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What Tennessee Football Assistant Coaches Said Ahead Of Alabama Game

Tennessee Practice Highlights
Tennessee practice highlights from Saturday morning in Knoxville. Via RTI.

Tennessee football is looking to earn its first road win of the season this Saturday when they head to Tuscaloosa for a rivalry matchup against Alabama.

Coming off the Vols’ big win over Texas A&M, defensive back’s coach Willie Martinez and running back’s coach Jerry Mack met with the local media Tuesday.

Both coaches talked about their units’ strong performances against Texas A&M but also began discussing the upcoming challenge at Alabama as the Vols look for their first win at Alabama since 2003. Here’s everything Martinez and Mack said on Tuesday ahead of the Vols’ matchup against the Crimson Tide.

More From RTI: Jalen Milroe Says Alabama Is ‘Going To Have A Lot Of Fun’ Against Tennessee’s Pass Rush

Running Back’s Coach Jerry Mack

On what makes Jaylen Wright so good after contact

“The mindset more than anything else. Jaylen always ran the ball with a chip on his shoulder. When he approaches the game, you can watch him in pregame some, he’s very, very intense and he prepares very intense.  You can see the reflection of it on the field. The way he attacks the game, the way he attacks the preparation, when he gets the ball, he’s kind of got that mindset, ‘I refuse to go down’. He doesn’t want to make the first guy bring him down. He’s done a lot better job this year I feel like of leg drive. You can see when he goes between the tackles, he’s getting his feet up on contact, running on small spaces. The last couple of years you would see guys bring him down with just a shoestring tackle and that no longer really happens.”

On when they realized the defensive line was a good group that would make them better

“I think it all started showing itself a little bit in the spring. When you look at the spring football practice, we always have really good intents, we always combat competitive, not combative, more than anything else. You could see the intensity that we were practicing with in the spring, you start to kind of carry over to the fall. Then, all of sudden we get a couple of new bodies, healthier, more than anything else, really on both sides of the ball. Guys that weren’t available in the spring and we’d be having some battles out there. It’s like we always say, iron sharpens iron and now what you see is a reflection. Our run game is probably better just because our defense has gotten so much better, especially that defensive line unit.”

On why Jaylen Wright matches up well against Alabama

“I think, more than anything, just the diversity that he brings to the table. You can see Jaylen has really worked on his pass receiving skills and you can see now we start to do more things with him as far as throwing the ball out of the backfield. He always could do it, (but) the other guys were a little bit farther ahead. Now with that has opened up the window for us to do is now expose all of those guys to a lot of different things. Whether it’s Jabari (Small), or J-Wright, or even (Dylan) Sampson, now they all got very similar skillsets where we feel comfortable moving those guys around into a lot of different positions. I do think just the approach he takes to games, he’s a lot more patient as a runner. If he continues to do a good job of being patient, he’s going to always have success no matter what defense we line up against.”

On how special the feel for the game Jaylen Wright has developed is and how it’s affecting his performance this season

“You wish all of your guys would make sure they’re students of the game. Jaylen has done a really good job in the offseason and in season studying the game. We tease a lot of these guys, a lot of times they don’t watch football so a lot of times can’t tell you even some of the past greats who played the game because they didn’t grow up watching the game as much as my generation did, more than anything else. Now, what you see is, here’s a guy, he’s kind of got a throwback feel to him. He can tell you about guys like Walter Payton, or TD (Terrell Davis) or anybody like that. It’s just a mindset of, ‘hey look, I want to study the greats, I want to study past greats, I want to study current greats, I want to study just the game of football to see what those guys saw’. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the scheme that we do, but from a standpoint of just those small things (like) using the stiff arm, you can see him using that off arm as a weapon now. You can see him, like I said, get his feet up on contact. He got that little leg kick like Payton used to have sometimes when he’s trying to be patient, going between the tackles on the perimeter. It’s just all those little things that have allowed him to really be special as far as understanding what the free hitters are. We talk a lot about, because of our splits and how we play, where those free and those bodies are going to come from. Whether it’s the safety position, whether it’s that nickel position. Sometimes, when we’re reading those guys, just kind of how to attack the leverage. I think his study of the game has really improved and now what you’re seeing is he’s taking that, and he’s applied that to Saturdays.”

On what the return of Cooper Mays has meant for the running game

“It has been tremendous. The first couple of games, we were out there playing, and we had some success. We were doing some good things. When Coop came back, you could see the communication level just increase. I think the confidence that he brings to the table, he makes players around him better as well. He’s such a smart player, he can understand where to take the points, where to take the ID’s and then he exudes confidence in the entire offense because of what he does. Now, you can see us getting to the second level. The beginning of the season, we might be on half a man, Coop covers up the entire body so now it’s been able to create lanes for us and it exudes confidence in not only the running backs, but also the offensive line.”

