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VOL. 8 | NO. 1 | Saturday, December 27, 2014

Vol Players See TaxSlayer Win as a Big Step for Program

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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KNOXVILLE – Christmas break has come and gone for the University of Tennessee’s football team. Now it’s back to business.

The Vols return to campus for practice Saturday and, after a Sunday practice, fly to Jacksonville for the Jan. 2 game against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, formerly the Gator Bowl.

For the UT seniors, there would be no better way to go out than a bowl victory.

“It’s very important,” senior cornerback Justin Coleman says. “Nobody likes losing. You get that seventh win, that’s something that hasn’t happened in a long time, well, I could say a couple of years. That’s just something Tennessee really needs to get back on top.”

UT’s last seven-win season was in 2009, but it ended with a loss. The Lane Kiffin-coached Vols finished 7-6 after a 37-14 loss to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

The Vols had a chance to win seven the next season, Derek Dooley’s first as UT’s coach. Didn’t happen. The Vols finished 6-7 after a 30-27 double-overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.

Do UT fans remember much about those bowl games?

Not really.

A victory over Iowa would give UT its first winning season since Kiffin’s one-year stand, and its first bowl victory since the 2007 season when Phillip Fulmer’s team beat Wisconsin 21-17 in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl in Tampa. That UT team went 10-4.

“I mean, having a winning season, that’s great,” senior defensive tackle Jordan Williams says. “Of course, me leaving on a win, that would be great for me, and just having our first bowl win since (2008). All of that may be great, the next step for the program.”

Tennessee Volunteers defensive lineman Corey Vereen (50) speaks to the media during the Vols’ bowl preparations at Neyland Stadium. “I’ve never played in January, or December, for that matter,” the sophomore claimed. “It’s a good feeling.”

(Randy Sartin/Tennessee Athletics)

You don’t have to tell that to UT coach Butch Jones.

The Vols will benefit from bowl practices, regardless of the outcome against Iowa.

But a bowl victory would be huge for Jones on the recruiting trail and in the offseason as the Vols prepare for spring practices.

Jones and his staff stayed in touch with their players during the Christmas break to remind them of the task ahead.

“They have kind of been in uncharted waters not just for this entire bowl preparation, but the entire season,” Jones notes. “You have to rely on your maturity and (the chance) to play on a center stage, January 2nd in the TaxSlayer Bowl, and they had a great week (of preparation), about 10 days of preparation for this great bowl game.”

Jones got the help from some former UT players to inspire the current Vols for the bowl.

Denver Broncos quarterback and former Vol Peyton Manning sent a video for the Vols to watch before one of their pre-Christmas bowl practices.

“We have some messages from our former players that are in the National Football League,” Jones explains. “I think Peyton Manning set the temperament for this football team when we watched his message to the team. They understand what is at stake. They understand the magnitude. If you are a competitor, this is what you work for, to play in games like this.”

While the seniors depart, the bowl will serve as a springboard for UT’s underclassmen – especially if they leave Jacksonville with a victory.

“I’ve never played in January, or December, for that matter,” sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen says. “It’s a good feeling. We’re instilling the tradition that we had at Tennessee. We’re bringing that back. It feels pretty good to get back to what we used to do.”

It will feel a lot better if the Vols beat Iowa.

“I’m excited to go to a bowl game,” freshman defensive end Derek Barnett says. “But I want to win. I don’t just want to play in a bowl game. I want to win. I think it’s a big game. It’s a big step for us if we win this ballgame. It gives us a bunch of motivation and (can) set 2015 off on the right track.”

Matchups to watch
Iowa Run Game vs. Vols’ D-Line: UT defensive coordinator John Jancek has prepared his defense for a good dose of smashmouth football against Iowa.

“They don’t make any bones about it,” Jancek says. “They run right at you, inside, outside zone. They have big, physical linemen. They have the Outland Trophy winner (left tackle Brandon Scherff). It’s going to be a great challenge for us to stop the run consistently each and every down.”

The Hawkeyes, however, have been average statistically with their run game. They were ninth among the 12 Big Ten teams in rushing yards per game (156.3) and tied for ninth in average yardage per carry (3.9).

Senior running back Mark Weisman (6-foot, 240 pounds) is a bruising runner. He’s 11th in the Big Ten in rushing with 802 yards (3.9 yard average) and has 14 rushing touchdowns.

The Hawkeyes often employ two running backs, and they won’t back off the run game.

“They’re very patient,” Jancek adds. “They’re not going to abort their game plan. They have a belief in what it is they’re doing.”

Scherff isn’t the only standout lineman for Iowa.

Iowa junior offensive lineman Austin Blythe was chosen to the All-Big Ten second team. Blythe started the first six games at center, started at right guard against Maryland, and started at left guard the last four games.

Dobbs vs. Iowa Secondary: If the Vols’ run game stalls, quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be throwing at an Iowa defense that’s been effective against the pass this season.

The Hawkeyes’ pass defense ranked second in the Big Ten during the regular season in yardage allowed per game (175.8).

“Their secondary is veterans across the board and good players,” UT offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian says. “Their safeties are bigger, physical guys that run the alley well. Their corners are really built for the system. They are well coached and know their scheme inside and out, and they will get after you.”

