A season opener is unlike any other football game. In fact, one creative thinker on Tennessee’s staff compares the start of a season to the start of a marriage.
“You hate to say this but it’s almost like a wedding,” Vol offensive line coach Don Mahoney said this week. “All that times goes into preparing for a wedding. All that money goes into a wedding. All of these people come to the wedding. Then one thing goes wrong and somebody cries about it.”
Continuing the analogy, Tennessee’s coaches are like wedding planners. They spend countless hours preparing in hopes that everything will be perfect on The Big Day. Still, they know there likely will be a glitch or two in Saturday night’s opener against Austin Peay.
“Once that day hits,” Mahoney said, “it’s out of your hands.”
And that’s the part that scares the bejeezus out of a coach: No matter how good his troops look in the preseason, he can’t predict how they’ll play in the opener.
“I don’t necessarily know,” Mahoney admitted. “I told the guys, ‘Stick to what you’ve been taught to do,’ because sometimes guys get so amped up that they go beyond what we want them to do. They’re out of control. They get caught up in the emotion, instead of playing with passion.
“I’d like to paint the perfect picture and say, ‘This is what it’s going to be,’ but we’ve got to stay focused on the game plan and do what we’ve worked on.”
Sometimes the players focus on the game plan and do exactly what they’ve been taught to do. But sometimes – especially in an opener – they lose focus, go off-script and begin to freelance. This is a coach’s worst nightmare.
“Between now and Saturday my mind will race,” Mahoney said. “I tell the players: ‘We put in the work from Sunday through Friday. On Saturday it’s now in your hands, and your hands are good.’ I know in my heart I’ve done everything to prepare them to play their best. Saturday is theirs, so cut it loose.”
Whereas Mahoney compares an opener to a wedding, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen sees it more akin to a war.
Noting that practice is “like a military drill,” he added: “You just keep going and going and going. Then, when the time of battle comes, you’ve been conditioned. There will be a couple of surprises but that’s where we (coaches) come in – to make the adjustments that will lead the kids to a victory.”
Still, Thigpen admits that he’s “not sure” exactly what to expect from his troops when the bullets start flying on Saturday night.
“All you can do is go out every single day, go through film, go through practice and get the team prepared,” he said. “The more mentally and physically they’re prepared, the less likely they are to go out there and bust. We put so much stress on them (in practice) that the game seems simple for them.”
Thigpen will start a veteran linebacker corps that consists of seniors Brent Brewer and Dontavis Sapp, plus a junior who already has started for two years, A.J. Johnson. Knowing his players are experienced gives Thigpen a better idea of what to expect.
“With young kids you never know,” the Vol aide said. “With older kids, like we’ve got here, I have a good feeling. There will be a couple of things show up that they haven’t seen but that’s where coaches come in. There are so many things we’ve worked on that it’s second nature to them now when they walk out there to do their jobs. That’s all I’m looking for – do your job.”
Knowing he has prepared a player well is a comfort. Seeing the player exhibit that preparation on the game field is a real thrill.
“There’s nothing better than drawing up something for a kid,” Thigpen said, “then seeing the joy on their face when it shows up on the field, they take advantage of it and – bam – they make a big play.”
Whereas Thigpen is comforted by the experience of his group, secondary coach Willie Martinez has no such security blanket. He’ll start a junior, two sophomores and a true freshman Saturday night. How they’ll respond is anybody’s guess.
“You can only go by what you’ve seen in practice,” Martinez said. “The focus has been there, the energy has been there. But, until you get out there and play a game, you really don’t know how guys are going to react.
“There may be a guy or two that you think is going to play really well, and maybe it doesn’t happen like you want. Then maybe a guy you’re worried about makes plays and plays well. I’ve seen it both ways. They (young DBs) are going to get the opportunity, and I’m looking forward to seeing them play.”
Martinez’ secondary is especially young at cornerback, with three of the top six players being true freshmen. That might cause ulcers for some coaches but not for him.
“The only way you’re going to gain experience is by playing,” he said, “so let’s see how they react to it.”
Like Martinez, receivers coach Zach Azzanni is fielding a green group. Three of his top four receivers – redshirt freshman Jason Croom, true freshmen Marquez North and Josh Smith – have never played a snap at the college level.
