KNOXVILLE -- Willie Bohannon admits he's his own harshest critic.
After a particularly disappointing performance in Tennessee's season opener, the Volunteers' defensive end remembered sitting down with position coach Lance Thompson.
"I played really bad," Bohannon recalled after UT's practice on Tuesday morning. "[Thompson] sat down and talked to some of the other guys who played bad, and he questioned us if it was important to us or not. I've always thought it was important to me."
Seven games later, Bohannon's consistency earned him a starting spot against Middle Tennessee State, and he's held it since. The Mobile, Ala., resident had a sack against Florida, half a sack against South Carolina and three quarterback hurries last week against Vanderbilt, but it was his three-tackle performance against LSU in October that he considers the turning point.
"Nothing special," said the 254-pounder. "The coaches have been telling me I've been playing pretty well. I look at the film and I see I've been striking more, doing the small things right. I never really thought about why they put me in more.
"When I got in, I just played, and that's the only thing I needed to think about."
Head coach Derek Dooley said Monday that Bohannon's consistency has been the primary reason he's nudged ahead of Jacques Smith, the former Ooltewah star who has struggled to meet high preseason expectations with just half a sack this season. Dooley said UT needs more from its ends.
"[Bohannon] plays with a lot of discipline, he's where he's supposed to be, and that's good," Dooley said. "We've got to keep getting better there."
Bohannon credited Thompson with helping him improve against the run despite his demanding style.
"If you get a 'Good job' from him," Bohannon said with a grin, "then it's like you actually did something good. He's not one of those people that's going to sugarcoat anything.
"I didn't want to be that second guy at all. I've seen a lot of guys who were not even thought of at one point that became a starter or had the chance to become a starter. I looked at that and I just kept working."
The suspense is gone, but the pain in Tyler Bray's broken right thumb is not.
UT's sophomore quarterback will start Saturday's regular-season finale at Kentucky, but he said Tuesday there's still soreness.
"We have to keep managing him," Dooley said. "He's not even close to 100 percent. One week doesn't get that thumb back to where he was. He showed today he was really rusty. We have to keep managing it and warming it up properly, stretching it and rehabbing it."
Bray started last week's win against Vanderbilt last week with gloves on both hands, but he ditched them after his second interception, which the Commodores ran back for a score. He doesn't plan to wear them at Kentucky, and he added he's still trying to find a mental comfort level in dealing with the pain and being able to throw like he did at full strength.
"He's not a medical doctor," Dooley said. "I like the way he thinks, he's got a good positive attitude and we need him to think that way. Only time will tell. I don't know if he will be [better] or not."
Vincent Dallas made just his third catch of the season, a 22-yarder in the third quarter against the Commodores. The freshman receiver from Ellenwood, Ga., enrolled at UT in January, but he's been outperformed by fellow freshman DeAnthony Arnett, who arrived in June.
"He's getting a little more in the rotation," Dooley said of Dallas. "He's developing a little better understanding of the offense. I think that's increased his confidence a little bit, allowed him to play a little faster and allowed him to make some plays out there. The faster he plays, the more confident he plays and the more ability he shows to make plays, the more we integrate him into the offense."
Dallas has been the Vols' best perimeter blocker, Dooley said. Dallas credits that to his days as a defensive back in high school.
"Growing up playing football, I was always aggressive," said the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder. "I was always taught blocking is important in the receiving game, so I just try to execute that. I just try to wait on my number to be called, and I try to make a play."
Citing the decision by the Big Ten Conference to play nine league games starting in 2017, Ohio State requested to have its home-and-home series with UT canceled, according to a release from the school. The Buckeyes had agreed to host the Vols in Columbus in 2018 and travel to Knoxville the following year.
UT agreed and the two schools "may look at an option to play in future years," the release stated.
Safeties Prentiss Waggner (shoulder) and Brian Randolph (concussion) were in noncontact jerseys Tuesday morning, though both practiced and are expected to play Saturday. ... Defensive ends Marlon Walls and Ben Martin rode stationary bikes during the portion of practice open to the media. ... Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said backup quarterback Morgan Newton is "probably less banged up" than freshman Maxwell Smith, who's started the last three games and didn't practice Tuesday after suffering a shoulder injured in the Wildcats' loss at Georgia last week.