Competition has tinged almost every aspect of Tennessee's spring practices so far as the Vols prepare for an expectation-packed 2016 season. The offense and defense now compete every Saturday in a situational scrimmage for the right to wear the smoky grey helmets and orange jerseys during the week, but it doesn't stop there.
The two units went toe-to-toe in individual drills on Tuesday as the Vols work toward their new goal of the offseason: winning back 25 points. As Jones mentions to his team almost daily, Tennessee has a record of 13-5 in its last 18 games, with those five defeats coming by a total of 25 points. The rallying cry this spring has been to work toward eliminating the mistakes that cost those games as Tennessee enters the 2016 as the SEC Eastern Division favorites.
"We have five opportunities left and we have to get the most of these opportunities," Jones said. "It's all about composure in competitive situations. We're searching for those 25 points, which we talk about, but it's making clutch plays and being clutch players."
Practice took on an intense setting Tuesday with the players competing in spirited rounds of defensive back vs. wide receiver, linebacker vs. tight end and offensive line vs. defensive line drills. Jones used Monday night's NCAA basketball national championship as a motivational tool, when Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat North Carolina and bring home a title.
That collected composure under pressure is exactly what Jones is looking for in his team as finishes up spring practice.
"One shot changed his life," Jones said of Jenkins. "He'll be remembered forever. He's a legend. It's having that composure in those critical moments. The only way you can win and manufacture that is to be in a competitive situation."
Kahlil McKenzie trimmed down his weight and looks much leaner heading into his second year with the program and first spring practice at Tennessee. The rising sophomore is learning how to combine his powerful strength with good technique, but Jones still wants to see his former No. 1-rated overall recruit in the 2014 class in even better football shape.
"I think for Kahlil it's just the physical stamina," Jones said. "It's not just being a first or second down player, but being an every-down player and being able to get into a cold stance on third down and come off and win your one-on-one matchup. He's continuing to get better, but that's what we're challenging him with is being able to play through the down and playing with consistency."
McKenzie makes a point to watch the current and former greats on film — guys like Warren Sapp, JJ Watt and Tennessee's own Reggie White — to get a better understanding of the position and is benefitting from the extra reps he's afforded due to the high volume of defensive linemen who are out with injuries this spring.
"You've just got to embrace it," McKenzie said. "It wasn't scripted, so you've just go to come in just like coach Jones says. It's sudden change. I wasn't expecting to come into my first ever spring with three or four guys, however many we have that day, at defensive tackle, but it's something you just get to embrace. It's something I'm using to help myself get in better football shape and just get better."
Tennessee's defensive line took another hit when Butch Jones announced Austin Smith will miss the rest of spring practice with a shoulder injury. Smith is the sixth defensive lineman who will miss the remaining spring sessions with an injury.
The fourth-year Vols head coach said Smith should be back by June.
"He has to do a great job with the mental game, getting in and spending some time with the older players doing video study," Jones said. "It's unfortunate, but he has to make the most of it, and I really believe you can still get better when it comes to those things if you do the proper film study and take the proper mental reps."
Justin Martin missed the past two practices with the flu, but Jones said he expects the cornerback to return Thursday. Offensive lineman Austin Sanders sprained his ankle during Saturday's scrimmage, and his timetable to return to practice is also Thursday.