For a while Thursday morning, Vladimir Richard thought head coach Phillip Fulmer might seek out the equipment manager and suit up.
The Volunteers were working in short-yardage and goal-line situations, and Fulmer had that familiar twinkle in his eyes.
"It was goal line and short-yardage today and coach loves to see us in there battling and grinding it out and getting low," said Richard, an offensive guard. "I think for coach, a guy that used to play the game �" and a lot of them wish they could still play �" seeing us go out there and do well on what we've been coached on just fires him up."
Fulmer was pleased with his team's intensity the morning after a practice that didn't meet his standards -- and midway through a grueling fall camp.
"I think they followed the coaches' leads, I really do," an animated Fulmer said inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center. "We were determined to go out there with energy ourselves and passion ourselves and our leadership, and our team followed. At the end of practice, I got onto some guys because I know how I had to be as a player and how John Chavis had to be as a player. For us, every day was a battle to get onto the field.
"We've got some guys, a few second-teamers, but several third-teamers who are like, 'Well, Rico's the starter and I'm going to have to wait my turn.' That ain't the way you play the game. You go fight to get on the field. You go fight to get on special teams. You take the challenge. And if you don't remind them of that, they're young guys and they'll set themselves into a pattern. I can't wait to get up there and watch this tape."
Practicing continuously with a 40-second game clock, the Vols worked at length in situational drills near the goal line and also in some long-yardage situations. Jonathan Crompton continued what coaches have termed one of his better weeks of practice with solid decision-making, according to Fulmer, and the offense's only turnover came on a two-point pass that was intercepted.
"Just being smart, making plays and knowing that we have playmakers," Crompton said of his improvements. "Try to get them the ball, but don't force it.
"They were slowing down at the end of spring, and at the beginning of camp, it was all right. Now they're starting to slow down even more just because the more reps you get, the more it slows down for you. And I think we're going to be all right."
Richard said both sides had some success during the work.
"The defense got us some and we got them some," Richard said. "It's always a battle in goal line and short yardage. I personally feel the offense won. We got a good push, and it was great to see all the lineman just getting down nitty-gritty and dirty. It was a jungle out there."
The receiving corps looks to be a unit with an admirable mix of quality depth, experience, not to mention some serious playmaking ability. Which is quite a departure from what the landscape looked like last fall when experience was in short supply. Every receiver who caught a pass last fall is back, which gives new receivers coach Latrell Scott plenty of options. It also makes paring down the depth chart more challenging than it might otherwise be.
Scott has indicated that he'll likely have regular snaps for as many as six players, and right now he's got a pretty firm idea of what the pecking order will look like.
"You start with Lucas Taylor, next you come to Gerald Jones and Josh Briscoe. Then Austin Rogers, Quinton Hancock and Denarius Moore, if we played a game tomorrow those are the guys that would see significant playing time," Scott said.
One player not mentioned was redshirt freshman Ahmad Paige who Scott noted had a real chance to play his way into the mix, though he's got work in front of him.
"He's one of the most talented kids on this team. He's got every physical tool imaginable, we just have to get the mental aspect going," Scott added.
Scott likes what he's seen at the top of his depth-chart, from the explosiveness of Gerald Jones to the ultra-consistent veteran Lucas Taylor.
Taylor missed most of the spring while shoring up some classroom work, so this fall has been Scott's first extended chance to work with him. He's found the experience to be to his liking as a football coach.
"This group follows Lucas Taylor. If you ask these guys from top to bottom who they think the best receiver on this team is, they'll all say Lucas Taylor. Lucas doesn't' say a lot, but when he talks these guys listen," Scott offered.
Fulmer said that, aside from Arian Foster, the Vols had mostly a full complement of players at Thursday's morning session.
"We've got a lot going on with some bumps and bruises right now and some guys who have played or like they're going to be players," he said. "We're limiting them a little bit, but I'm pushing them to stay the hell out of the training room. That's a mental thing as well. There's a difference between pain and injury. If you're injured, take care of it."
With Gerald Williams getting work this week at middle linebacker, starter Ellix Wilson says the battle for playing time is a good thing for both players.
"I like competition. There's nothing like competition," said the fifth-year senior Wilson. "You don't ever want to be at a spot where you're too lax. When you're lax, you could stop and be like, 'I'm starting,' or whatever. But I like the competition. The competition is great for what we're trying to do."
With All-SEC player Rico McCoy building on his sophomore season and seniors Adam Myers-White and Nevin McKenzie battling on the other side, Wilson believes the Vols' linebacking corps is poised for a big season.
"We feel great about it. Jerod Mayo was a great guy, great linebacker and played hard every snap,' Wilson said. "But I think we can step in there and do some of those things that Jerod did -- not all of the things -- but some of the things Jerod did. I think we'll be a good group overall."
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