Tennessee players scattered into lines covering the practice field just as they do every day.
Once the lines were uniform, Butch Jones’ whistle shrieked.
“Red!” players shouted in unison.
The whistle blared again.
As players faced the media post-practice Tuesday, they discussed their upcoming game against “the red team.” Not Alabama.
“I give the red team their credit,” wideout Alton Howard said. “They’re a great football team.”
Jones talks constantly about the importance of the mental aspects of football, saying Monday that the game rewards those who are mentally conditioned.
This is his latest ploy.
Despite its No. 1 ranking, despite the gaudy statistics, despite the bursting trophy cases, Alabama is still a football team.
They buckle their helmets, lace their cleats and crack shoulder pads each week just like the Vols.
“You know what they bring to the table, you know how good they are,” Corey Miller said. “Even though they’re a great team… they’re a team just like we are.”
Jones doesn’t want his players to gawk at Alabama’s godly reputation.
If you do, the game is already lost.
“Mentally just by their name, when teams hear their name, they’re mentally beat already,” Howard told IT. “… We got warriors on our team as well, it’s just going to be time to go to war.”
Tennessee players may be trying to temporarily forget Alabama’s name and associated prestige, but they’re not trying to forget about the rivalry.
“Everything,” Miller said when asked about the importance of the Alabama game. “It’s one of those teams you just don’t like, you never like and when they come up on the schedule you know what time it is.”
Dan the man
Daniel McCullers’ name is hollered over loud speakers during practice seemingly as much as hip-hop music.
Jones challenges the Vols’ sedan-sized nose tackle with his trusty microphone each practice, calling him out for complacency and laziness.
McCullers drew rare praise from Jones on Monday after logging a career best game.
The 351-pounder tallied six tackles, including 2.5 for a loss against South Carolina. McCullers had a noticeable pep to his get off throughout the entire contest.
Corey Miller said the improvement was because McCullers was playing angry.
“Dan has it in him. He’s always had it in him. When he gets angry, I know I don’t want to be around him,” Miller said. “I would hate to be an offensive lineman when he’s angry. That’s what it is. Dan can do whatever Dan wants to do when he puts his mind to it. When he gets a little mad, you can see what he do.”
Miller wouldn’t share what had McCullers angry Saturday, but it wasn’t because he was being reluctant.
“I can’t even tell you,” Miller said with a grin. “I don’t want to ask him because he may get mad at me.”
Luckily for the Vols, it’s easy to make McCullers mad.
“You just gotta stay on him and talk trash to him,” Miller said. “Tell him he’s not playing hard. It’s as easy as that.”
He left out one important step in antagonizing McCullers.
“Then I’m going to run far,” Miller chuckled.
Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane emerged from the facility with an announcement.
“We’ll be doin’ our interviews together today,” Neal said, walking step for step with Lane.
It’s only fitting.
The Tennessee tailbacks have quietly emerged as a dangerous two-headed attack.
“Everyone needs a running mate. We do a great job running together,” Neal said. “It’s not no he first or I’m first, we try to feed off each other and both go.”
While Neal has commanded the baulk of the carries thus far, both backs have been equally effective.
Neal is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Lane is good for 5.9.
Lane’s longest run of the season was a 54-yard scamper. Neal’s is 53.
Neal and Lane love the competition.
“We have the most fun going in after each other, you know, feeding off each other and seeing who can finish it,” Neal said. “It’s exciting.”
The two backs compete each and every practice, but it always stays friendly. It’s partly because of their longstanding relationship.
Lane first met Neal at a recruiting camp when he was just a sophomore in high school. He says the bond they share helps fuel both the competition and their on-the-field success.
“We just push each other. We compete at practice. Sometimes I’ll send him a text during the week saying, ‘What you think about 100 apiece this game?’” Lane said. “… We just keep pushing each other. It’s always friendly.”
Simple yet smart
Alabama has ruled the college football landscape for the last several years, habitually making top-ranked schools look like Pop Warner foes.
But they’re not doing it by out-confusing anyone.
Alabama’s schemes are simple. Their execution is just flawless.
“It’s not confusing at all. They just line up and say come at us and try to beat us,” Ja’Wuan James said when asked about what makes Alabama’s defense so strong. “They think they’re man is better than the man across the line. You just got to go out there and play football.
“They know they’re scheme, they’ve been in it for a long time. You know, coach (Kirby) Smart does a good job with them and they’re all discipline football players.”