and finally gotten a bite.  *Seriously, you’re beautiful.  Don’t let anyone tell you any different.*  Unprovoked praise and excitement was unnatural.  It made me squirm.

Butch Jones is too self-aware to fool himself into thinking he is who Tennessee fans expected to see addressing the team.  Perhaps that is why it sounded disingenuous: he couldn’t believe it, either.

Tennessee fans wanted a splash.  We didn’t want to have questions about the hire.  We wanted to be the belle of the talk-radio ball.  In his introductory presser, Butch Jones asked for patience from the fan base and promised to work hard.  I am certain some fans wrote him off immediately.   At the time, we did not care about intertwining plans and puzzle pieces.  *He is creating built-in excuses.  He is intentionally setting the bar low.*  Tennessee football never crawled.  It never moved inch-by-inch.  It wasn’t a baby who needed held.  We wanted results.  And we were through with the labor pains.

I remember being bothered by his cliche.  “Anything in life worth doing is supposed to be hard.”  *Coach Speak – Sell by 11/2008.*  Nobody cared if he said the right things. I don’t know if we even cared what his voice sounded like.  We knew how to over-analyze press conferences after losses, and, at the time, this was yet another in a long line of losses.  The bad boy who promised it wasn’t a fling had broken our hearts, the nice boy whose family endeared him to our parents had broken our hearts, and we had sworn off men.  Looking back now, Butch Jones was basically pleading for a chance.  He saw right through our promise to write off Tennessee football altogether. And he had a plan.

Despite Butch’s constant recognition of each step’s importance, did he let his mind wander beyond the opening of camp on Friday?  Was he thinking about Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, or Chuckie Keeton’s respective read-option mastery, or who will play nickel when Utah State stretches Tennessee’s defense into a sub formation?  I believe he was thinking about what this press conference means.  *How can I use this press conference to improve tomorrow’s practice?  How can I use this press conference, this move of a pawn, to give us a better chance at the King’s crown?*  I believe he was smugly soaking in the realization that we care about the plan now.

That explains the smile.  He knows we want to go back to the introductory meetings and listen more closely.  We were suspicious on his first day, eager to interject and interrogate.  *You aren’t Jon Gruden.  You could be anybody.*  That day, we scooped up our pride like a child beginning construction of a sloppy sandcastle and we challenged the man at the podium.  We couldn’t be fooled again.

On July 31, 2014, we were content to sit back and listen.  And he bit his tongue yesterday, as he should have, but he’s waiting for the right time to say, “I told you so.”

 

Mack Crowder and Marquez North (35:45)

Curt Maggitt and Jordan Williams (52:35)

The Quarterbacks (1:09:25)

 

Excitement is Required: Marquez North

Butch jumps head-first into the fine details of a player’s game.  The things our untrained eyes don’t notice when the offense cannot move the ball.  “Every player has a toolbox. What type of release techniques do you have? What type of ball skills do you have?”  I always thought of a toolbox in terms of 40-yard-dash times and vertical leaping ability.  Butch, on the other hand, thinks in terms of technical skills at the wide receiver position.

Even as he praises Marquez for being better than the sum of the parts in his toolbox, he reiterates the importance of finely-tuned details.  “Blocking. Maintaining blocks. Getting in and out of cuts.”  He promises to force everyone in the program to meet their full potential, and he follows through 30 minutes later, explaining all the ways our best returning player can improve his game.  This is not criticism without follow-through.  As we know, any “coach” can do that.  This is criticism with a plan already in place to annihilate shortcomings.

At the 30:20 mark of the presser, Butch Jones let the cat out of the bag: Marquez North switched positions and had success as a freshman in the SEC.  Quez, in the words of his coach, “Was quite simply a high-school running back.”  I am open and overzealous with my great expectations for Marquez North.  I think he is better than Amari Cooper, and that alone would make him one of the best receivers in the country.  His commendable freshman campaign came without much polish at the wide receiver position.  He played a somewhat new position, and, through displaying a knack for uncomfortable, seemingly impossible catches, he has many believing that he will be an uncomfortable, seemingly impossible assignment.

Excitement is Allowed: The Defensive Line

Jordan Williams tried to snatch the criticism before it slid out of his mouth, but it was too late.  “Last year, we had a lot of size, and I feel like they were more focused on themselves.  Just holding their own gap.”  It sounds bad at first, but Williams wasn’t calling anybody selfish.

Unathletic and stagnant?  That’s a different story.  As we have seen, even if someone has extra beef to take up space, it takes athleticism and quickness to garner attention from the offensive line.  I took the initial comment and his follow-up clarification to mean that last year’s defensive line, while it may have looked good getting off the bus, thought it could get by on space-eating alone.  The defensive line will look vastly different from a year ago, and I think that will be for the best.

The defensive tackle position is not a strength, but I don’t think we are losing as much impact and talent as “replacing both starting DTs” leads one to believe.  The defensive end position boasts two pass-rush specialists that are a threat to sack the quarterback all game long.  It is scary to enter a season replacing the entire defensive line, but I am confident they can produce more than the 2013 version.

