KNOXVILLE - Robert Gillespie was named Tennessee's running backs coach eight days before the Volunteers' first spring practice in March.
Five months later, the former Florida tailback already notices the difference in familiarity early in preseason training camp.
“I know them, and they know me,” Gillespie said Tuesday night after Tennessee wrapped up practice under the Haslam Field lights. “I’ve got a better feel of what each one of those guys can do, and I think they have a great feel of my expectations of them. Now it’s getting to be where they can finish my sentences.
“They know what I want just by the way I look at them, so I think it’s a comfort level of them knowing me and knowing what I want and me knowing each one of them and what they bring to the table.”
The 34-year-old is as energetic and intense as any coach on Tennessee’s staff, and the Vols’ tailbacks realized quickly that Gillespie stresses the small details. With so little time between his arrival and the start of spring football, both he and his players had to adjust on the fly. Now they’re all on the same page.
“It just comes from understanding,” Gillespie said. “They understand the expectations of this offense, Coach [Butch] Jones, Coach Jake [offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian] and me as a position coach. I think it’s just more of a comfort level. They understand why we’re so intense as coaches. They understand what we want. Fast and furious is the way we play, so we demand a lot out of them.”
Other than the offensive line, the tailbacks are the most proven part of Tennessee’s retooling offense. Rajion Neal is a senior who was on pace for a 1,000-yard season before spraining his ankle midway through last season. Marlin Lane, back from a spring suspension, accounted for more than 1,300 yards of offense in the past two seasons.
“There’s a lot more work to do,” Gillespie said. “I’m glad there’s 20 some-odd days away from game time. We’ve still got to get better at the little things. Like I told the guys the other day, the big things we know. It’s just the little things: great ball security, communication with the offensive line — those are the things, hopefully, that continue to grow as we go on.”
Offensive line coach Don Mahoney prefers to have a seven-player rotation, and he’s looking for one more lineman to solidify the spot immediately behind the Vols’ experienced top six.
After his five starters — from left to right: Antonio “Tiny” Richardson, Alex Bullard, James Stone, Zach Fulton and Ja’Wuan James — Mahoney likes guard Marcus Jackson and Mack Crowder, a redshirt sophomore center.
“We still need a tackle to step up,” he said.
The coaches tinkered with the offensive line in the spring, so Fulton and Bullard are versatile enough to slide outside and play tackle, and Mahoney called Marques Pair, a fourth-year junior with one career appearance, a “pleasant surprise” early in camp.
“He’s really done a nice job,” he said. “He had a great summer, and he’s playing at a different level than he did this spring, and it’s a credit to him and [strength coach Dave] Lawson for the work he’s put in and the commitment level that he’s shown. I’m encouraged by what he’s done so far.”
With such a young and inexperienced unit, receivers coach Zach Azzanni still is coaching perhaps the hardest he has in career, but he at least appears to be more upbeat than he was throughout spring practice.
“I told my wife today this season may age me about 10 years,” said Azzanni, who turns 37 on Saturday. “There’ll be some peaks and valleys for sure. There’ll be a lot of growing pains, but they’re willing and it’ll be fun coaching these younger guys.”
Freshmen Marquez North, Ryan Jenkins and Josh Smith, who sat out Tuesday’s practice with a sleeve on his right knee, already have received first-team work in practice and praise from coaches. Azzanni hasn’t been hesitant to throw the newcomers into the fire because he wants to see what they can do and he saw the other wideouts in spring practice. The hardest part with first-year players, he said, is managing the grind of the season and keeping their spirits up through struggles.
“I don’t know if I was surprised,” he said. “They’re very good athletes, our freshmen are, all the way to Johnathon Johnson, who we brought in. I’m really encouraged. [They’re] green, don’t know our style of play yet, don’t know our mentality, all the little things that Coach Jones and our staff preaches, but as far as just being able to run around and catch the ball, I’m really pleased.”
Though he said no players have stood out above the others, Azzanni, who daily rotates his wideouts through the different receiver positions, hopes he can solidify a nine-receiver rotation.
“If it’s Jason Croom in the slot, it’s him in the slot,” he said. “If it’s Pig Howard outside, it’s him outside. Whatever it is, I’m going to get the best four guys out there to give us a chance to win. I’m going to develop that through these practices and find out who our playmakers are, and the playmakers are going to go play and I’m going to teach them the position.”
<em>Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.</em>