KNOXVILLE - Tennessee defensive line coach Steve Stripling showed up at the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex on Tuesday with a cup bearing a message: "Mr. Positive."
After a few initial laughs, the Volunteers took the ploy as intentional.
"This staff is pretty, pretty good about getting under your skin," senior defensive end Marlon Walls said following practice Tuesday afternoon. "He knew by him coming in with [that] cup, it was trying to say that we're not doing anything, you know what I mean? We laughed about it, but at the same time, it was like, 'Hey guys, let's go to work today and let's get better today.'
"He was joking about it or whatever, but we understood what he was trying to say, and it was trying to get us to go."
Butch Jones had a similar message for his senior-laden defensive line Tuesday, but the first-year head coach needed no cup, banner or coffee mug to deliver it.
"This is a line-of-scrimmage league, and you win up front," he said. "We have some older players there. They need to start leading more. They need to start demanding more from themselves, especially when they get tired. I'm starting to see progress there, but everything has to be accelerated in the next couple days.
"Some players respond, other players don't, and I think it's accountability to each other. I think Dan McCullers is working through that. I see him developing. We need to rely on Corey Miller more. He needs to step up a little bit more. These are all very prideful individuals."
Beyond the six seniors, the Vols are looking to fill out the rest of Stripling's desired 10-man rotation. With Jacques Smith (thumb) and Corey Vereen (knee) on the shelf for the remainder of preseason practice and Mo Couch (calf) sidelined the past few days, there are more opportunities for some other players to earn attention. Two coaches in the last week have said the Vols aren't yet there.
Case in point: Tennessee's second-team offense powered through the second-team defense on a 14-play scoring drive in Saturday night's scrimmage and didn't throw a pass on the march.
"It's an opportunity for a guy to step up and show what he can do," defensive coordinator John Jancek said Monday. "I don't feel we've had anybody that really has done that yet. I think the guys need to talk about it in their [meeting] room and understand that, hey, injuries are part of football.
"We lost Jacques and Corey for a designated amount of time, and now somebody else has to step in there and pull their weight and get the job done."
Miller pointed to freshman defensive tackle Jason Carr's two-sack performance Tuesday as a positive step. Junior end Jordan Williams also has shown some flashes. There are bodies there, but developing depth remains a work in progress.
"Everybody understands right now that everyone on the D-line has to contribute," Miller said. "Yeah, we have six seniors, but we need depth. In order to play D-line in the SEC, you need guys that can rotate in and that can benefit and help the D-line immediately."
The message from the coaching staff, though, may be a different one, and it clearly appears directed at the unit's veterans.
"We've got to emphasize it ourselves," Walls said. "It's different coming from a coach, but at the same time, when it's coming from a guy that's one of your leaders, somebody that's on the team with you, then you understand the importance. We've just got to take that and take it into stride.
"Everything [Stripling] says, we've got to keep building on it."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.