On Jabari Small’s career and how he’s been this year in a different role

“I just think as you grow as a program, as you grow as a person period, things start to evolve, things start to change. Jabari has taken this deal all in stride. He always was a team first guy. He always had a mindset of, ‘I want what’s best for the team’. He understands his role more this year, it’s a little bit different than it was the first two years. He’s done a really good job of playing that role. He’s ready whenever we have an opportunity to call his number. Sometimes he’s going to have to be called upon to finish games this year. They all need one another. Jaylen (Wright), the way we play with Samp (Dylan Sampson) and Jabari, the manner in which we play, it’s really tough to get those guys 40 and 50 snaps in the game. Some days, Jabari might end up having more snaps or he may not, but just the approach that he’s taken into the game, this year especially, he understands his role is different. Our offense is different than it was in the past and he’s really just been a complete team player. Just a compliment to him over his career, the first couple of years where he’s thrust into that position where we lost two guys. We came in the door, he had to be the guy. Then, last year had to be that guy and continue to fight through injury. He’s got a warrior mentality.”

On what he sees from Joey Halzle in terms of attributes that he’s brought as offensive coordinator

“The experience. Joey has been in this offense probably just as long or longer than anybody in that room. He’s seen so much. The diversity that he brings to the table, all his different stops and all the different structures that he’s seen. He can make those halftime adjustments like nothing because he can refer back to something he might of saw two or three years ago and then now we can make that adjustment. Him and Coach (Glen) Elarbee have worked together for so long. Coach Elarbee is the same way. He’s kind of been on the grassroots of this offense as well. When they get in there and they start talking about things that might’ve happened seven, eight years ago, we have to, me and Kelsey (Pope), go back to the film from seven, eight years ago and try and pull it up and see exactly what’s going on. Just the experience in the offense and the scheme and what we do. He has great ideas, he’s a student of the game. In the offseason we try to build like basically a library of NFL things and what we steal from other college programs across the country about what they do well. He’s kind of one of those guys that’s always in the film room, always studying to try and find different ways to put us in great positions.”

On how Jaylen Wright’s toughness elevates the room

“It builds a lot of confidence in the entire room and the entire team. There was one specific situation last game where he tried to hurdle a guy. You can see that energy that he brought to the table, it ignited the entire offense. The young man ended up getting injured, I think he ended up maybe coming back. For the most part, it was a situation where that right there you could see our entire intensity, the way we play, the manner in which we play when we touch the ball all of a sudden changed. It’s those kinds of plays. It doesn’t mean it has to always be a 50-yard touchdown, it could just be a guy going pad plus two, it could be a guy pushing the pile like you see sometimes. That creates an energy amongst the team and the fanbase a lot of times when you see those types of plays.”

On the next step in freshman Cameron Seldon’s development

“He’s at a really good place right now. I really think if Cam had to be thrust into that position to go out there and play and give us quality reps, he could. Once again, he’s a guy that stays in the film room. He’s an early bird, Cam is a guy, we practice in the morning, he’s basically the first one in the building all the time. I don’t know how much the guy really sleeps, but he does a really good job of being on time. He’s never missed anything. Just from a development and growth standpoint, like all young guys, the protection piece is going to be critical for him to continue to develop and grow. He’s not there by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously, he has the rest of the season to go, and then also during spring ball he has to continue to grow in that aspect. Learning how to run between the tackles, being a violent runner in between the tackles and being able to feel the bodies when they cross his face, feel when he can go ahead and take the space that he has. Those kinds of things right there, he’s still learning and still growing in that, but I do think as he continues to get more reps in practice, he’s in the rotation right now, he’s like the fourth back so to speak. If one of those guys gets a hangnail, Cam Seldon is the next guy up.”

Defensive Backs Coach Willie Martinez

On Kamal Hadden’s development this year

“Everybody has a developmental progress. Everybody will develop in certain stages in their lives quicker or it will take a little bit of time. Obviously, we know is somebody who was talented and was athletic. We knew that he had the skills. Working and preparing, and this is his third year here. Because of the injuries, this was his first time he ever went through spring ball and developed. Obviously, he took it through the summer and the fall camp and is now putting it to work in games on a more consistent basis.”

