KNOXVILLE — Mike Bajakian wants his offense to play and move quickly.
So Tennessee's offensive coordinator wants his players thinking fast.
The pace goes well beyond the practice field, too.
"We talk about it: Everything we do in the weight room, everything we do here on the field, everything we do in the meeting room is fast," Bajakian said after the Volunteers' last practice before spring break last week. "If you've had a chance to sit on my meetings, I speak very fast in meetings for a reason, because they've got to be able to process information quickly. I don't ask questions where I get a dissertation for an answer.
"It's quick one-word answers. It's quick-moving. Everything we do is up-tempo, from the meetings to the weight room, to the practice field, to hopefully walking to class."
The hills on Tennessee's campus heavily discourage running to class, but Bajakian still wants his players to eat, sleep, breathe and live the up-tempo style that's been the staple of the offense he and new head coach Butch Jones have run together the past six seasons.
Spring practice provides the first test for the Vols in adjusting from last season's fast tempo to an even quicker one with a new coaching staff.
"It's pretty different," quarterback Justin Worley said after the Vols' first scrimmage. "Basically when the runner's down, our eyes are to the sideline getting the next play and they're signaling it in."
In addition to testing the quarterback's ability to lead and manage the 10 other players on offense, the pace of practice has tested the conditioning of Tennessee's receivers and offensive line. The number of practice reps has the young wideouts constantly running. The offensive linemen had to drop fat and gain muscle during the winter strength program in part to prepare themselves for the new practice tempo.
"Right now the biggest learning tool and lesson for them is, 'I don't want to feel like this for fall camp,'" offensive line coach Don Mahoney said. "It's been that way both stops for us, in which every day they're leaving the field and they're going, 'I don't want to feel like this again.' I've asked them, I've said, 'What's been the biggest difference?' and they've said the volume of reps at practice, the intensity of practice, the demands and so forth.
"The most physical units up front are the best conditioned units, and that's the biggest message that I send to them as much as I can. They know now moving forward in the summer, 'I've got to be in great shape,' and [strength coach Dave] Lawson will have them in shape. The winter conditioning part leading into spring ball, usually the guys aren't in their peak shape like they need to be, so it's been kind of a growing process with that and they'll be in shape come this summer."
Tennessee's no-huddle offense last season averaged 74 plays per game and failed to crack the 70-play mark in just three of 12 games. Cincinnati ran 70 or more plays in just five games last season under Jones, and the Bearcats averaged fewer than 70 plays per game in each of the past three seasons. The Vols' commitment to the fast tempo last season should make it easier to adjust to that specific part of a new offensive system.
Yet the initial practices are forcing them to adjust quickly.
"I would say if you're not in shape," receiver Pig Howard said, "it'll be a challenge, but it's just about being in shape, knowing your assignment and just executing the plays."
"[The receivers] do more running than anyone else on the field," Bajakian said. "Our offensive line is doing a lot more running than they're used to, so it's a little bit of a shock to their system, too. They've done a good job of getting into game shape, and once you develop that shape, now you're able to play at the effort level, play at the tempo we want and now again you're sharper with your fundamentals and your techniques."
Jones does little walking on the practice field himself, and the practices are aimed at establishing the level of effort and toughness he wants in his program.
"The environment that Coach Jones creates is meant to apply pressure at all times," Bajakian said. "Whether the setting's Neyland Stadium, whether the setting's here in the indoor facility, we're always looking to apply pressure. I think we create stress and chaos, as Coach Jones has talked about, purposefully, and we always want to see how they're going to respond."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
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 ...