“I think when they catch their first pass the nerves will go down a little bit,” Azzanni said. “I’m anxious to see how they respond.”
Anxious is right. The Vol aide said he typically spends the nights leading up to an opener “in the office all night, going over every tip, every test and every cut-up I can – feeling like they’re not prepared, even though they’re probably prepared. It’s just paranoia.”
That paranoia is understandable. No game goes exactly as expected. That’s especially true of an opener.
“There’s always surprises … always surprises,” Azzanni said. “You like to think you’ve got all of the rust knocked off but you always see opening jitters – a bad snap, a false start. As coaches, we try to eliminate that as much as we can but I’m not naïve enough to think there might not be a little bit of that. We just have to bounce back and play the next play.”
Defensive line coach Steve Stripling admits that those in-game surprises make coaching a high-stress occupation, especially heading into a season opener.
“You don’t know what to expect,” he said. “They call it pre-game butterflies, and I definitely will have them. But this is the first test, so it’s going to be great to get out there and get an evaluation.”
Stripling can’t promise that his troops will give a great performance Saturday night but he’s reasonably sure they’ll give a great effort.
“I feel like I’ve got an idea of what I’m going to see but I’m going to stress effort,” he said. “If I just give them one sentence on Saturday it will be, ‘Let’s go play hard.’ That’s what I want to see.
“Effort can overcome a lot of problems. The ball bounces to teams that play hard. You can cover up mistakes when you’re playing hard.”
Running backs coach Robert Gillespie believes he has a good read on his troops because head coach Butch Jones put them through a lot of full-speed, full-contact work during the preseason.
“We had some very physical practices,” Gillespie said. “That’s one thing about Coach Jones: He wants us to get banged up a little bit…. They (backs) have done the things we asked them to do. They’ve shown some toughness. They’ve done a really good job of protecting the quarterback and protecting the football.”
Still, competing against second-team defenders on the practice field with 20 reporters watching is a lot different than competing against an opponent’s first-team defenders with 100,000 fans observing. Gillespie concedes as much.
“The real test will come on Saturday,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who the opponent is – Austin Peay or whoever. It’s about us. It’s not about our opponent. We just want to go out and dominate for 60 minutes … whoever we’re playing.”
The Vols are supposed to dominate Austin Peay, listed as a 50-point underdog. But there are so many things that can go wrong, especially in an opener, that a coach can never feel relaxed.
“You get nervous, just like a player,” Gillespie said. “As a coach, we really just play through the kids. The same jitters and anxiety you have as a player, you have those for your kids because we want those kids to go out and be successful. They’ve worked and done all the things behind the scenes that the fans haven’t seen and you guys (media) haven’t seen. They’ve sacrificed time with their families, so you really want those guys to go out and be successful. We’re excited and nervous, just like the kids are.”
If anything, coaches are more excited than the players. After all, the players are on the field, where they can directly influence the outcome. The coaches must be content to stand along the sidelines and watch.
“It’s their game to go out and play and perform,” tight ends coach Mark Elder said. “I’m excited to see them do it. I’m eager to see these guys take what we’ve been doing all spring, all summer and put it out on the field. That’s what’s exciting about the game.”
Making an opener especially exciting is all of the unknowns: How good is Tennessee? How good is Austin Peay? How will breaks and turnovers impact the game? How much will the home crowd affect the Vols’ performance? How will the newcomers react to performing on such a grand stage for the first time?
“I think the guys are ready to go,” Elder said. “I think they’re fired up to hit somebody in a different-color jersey. Everybody’s ready and anticipating the game.”
Despite a relatively inexperienced quarterback and a slew of unproven receivers, QB coach/offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian seems relaxed heading into the opener.
“We have a pretty good idea of the skill set all of our players have and how we’ll try to accentuate those,” he said.
Of course, a player’s skill set sometimes suffers when he’s playing before 100,000 fans for the first time.
“That’s always a big question mark,” Bajakian conceded. “You never know how they’re going to react in front of a big crowd. We’ve tried (in practice) to create pressure situations but I don’t think anything can ever emulate it 100 percent.”
That’s why an opener never goes exactly as planned.
It’s kind of like a wedding … or a war.