Neyland’s Maxims – WWND as Vols Enter Spring Practice?

Tennessee Spring Practice

Tennessee Spring Practice

Spring practice for Derek Dooley’s Tennessee Volunteers begins in less than a week on March 22nd and for the first time in three years, the head coach and the majority of his staff from the previous season is still around for the annual spring drills.  With the uncertainty of a new coaching staff that has plagued the Vols the past couple of seasons out of the way, this Tennessee team seems poised to build upon Dooley’s inaugural season and once again appears to be headed in the right direction.

The Vols had little uncertainty for the 21 seasons that General Robert Reese Neyland commanded the football program at Tennessee.  Neyland’s accomplishments are many and his legacy lives on at the stadium in Knoxville that bares his name.  Neyland piled up 173 wins, 112 by shutout, against only 31 losses and 12 ties in three stints at Tennessee, taking time off in between to serve his country in the United States Army.  Ask any objective SEC fan, and yes there are a few, who’s the conference’s top all-time football coach and you’ll most likely hear either Bear Bryant or General Neyland in their reply.

Along with his amazing record at Tennessee, the General is nearly as well known for his keys to success in the game of football, a list of guidelines if you will, known affectionately by Tennessee fans as, Neyland’s Maxims.

Tennessee continues to rebuild under the steady guidance of Head Coach Derek Dooley and looks to regain SEC prominence in 2011 after three years worth of ups and downs that has seen the Vols struggle to a combined record of 18 wins and 20 losses, including last season’s 6-7 mark.  Dooley is a student of history and in times like these, I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten the General.  So with that thought in mind, what would Neyland do (WWND)?  The answers live on forever in his timeless maxims.

Let’s revisit Neyland’s Maxims and see how their implementation translates into a successful 2011 season for the Big Orange.

1)  The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win.

Although Tennessee led the SEC in penalty yard differential, being flagged nearly seven yards less per game than their opponents, and ranked sixth in the league in turnover margin at plus-4, the Vol’s mistakes always seemed to come at the most critical points in the game.  The Big Orange faithful will find it hard to forget the debacle of too many men on the field that led to a loss at LSU or the series of miscues in the final 1:33 of regulation in the double-overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl.  While discipline and taking care of the ball will continue to be a major focus, Coach Dooley and his staff will certainly need improvement in the areas of game management and maintaining their poise in crunch time situations if the Vols are to take their game to the next level in 2011.

2)  Play for and make the breaks and when one comes your way – SCORE.

The Vols made their share of breaks in 2010 with a turnover margin of plus-4, but taking full advantage of the breaks was another story.  The bogged down running game and the inability to sustain drives limited Tennessee to just 40 trips inside the orange-zone, while only Vanderbilt had fewer inside-the-twenty scoring opportunities.  Of those 40 orange-zone opportunities, the Vols score just 20 touchdowns or 50 percent, far below the league average of 62 percent.  Only Vanderbilt was worse, reaching pay-dirt on 14-of-31 attempts or 45 percent.  The Vol’s overall orange-zone scoring of 75 percent ranked 10th in the conference, besting only Vandy and Florida.  The offense clearly became a vastly improved unit once Tyler Bray took over at quarterback.  Orange-zone offense must be a major priority for an offensive unit that has more than shown their ability to make the big play.  A deeper and more cohesive offensive line with another year of experience should yield dividends for the running game and in turn improve the orange-zone offensive production.

3)  If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up….put on more steam.

The 2010 version of the Volunteer’s football team, for the most part, was a very young and inexperienced unit.  Derek Dooley dished out playing time to 16 true-freshmen and 10 red-shirt freshmen this past season.  Only Air Force and Florida played more true-freshman in 2010.  Tennessee will still be a very young team in 2011, but there truly is no substitute for experience and that statement is exponentially true in the SEC.  With another year of experience, maturity and much-needed depth, the 2011 Tennessee team should have the personnel to continue to, “put on more steam.”

4)  Protect our kicker, our quarterback, our lead and our ball game.

