KNOXVILLE — Josh Conklin is easily the most reserved member of Tennessee's four-man defensive coaching staff.
Yet you could hear the first-year safeties coach bellow at the Volunteers' defensive backs from a block or two away early Tuesday morning.
In their first trip back to the practice field since allowing 51 points, 560 yards and multiple big plays in last week's loss to Georgia, Tennessee's defensive players went back to the basics with a heavy emphasis on tackling.
"We missed a lot of tackles during the game, so they wanted to press us more to make tackles," sophomore cornerback Justin Coleman said. "We did a lot of tackling drills to get better. Everything's technique, but they tell us it's really a 'want.'
"You've got to want to go make the tackle and make a play for the team."
Tennessee missed countless tackles due to poor form, slow reactions, bad angles on ball carriers and the talent of Keith Marshall and Toddy Gurley, the Bulldogs' tailback tandem. The Vols tackled well in the season opener against North Carolina State, but they seem to have taken steps back since then. With three open-date practices to turn the focus inward, the Vols are returning to the fundamentals.
"Open week's always a time to go re-evaluate your fundamentals and what you're not doing as well as you need to," head coach Derek Dooley said, "and of course the tackling and the open-field tackling and the space tackling is a real major concern where we need to make some significant improvement."
As is typical with open-date practices, the Vols' starting offense and defense went head-to-head.
"It was just like a camp practice out there," linebacker A.J. Johnson said. "We pretty much worked on tackling and a lot of pursuit, getting everybody to the ball."
Senior linebacker Herman Lathers said the defense has emphasized using this week to improve tackling and pursuit. Typically, he said, the Vols just wrap up players and don't take them to the ground during in-season practices. Lathers acknowledged it's difficult to simulate Gurley or South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore or any Alabama tailback against the scout team, but he believes it's still valuable to maintain the fundamentals in practice.
"Sometimes at practice we get lazy and we don't wrap a guy up and he just runs by," he said. "Bad habits transfer into the game, so we're just trying to hold each other accountable and practice good habits. You practice good fundamentals at practice, and it carries over into the game."
Receiver Zach Rogers caught 14 passes in each of the past two seasons, and after the senior made a team-high six catches for 51 yards against Georgia, he's already at 14 in just five games this season. He added a 4-yard scoring reception in which he held on to the ball despite a late helmet-to-helmet hit from Georgia safety Sean Williams that put him a noncontact jersey Tuesday.
On that play and another play that converted a third down into a first, Rogers was on the same page with quarterback Tyler Bray, and the two connected even though Rogers had adjusted his route based on the coverage.
"We just made it work," Bray said. "I've played with him for three years now, so we kind of know what we're thinking. You never hear anybody really reporting on him [or] no one really talking about him, and he goes out there and scores a touchdown.
"Everyone's like, 'Oh, crap, where'd he come from?'"
Among UT's receivers, Rogers was just fourth in receptions in 2011 and finished with three fewer than Justin Hunter, who essentially played just two games. With Da'Rick Rogers (Tennessee Tech) and DeAnthony Arnett (Michigan State) playing elsewhere now, the 6-foot, 172-pounder from Nashville has had his role increase drastically.
Dooley said Rogers' production this season has been "extremely" valuable as opponents focus on Hunter and newcomer Cordarrelle Patterson.
"Georgia's whole plan was bracketing our big guys out wide, which is understandable," he said. "When they do that, guys like Zach and [tight end] Mych Rivera and [tailback] Rajion [Neal] have got to make plays, and they did. They continue to."
Maggitt making moves
Johnson said fellow sophomore linebacker Curt Maggitt (turf toe) is not 100 percent, but Dooley said the sophomore's inexperience is limiting his production more than the injury.
"He shows a lot of flashes where he's making good plays, but I think Curt's biggest issue, I believe, is he just hadn't played a lot," Dooley said. "It's a new position for him on the line. All the play recognition, you'll see him early in a game screw it up, and then they run the same play later in the game and he plays it beautifully."
The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder missed all of spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, and the toe injury he suffered in the season opener cost him a week of practice and the Georgia State game.
Yet Dooley praised Maggitt for making in-game adjustments and improving later in the game.
"It's what good players do," he said. "They learn how to survive, and they start making adjustments throughout the game. They come to the sideline: 'You played it wrong; this is how you've got to play that now.'
"Next time they run it, boom, plays it perfectly."
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 ...