Just about every player on the practice field takes some razzing from Tennessee football coach Butch Jones when he gets behind the wireless mic and starts shooting verbal barbs.
On Sunday, it was linebacker A.J. Johnson’s turn.
Jones called Johnson a “grabber,” who leads the nation in tackles made five yards past the line of scrimmage.
The sourcing on that statistic is dubious, but the point was clear. It’s been one the new coaching staff has made dozens of times since arriving last December: Johnson’s SEC tackles title from 2012 means little to them.
“You’ve got to be tough,” Johnson said of the criticism. “We didn’t have a great season last year. I can’t be satisfied with the tackles I had without a winning record. Pretty much, he’s just pushing me. He wants me to do better and lead.”
In some cases, Jones would like Johnson to lead by his eyes as much as his actions. The Vols muddled defense had too much freelancing and too many players trying to do everything rather than just one thing last season.
That’s where “eye control” or “eye discipline” come in.
Jones harped on the concept in Sunday’s practice.
“See a little, see a lot,” he said several times. (Coincidentally, the phrase was one of former coach Derek Dooley’s favorites.)
What that means, Johnson said, is to “read your keys” and not worry about anything else.
“Your keys will take you to the play,” he said.
If you have “wandering eyes,” you might check out the backfield or motion on the other side of the field and lose track of the player you’re responsible for.
Jones said he saw far too many wandering eyes in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“Everything is about eye discipline,” he said. “Everything is focusing on your keys.”
What happens when the film catches you staring down the running back when you’re in charge of the tight end?
“We call those eye violations,” Jones said. “We had way too many eye violations (Saturday night). You particularly saw it in play-action.”
That leads to another favorite phrase of coaches everywhere: “Gap integrity.” Essentially, if everyone does their job — fits their gap — there’s no need for anyone to be a superhero.
“It’s all about disciplining your eyes,” Jones said. “It’s a fundamental aspect that has to be practiced. You can practice it in a walk-through. You can practice it in your mind.”
It’s the defensive coordinator’s job to see the “big picture.” Jones wants players focused on their narrow responsibility.
“It’s that little thing that’s a big part of their assignment,” he said.
If Johnson does that, he might not lead the league in tackles again in 2013. But Jones thinks both Johnson and the defense as a whole will be better.
“If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do,” Johnson said, “you’re going to get the job done.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org