Alton Howard trudged out of the sports complex, staring at his feet as he approached a hungry mob of media. He knew what would be asked.
So there he stood, fidgeting, shifting his weight from foot to foot and feverishly twirling an orange rubber bracelet around his left wrist.
The bracelet read “relentless.”
It’s the approach “Pig” is taking the rest of the season. He’s not about to let one play – as jeopardizing and painful as it was – ruin what could be a very special season.
Howard leads the Vols in receiving and has tallied 293 all-purpose yards.
“I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Pig said. “…I wasn’t settling for no field goal. I was trying to win it for my team.”
The slot man is not dwelling on the past. If anything, he’s building off it.
Fellow wideout Jason Croom said Howard has emerged as a leader since his overtime fumble.
“He’s stepping up,” Croom told InsideTennessee. “We’re getting together outside of the field and talking about the game, making sure we all doing all the right things. He’s our playmaker.”
Bye, bye bumps and bruises
The one major negative associated with a bye week is obvious: no game. No football.
But the bye week benefits can often times be innumerous, especially for a team as dinged up as Tennessee.
The Vols are taking the week to get healthy and work on fine details that are often overlooked during the whirlwind of a game week.
For instance, starting guard Alex Bullard took Haslam Field on crutches and had an air cast on his left foot. The medical equipment was purely precautionary and Jones fully expects Bullard to play against South Carolina.
“You know, it’s been a long season so far, so it’s an opportunity to get some extra conditioning in the pool and just get healthy,” Jones said.
During a bye week, there’s no major rush to get key injured players healthy for the looming game.
Jones said Tuesday that Marlin Lane, Devrin Young and Trevarris Saulsberry will continue rehab this week and be back at practice next week.
Lane is expected to play against South Carolina. Young and Saulsberry’s return to the game day gridiron is still questionable.
“It’s been a grind,” Jones said. “Six weeks and then a long training camp, so this bye week serves a number of purposes.”
Aside from tending to the injured, Vols coaches spent extra time on special teams. Jones paid one-on-one attention to the hands team and specialized punting situations, such as kicking from your own 1-yard line.
“You get to go back and look at anything and everything (during bye weeks,” Jones said.
Still work to be done
Sometimes Butch Jones’s on-the-field mantras are borderline cheesy: “It is what it is,” “You gotta strain and sustain,” “Live it, like it, love it,” and, of course, “63!”
Jones makes no apologies for his abundance of neatly-trimmed sayings. These aren’t sound bites. He believes them and lives them.
He added another timely catch phrase as practice began Tuesday afternoon.
“This is a bye week, not an off week,” he hollered.
It’s easy to point at Alton Howard’s goal line fumble and deem it the reason Tennessee came up short to sixth-ranked Georgia. But the reality is, a number of small plays shaped the outcome of the game.
The difference between a win and a loss could have been Alden Hill’s personal foul on the opening kickoff, or an illegal motion inside the goal line, or even Butch Jones being flagged for 15 yards.
The point is, a game could always be played smoother. The key is understanding each play could determine the contest’s outcome. It’s about mental focus, and it’s what the Vols are focusing on this week.
“We were one play away. But it’s everything. We go back and we talk about the inches. The inches make the champion,” Jones said. “The inches are the difference between winning and losing. And, you know, there is a number of plays when you go back and you push rewind… all the different things that occur throughout the football game that could be the difference between winning and losing.”
Jones has continually stressed the importance of building mental toughness in his young football team. It’s the ability to blend not playing with emotion and attacking each play like the game’s on the line. It’s not an easy combination to find. That’s why mental toughness will be harped on this week.
“Again, It’s teaching them that every play has a life of it’s own,” Jones said. “But when you make a mistake you can’t let that play hurt you two, three plays down the road.
“Again, it’s apart of that mental toughness and conditioning we stress in our football program.”
The rough and tough Rajion
It wasn’t a coincidence the ball was in Rajion Neal’s hands when the game was on the line.
Butch Jones has deemed his senior tailback “a warrior” week after week and is continually impressed with Neal’s body of work in practice.
Tuesday was no exception.
“He’s running with good pad level and he’s very determined right now,” Jones said. “You know, he hasn’t missed a practice. I like his approach in the…running back meetings.”
Neal received carries on two fourth down conversion attempts against Georgia – one on a misdirection pitch and the other on a normal dive where an extra lunge moved the sticks.
“I think he’s playing with a great level of toughness,” Jones said.
Neal carved the Bulldogs’ defense for 148 yards and has trumped the 100-yard rushing mark in three games this season.
Neal currently ranks second in the SEC in rushing with 616 yards, behind only Arkansas’ Alex Collins. South Carolina’s Mike Davis trails Neal in third by only one yard.