Iowa safeties John Lowdermilk and Jordan Lomax and cornerback Desmond King were selected to the All-Big Ten honorable mention team.

Lowdermilk, a senior strong safety, leads the Hawkeyes in tackles (95) and interceptions (three). King, the only Iowa sophomore earning Big Ten honors, has started 23 of 24 games in his career and has 54 tackles this year.

Lomax, a junior, started all 12 games at free safety and is second on the team in tackles (84).

Iowa D-Line vs. Vols O-Line: UT’s offensive line faces another stiff challenge against the Hawkeyes, who were the only Big Ten team with three defensive linemen selected to the all-conference first or second teams.

Defensive tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat were chosen to the coaches’ second team, and defensive end Drew Ott was selected to the media’s second team.

Davis, a senior, has started 25 consecutive games next to Trinca-Pasat, also a senior. Davis has 34 tackles this season, including nine for losses.

Trinca-Pasat, who has started every game the past three seasons, is fourth on the team in tackles (65) and second in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (11.5).

Ott, a junior, has started 24 consecutive games and leads the team with eight sacks and 12 tackles for loss.

Notable notes
Win It For Croom: UT lost its fourth wide receiver to a season-ending injury when sophomore Jason Croom suffered a knee injury early in bowl practices and had surgery last week.

“It’s very disappointing,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni explains. “Here’s a guy who busted his tail and gotten better all season long and has done everything that I’ve asked of him.

“He just doesn’t say a word and works his tail off and then the game gets taken away here at the end. We’re going to go win this ballgame for him.”

The wide receiver corps had already lost Marquez North, Josh Smith and Cody Blanc for the season due to injuries.

With Croom out, true freshman Vic Wharton of Independence High School in Spring Hill got reps with the first team during 11-on-11 team drills in bowl workouts.

Wharton has played in eight games this season with one start and has four catches for 15 yards.

“Vic Wharton continues to get better and better and better,” UT coach Butch Jones says. “Vic has a great work ethic about himself. He’s been one of those individuals that’s just kept working and working and working. Very proud of him.”

Still, Croom is a big loss in more ways than one. At 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, Croom is a tough matchup because of his size, and came on late in the season with clutch catches.

He had 21 receptions for 305 yards this season and tied for the team-high touchdown catches with four.

UT was working with six wide-outs during bowl practices: Wharton, Von Pearson, Alton “Pig” Howard, Josh Malone, Ryan Jenkins, Johnathon Johnson, and Jacob Carter.

“It’s reality, what’s happened, but Iowa doesn’t care,” Azzanni adds. “We’ll find some solutions, and like I said, next guy up. Vic Wharton is doing a heck of a job, having some great practices, and I’m really proud of him. Ryan Jenkins is doing really well and he’s stepping up.

“That’s why we recruit and why we have a little bit of depth. We’re definitely thinner now, there’s no question about that. But we have good enough players to go play this game.”

Young’s Return: Senior tailback Devrin Young’s return for the bowl game would be a big boost for a thin unit.

When leading rusher Jalen Hurd left the Vanderbilt game with what was called an “upper-body injury,” UT was forced to rely heavily on the running of Dobbs.

Young, former standout at Knoxville Bearden, hasn’t played since leaving the Oct. 11 game against Tennessee-Chattanooga with an injury to his ribs.

“I think Devrin is coming back at a really good time, and he gives a different dimension for us in the backfield,” UT running backs coach Robert Gillespie says.

“He’s done all the things that he has needed to do from a mental standpoint. It’s like riding a bike. He has got back out there.

“He looks fast. He has fresh legs. I think he is prepared, and having a good bowl practice, and hopefully, that can transfer to the game, and he can have a good game in his last game as a Vol.”

Young has six carries for 24 yards this season.

Freshman tailback Derrell Scott decided to transfer and not play in the bowl game, leaving the Vols with four backs for the bowl game: Hurd, Young, Marlin Lane, and walk-on Deanthonie Summerhill.

Vols Support Lady Vols: UT’s football team was introduced Saturday during the Lady Vols’ 59-40 victory against Stanford at Thompson-Boling Arena.

The Vols got a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 13,056.

“By the way, a great, great win for (the Lady Vols), very proud of them, very excited for (coach) Holly (Warlick),” Jones says.

“Our players came up to me and said, ‘Coach, we want to go support our basketball team. Can we move practice up?’ To me, we talk about ‘One Tennessee,’ that means everything. Just seeing their temperament at the (basketball) game, and I thought it was outstanding. It was a great environment.”

Hurd’s Status: Jones says Hurd’s status for the bowl game hasn’t changed despite his arrest by citation for underage drinking on Dec. 3. He will play.

Hurd, a true freshman from Hendersonville Beech High School, is the Vols’ leading rusher with 777 yards and a 4.5-yard average per carry. He’s scored three touchdowns.

Jones adds he handled Hurd’s situation internally.

Asked if underage drinking is a big deal to him, Jones explains: “… it’s a very big deal to us. Again, maybe I look at things a little bit differently because I grew up in a law enforcement house, so I’ve seen it all.”

Jones father, Lyle Jones, is the former police chief of Saugatuck, Mich.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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