On how he’s seen Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe improve this season

“We thought he was a hell of a football player last year. When we were preparing for the game, we thought he was going to be the starter and he was playing well. A year later, he’s obviously matured. He’s got a great arm, strong arm that can make every throw. He’s a dual threat in the quarterback run game or if the pocket collapses, he can scramble to run, but at times too he will also scramble to throw the ball down the field. He feels a lot more comfortable and confident. You can see it in some of the throws that he makes. Now, he’s making some really great decisions too when he decides not to throw it. That’s what we are seeing more of.”

On Jalen Milroe’s improved pocket presence and how that affects the defense

“For the back end, whenever you are playing coverage, you put your eyes where they belong and stay in coverage. Someone that is a dual threat like him is not to worry about when he starts to scramble but make sure that you stay in coverage. That’s the most important thing we can do with a guy like Milroe because he will make you pay. He’s gone a lot of the time, but other times too, he’ll throw the ball down the field. He’s been very successful at doing that when guys are leaving their man or getting out of coverage. That’s where he’s done a lot of damage. We’re going to have to be really good around the entire defense. If the pocket collapses, we have to do a good job of being disciplined and staying in our rushing lanes and being in the position to flush him east and west as opposed to him getting out north and south. We also have to stay in coverage as well.”

On Kamal Hadden’s work ethic

“We have a great culture here. I’m going to give the credit to Coach Heupel because it starts with him. When we first got here to the time that we are in right now, we have a great group of men and staff that have put their arms around each and every kid and don’t single out one guy. It’s been the whole entire organization that has put their arms around each other and have helped each other. You need that no matter what and whoever that might be. Kamal, like everybody else, has bought in. You can see that he’s gotten better each and every year and day. In every phase of his life, you see that. He graduated, he’s already a graduate and that’s important for him and his family. That was the number one goal of his. It’s great to see that build his confidence, and it would build anybody’s confidence. You see the results. He’s put a lot of work into it, and like a lot of us, you put the work into it, stay focused and try and win each day. He’s done that, and you move on to the next day. The most important thing is the next rep because it’s the next thing you do. Even though it might not have been perfect or really good, you reset. He’s done that on a consistent basis. He’s seeing the results from that.”

On if Doneiko Slaughter is still getting ramped up to be 100 percent available or if they have settled on playing primarily just two corners

“No, we went into it trying to play four. We wanted to play at least four to five guys at the corner position, at least four. We are still in that mindset, but again, as the games go, the hot man stays in so to speak. We are going to continue to play as many guys as we can. You have to be able to do that in this day and age, with all the offenses and how talented they are and all the tempos. That has been good for us because we have been able to not only give the reps that these guys deserve, but it has also kept us fresh in the fourth quarter. It’s just like our d-line, and I have kind of learned from that. A lot of d-line coaches rotate their guys because they can’t go out. It’s a line of scrimmage game, I know that, but in looking at that it has also brought some really great results. It’s done it for us too. We’ve been able to get guys in there when we needed to. We were not able to do that the last two years. It’s been very beneficial for us in being able to do that, so he will play a lot.”

On how much the depth and competition on the practice field helps develop the entire group

“It’s the last great motivator, right? When they see each other push each other. They are talented and they know that they have to step it up each and every day. We try and make it a competition every day. I mean, we just had it out their today. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are workdays. We call it tough Tuesday for a reason. Only your best is good enough, you know what I mean? You might have had a great day yesterday, and it’s a new day. That’s the kind of mindset that everybody has. To have the competition has only made the guys better. It has obviously helped the young guys. They’re doing really well on special teams and fighting for reps on defense.”

On the impact expected from Tamarion McDonald against Alabama

“The same impact he’s making each and every day. T-Mac is our guy on the backend. He’s got to set the defense, he’s got to make the checks, he’s got to be a very productive player when he’s playing against the slots, from a run game and from a passing game. He’s done a tremendous job. The same thing that he’s been doing, just better. I would say that to every single one of the guys and he would say the same thing to you.”

On the coverage numbers looking better this season than they did last season

“I know it’s the last line of defense and we got to be really good, obviously. It’s really the credit to the entire defense. It takes 11 guys to play really great defense. Coach (Tim) Banks does a great job in leading the defense. We just got more depth, we’ve got younger guys that have come in here and they’re contributing and pushing the envelope as far as pushing each other to be better. We’re healthier in the backend, we weren’t last year. You can’t get better unless you’re getting reps. It doesn’t matter how good you are. We’ve been very fortunate to be relatively healthy. I know we’ve lost Christian Charles and some other guys have been bumped up here and there. For the most part we’ve been healthy. That’s helped us be able to practice every day, push each other to be better. You can see the confidence.”

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