In Closing…

I go back to Butch Jones’ promise when he met the team: “It’s going to be hard.”  That sentence describes fall camp.  It’s going to be hard on the 15 seniors thrust into leadership roles, and harder on the 32 newcomers thrust into position battles.  It’s going to be hard on the coaching staff when they make the first depth chart, and harder on the players who fall short.  It’s going to be hard on the fans who need to know right now who will take the first snap at QB, DT, or CB2.  It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be worth it.

I didn’t write the names on the schedule because it’s the usual suspects.  It’s not Auburn, it’s Ole Miss.  It’s not Oregon, it’s Oklahoma.  Most of all, it is what it is.  It’s a power schedule for a team whose head coach knows that the crown is the target in 2015 and beyond.  That same coach who, through sheer force of personality, has put Tennessee in the proverbial drivers’ seats of high school seniors all across the country.  The nationwide, standing-room-only show that is Tennessee’s reappearance from the shadows and into the top-5s of those playing under Friday night lights has been nothing short of amazing.  But there is plenty of time to talk about that.  Right now, ALL we care about is a day 1 practice report.  We don’t want to jump the gun.  Remember: baby steps. **Yeah, right**

2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview

In 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, 2013 Team Previews on April 1, 2013 at 9:24 am

Team MVP: Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen, growing older and entering his prime seasons, finally experienced an outbreak in the power department that took him from a nice young player to one of the elite, up the middle franchise guys.  His 158 wRC+ ranked second among qualified Center Fielders (to Mike Trout), and the 31 home runs were by far a career high.  His home runs have steadily increased, from 12 and 16 in his first two seasons to 23 and 31 in the two most recent years.  The speed, or tendency to run, has declined, but if that is truly in exchange for 25-35 home runs, not a problem at all.  Full disclosure: I believe that the power, rather than continue growth, will be closer to 25 home runs consistently.  However, I hope he proves me wrong.

Team Cy Young: A.J. Burnett

A popular punchline in recent years due to the monstrous contract given to him by the Yankees, Burnett found a bit of redemption in his 2012 performance.  The 36 year old finished 2012 with a 3.51 ERA, and the move out of Yankee Stadium worked wonders, as he saw his HR/FB% drop from 17% to 12.7%.  That, combined with his best walk rate since the 2006 season, led to Burnett’s National League success.  He is well past his prime, so Pittsburgh will cross its fingers in hopes of another season of 200+ innings and >= +3 WAR.

Fresh Face with Impact: Russell Martin

Pittsburgh catchers in 2012 combined for +1.3 WAR and an 86 wRC+, which is around middle of the pack for catchers.  Martin was the biggest name that Pittsburgh brought in over the winter, and the combination of he and Michael McKenry should provide some pop and improved offensive output from the catcher spot.  The declining skills of Martin may have been covered up by power playing up in Yankee Stadium for the past two seasons, but a lot can be said for having two solid catchers on the roster.

Impact Prospect: Gerrit Cole

Cole fills out, in the best way possible, all of the stereotypical power RHSP attributes.  He is 6’4”, 220 pounds, and throws absolute fuel, sitting in the mid to upper 90s.  He will feature a four pitch repertoire when he starts his career in Pittsburgh sometime in 2013, and at some point early in the AAA season, I believe things are going to click for him and he is going to dominate.  He has as good a chance of any current pitching prospect to become a true ace, and we may start to see flashes of that beginning in the middle of this year.  Both Cole and Jameson Taillon have left scouts yearning for a little bit more, and when each of them finds it with command and sequencing, it will be fun to watch.

Biggest Sleeper or Breakout Candidate: Mark Melancon

Melancon’s 2012 season, namely the early season blow ups when fans in Boston first realized what they had gotten into with rotation changes and Bobby V running the show, will be remembered as more disastrous than it actually was.  Melancon is a solid back of the bullpen arm, there is no way the home run bug will bite him as often this season, and a move back to the National League always helps.  If Jason Grilli is injured or falters, Melancon is first in line to take over the 9th inning responsibilities.

To 2013 and Beyond:

When will the playoff drought end?  Even with recent strides and the emergence of a star in McCutchen, the Pirates finished fourth in the Central last season, 4 games below .500.  With the Cardinals and Reds set to be great and the Cubs rebuilding efforts going well, the time to strike is… now.  Unfortunately, the two star pitching prospects need a bit more minor league seasoning, and the current MLB talent is not likely to produce a division winner.

McCutchen is entering only his age 26 season, so the prime could either last a while or still be on the way.  This means that the window is not totally closed.  The two ace RHPs will be here in 2013 and likely 2014, and with more shrewd roster moves (Martin, Burnett Wandy), the Pirates will consistently compete.  The biggest obstacle is the talent of other teams in the division.

Projected Lineup: 

Starling Marte – LF

Garrett Jones – RF

Andrew McCutchen – CF

Pedro Alvarez – 3B

Gaby Sanchez – 1B

Neil Walker – 2B

Russell Martin – C

Clint Barmes – SS

Pitcher’s Spot

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