Things are hopping on the Hill. This time next week the roads to Knoxville will be rolling with cars sporting the Orange & White as the UT Faithful head to the O&W Game.
This weekend the Baseball Vols are in the midst of a tough series with a really good Vandy Squad with excellent pitching. Given their series of losses since the SEC schedule has started, you wonder if the confidence of the young team has been shaken. They have been losing close games late in the game. These are tough losses on the egos of young players. Good Luck to them this week.
Basketball for the men and women ended in tough losses and they are recruiting for the final pieces of next year’s team. Both coaches have taken heat and personal attacks in the past year. I think the Lady Vols youth and lack of Seniors hurt them in the Tourney. On Offense they played out of control and needed to slow down a bit at times against a really good Maryland team that had talent and more experience on the floor. The men went to a level they had not seen the past three years. They played tough and did not quit. Michigan has put two Vol Teams out of the NCAA Tourney in tough losses. Both Coaches want to build on the returning players and some new ones to improve next year. Holly has a good class coming in that should address the guard play the team needs for their offense next year. She is waiting on the last piece, A’ja Wilson, from GA, one of the nation’s top players. The other Lady Vols Signees have done well in All Star competition and in their State Tourneys. There is some outside shooting and ball handling coming. The team will be more mature and deeper. Coach Martin is waiting on Stokes’ NBA decision and possible transfers of Grad Students. Both coaches are looking at players for the next class. They are losing a lot of talent but have an opportunity to be deeper if players develop in the coming summer.
On to Football. A lot of fans do not realize how good of a job Butch and his staff have done in coordinating and improving the academics of the Football Program. I have followed the Vols for over 30 years. This year has been the best academically for the team. Now how is that important for the O&W Game? Well, it is simple. We have 14 New Players on the team for Spring Practice because of the number of players that graduated in December and earlier that made scholarships available for the newcomers. If this year’s seniors were graduating in May/June, their scholarships would not have been open until the Summer Session. The good news is that it appears that that trend will continue next year. Watch for another influx of players in January 2015.
Now let’s take a look at the O&W Game. First the players; this team is very different from the group that was on the field last Spring. No one knew last Spring what was expected of them. This year all of the returning players can take the new kids under their wings, reduce the confusion, and set the pace for practice. That is critical to individual improvement.
In all positions the players must have athletic ability/skill. Size (Tall/ BIG), Speed, Explosion, Endurance, and Strength. The incoming Freshmen excel in three of these attributes. Endurance and Pure Sustained Strength are the two areas that “Experienced & Mature” players capitalize on against “Young Players”. The reality is that only the very best 17 or 18 year old player has the physical tools to play an entire game against a senior. Having the 14 come into school in January not only gives them an edge with practice reps critical in the learning process but also in performing at a different standard of physical conditioning.
The General looked at Football as a Military Game. It is physical, but it is also a team game that requires team execution and teamwork in execution of both offensive and defensive plans each play. One player can ruin a plan. Because of the speed of the game a lot of “muscle memory” and “automatic reaction” is called for by each player. It is a lot like fencing, the best players flow with the action and if you have to “think about” what to do it is too late. The best coaches can use talented Freshmen but they do so with caution. That is especially the case on defense, and we have all seen good QB’s bait a Freshman DB, LB, or DE into a BAD choice on coverage…TD!
The last piece needed to succeed is gaining experience to gain the needed skills in execution. A player must not only be “Talented”, but also “Skilled” enough to do the right thing in the execution of each play. Last year the Vols had several TE’s that were “athletic” but were very limited in playing the position due to their lack of skill at executing plays (routes/ blocking). We have seen really talented, physical WR’s that did not know the routes needed to run the plays called by the QB’s. This Spring is about getting young players the repetitions needed to become “skilled” at their positions in the team’s offense or defense. This Spring is an experience gaining opportunity.
At the O&W Game, we need to remember that this is not a game; it is Butch’s measuring stick for the Summer and the past year. It is to look at player progress as individuals and as units. One reason the game is set up is to enable the coaches to see how the unit combinations work regarding timing and execution. It is also used to test players in a near game situation. As a test this is a stressful situation. One thing about practice, you have to practice fast to play fast. The great coaches have always placed great emphasis on the practice effort to prepare for games. Games are easy if your practices are demanding. Listen to the players that were under Lombardi and Wooten. Watch Butch’s practices and you see movement, pace and demands for execution on every play. He will be working on “Game Pace” and “Game Situations” all the way through the O&W Game.