Protecting the quarterback was a glaring weakness for the offensive line in 2010.  The Vols had the dubious distinction of leading the SEC in sacks allowed with 41.  Several games got away from Tennessee in the second half due to fatigue, lack of depth and inexperience.  Derek Dooley made a top priority of rebuilding his offensive line in this year’s signing class, bringing in 4-star linemen Antonio Richardson and Marcus Jackson.  The offensive line and overall program depth should be vastly improved in every aspect when the very first snap is taken in September.

5)  Ball, oskie, cover, block, cut and slice, pursue and gang tackle….for this is the WINNING EDGE.

The defensive secondary unit was a strength for Tennessee in 2010 as the Vols ranked fourth in the SEC with 18 interceptions, led by Janzen Jackson and Prentiss Waggner who hauled in five each.  The Vols were sixth in the league in fumble recoveries, led by Waggner with three.  Waggner was dangerous with the ball, setting a UT record by returning three of his five interceptions for touchdowns.  With the return status of Jackson remaining clouded, the Vols must have one of their formidable defensive backs prepared to pick up the slack.  Two newcomers that quickly come to mind are Byron Moore and Justin Coleman.  It goes without question that Coach Dooley and Defensive Coordinator Justin Wilcox will be focused in on Jackson’s possible successor, should he not return for the coming season.

6)  Press the kicking game.  Here is where the breaks are made.

Special teams play for Tennessee in recent years has really been anything but special.  Whether it be game winning field goals, blocking kicks, returning kicks or even kicking off, the Vols have struggled in virtually every aspect of connecting the foot with the ball.  Tennessee ranked 11th in punt return average at 4.1 yards-per-return and ninth in net punting at 36.4 yards-per-punt.  Dooley became so distrustful of his punt returning corp that on several occasions he opted to have no one back to receive, it proved to be a better option.  Place kicking looked better on paper, but a missed field goal in the LSU game and a botched PAT in the Music City Bowl likely cost the Vols two victories.  Much like a closer in baseball that goes unnoticed when his team is winning big, he becomes the goat when the team really needs him to come through and he fails to deliver.  Tennessee must find a way to once again make the special teams, truly special.  Failure to do so will likely spoil any chances of a special season.

7)  Carry the fight to our opponent and keep it there for 60 minutes.

The Vols finished the 2010 season with a record of 6-7, but trailed at the half by a combined total of 10 points in six of their seven defeats.  The only game that got away in the first half was the Georgia game in Athens as the Vols appeared to be suffering from a hangover from the demoralizing loss a week earlier at LSU.  Lack of depth and inexperience relegated Tennessee as a first half team against national championship runner-up Oregon and other top-tier SEC programs.  Perhaps the most revealing statistic of all ranked the Vols 11th in the conference in fourth quarter scoring differential at minus-29.  After the departure of Strength Coach Bennie Wylie, Dooley hired Ron McKeefery to fill the void.  McKeefery has hit the ground running and “huge strides” have been reported.  McKeefery brings an extensive and impressive resume to Tennessee and most recently served as human performance coordinator for a special operations regiment in the U.S. Army.  McKeefery reports after just eight weeks on the job, “We’ve increased our bench press by 25 pounds a guy, our squats are 40 or 50 pounds in increases, we’ve got significantly faster – we’ve doubled our speed in the areas that we wanted to improve.”  Sounds like the General’s kind of guy, huh?  The 2011 team will be more experienced, deeper, faster, stronger and thus more prepared for 60 minutes of SEC action.

If Tennessee is to return to SEC championship contention in the very near future, they must have the resolve to take a look back at the keys to their success in their past.  The shouldn’t have to look very far, as his presence is still prominent all over campus.  His maxims have stood the test of time.  Who better to look back to, than the General, to lead you back to the future?  The Vols can hardly go wrong if they’ll just ask, WWND?  He left the answers for all of the Volunteers who would follow him at Tennessee and they’re just as true today as they will be 100 years from now.

“You hired me to coach football and if we are going to have a football team, we must have the best spring practice we have ever had.”  –  General Neyland, Spring Practice 1926

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