Lane Kiffin has been hesitant to be too complimentary of any of his players.
Tennessee’s first-year head coach wants competition — not congratulations, especially this early in fall camp.
So when Kiffin called receiver Gerald Jones “phenomenal” during UT’s annual media day, Jones was a bit taken aback.
“I really appreciate that; he hasn’t told me that,” Jones said with his trademark smile and a chuckle. “He never tells you straight up because he doesn’t want you to get the big head. And I’ve still got a long way to go.”
Yet Jones has already come pretty far — at least the distance from the training room to the practice field, which was no small feat.
Most didn’t expect Jones to open practice with his teammates last week. Off-season surgery on his wrist would surely see to that.
Even if Jones did make it onto the field, there’s no way he would be effective, right? His cast and a month-long layoff while rehabbing would surely limit his productivity.
Yet there is Jones, every practice, making plays as if he is in no pain at all. Jones said he’s even surprised himself with his effectiveness while wearing a club-like brace on his left hand. He said he aggravates his hand during every practice.
“I’ve been in so much pain but pain is just a temporary thing,” Jones said. “I just keep that in the back of my head every time I get injured.
“I’ve got to bounce back. It (the pain) will be over real quick so I get back out there.”
It’s no surprise that Jones’ favorite player is Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steeler who is widely considered one of the toughest receivers in recent history. Jones calls Ward “the toughest receiver in the business.”
That gives the junior something to shoot for.
“One day I’m going to get as physical as him,” he said.
Another Callout: Receiver Brandon Warren was on the other end of a Kiffin callout last week when Kiffin said it didn’t seem like the junior receiver could get through a practice.
“I may have needed that just to get me going,” Warren said.
He said he had a “foot boo boo” last week that limited him.
“That’s beside the point,” Warren said. “I know that he (Kiffin) wants the best out of me. He wants to pull the best out of me everyday. They’re (coaches) not going to accept anything under your best everyday, all the time, consistently.”
The former Alcoa High School star said he’s fine with being called out publicly but admits he hears about such criticism more than most since he’s a hometown guy.
“So many people around here are familiar with me and know my name and who I am,” Warren said. “That just motivates me to make sure I do everything I can do to be a success.”
Despite drawing Kiffin’s ire, Warren has made some of the most impressive plays in fall camp. Soaring — sometimes one-handed catches — are well within his grasp now that he’s more comfortable in UT’s offense.
“It’s a lot different,” Warren said. “I’m not struggling as much.”
Warren, who moved from tight end before spring practice, said he understandsa better where to line up and has a better overall understanding of team concepts.
Overlooked?: With a successful senior and two highly rated freshmen alongside him, tailback Tauren Poole admits that he sometimes feels overlooked in UT’s crowded backfield.
“A lot of times I do,” the sophomore said. “I’ve just got to keep on pressing on, keep on moving forward in what I do and just work hard. At the end of the day, I’m going to be judged on what I do. That’s just the way it is.”
Poole may not be as talented as UT’s other tailbacks but he seems confident in UT’s one-cut-and-go style of running attack, a must with a zone-blocking scheme.
“I kind of turned myself into that type of guy,” said Poole, who registered three long touchdowns during Saturday’s scrimmage. “Coach Gran emphasizes to make one cut and get up field.”
Poole also set up a long pass play by laying a deft block on a blitzer who had come free.
“It’s very important in this league,” Poole said of pass protection. You’ve got to protect your quarterback. When you come in, you’re not so great at it. You’ve got to focus on it. I believe I’ve gotten a lot better.”
Poole has plenty of respect for his young competitors: freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku.
“It’s not easy at all,” Poole said. “They’re adjusting pretty well. They’re making the transition from high school to college and it’s working out well for them.”
Battling Brown: Wes Brown is realistic. The senior defensive tackle knows this could be his final season of football.
“This could be my last go-around,” Brown said. “I just want to make the best of it. This team, this program means too much to me for me to just lay down now. I’ve got to give it all I’ve got while I’ve got two decent knees right now.”
“Decent” might be an overstatement. Brown struggles to make it through practice every day. Most college football players dream of playing in the NFL. Brown just hopes his knees will allow him to finish his college career.
“It’s tough,” Brown said. “It’s a daily struggle. My teammates are the ones that really get me through it, knowing that the season is here and they’re out there practicing. I want to be out there as much as I can.”
Yet when Brown can’t go any longer, he’ll head to the sidelines. The former Athens, Ala., standout can’t just sit idly by. That’s why he has a curl bar on hand, ready to work on his upper body when his lower body can’t keep up.
“If I just can’t go, I’ll come out,” Brown said. “But Tennessee means a lot to me. These guys mean a lot to me. I’m going to be out there as much as I can.”