Coach & Player Quotes: Specialists Ironing Out Roles Through 13 Spring Practices

Coach & Player Quotes: Specialists Ironing Out Roles Through 13 Spring Practices

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — With the departure of veteran specialists Paxton Brooks and Chase McGrath and several new faces emerging this semester, the Tennessee football program has seen competition developing for the special teams unit over the course of spring practice. Special teams coordinator Mike Ekeler met with members of the media Thursday morning to provide updates on the room two days ahead of the Orange & White Game.
 
“It was awesome to give (Jackson Ross) an opportunity to redshirt,” Ekeler said of his Australian punter. “He has a chance to be a really unique and special player, and we are excited about him. Kolby Morgan is doing a great job too. Those guys are out there competing, which is the way you want it. They are both doing an awesome job and having a lot of fun.
 
“From a kicking standpoint, Charles Campbell came in and has been doing a nice job. (Max Gilbert) is doing well. (JT Carver) has been kicking it well. You have three guys doing a heck of a job from a kicking standpoint. You have (Bennett Brady) snapping who is pushing (Matthew Salansky) and (Alton Stephens). In year three, you should have great competition. It’s where you should be, or else I should not be standing here. That is what we have. We have great camaraderie in there. Those guys pull for each other, and we have great competition.”
 
A native of Jackson, Tennessee, Campbell joined the Vols this spring as a graduate transfer after a four-year career at Indiana, where he converted 39-of-51 tries with a career-long make of 55 yards. With several family ties to UT, Campbell is thankful to spend his final year of collegiate eligibility on Rocky Top.
 
“I grew up liking Tennessee,” Campbell said Thursday morning. “I’m from Jackson, Tennessee, my whole family has gone to college here, my little brother is coming here, my little sister is coming here, so for me it means so much. Representing my home state and representing my whole family too, and how they’ve been living in this home state.”
 
Redshirt freshman Jackson Ross has emerged at the punter spot after sitting out the 2022 season. The Melbourne, Australia, product grew up playing Australian rules football and has adjusted well to the American gridiron since joining the Big Orange last fall.
 
“It has been awesome,” Ross said. “I guess coming to a different country, adjusting to the time zone and being jet lagged for a bit was a little annoying. But once I started practicing, learning from Paxton (Brooks) and getting to know all the boys, it made the transition pretty seamless after a while to be honest. Coming into this season, it’s put me in good stead to take what I learned from last year and put that into scenarios that I am being put into training at the moment.”
 
Spring practice culminates with the Orange & White Game on Saturday, April 15, kicking off at 2:30 p.m. inside Neyland Stadium.
 
Premium and non-premium seating will be available for the contest. Admission is $5 for non-premium seats, and all proceeds will count as a contribution to the My All Campaign. All seats can be secured now at AllVols.com or by calling the UT Athletic Ticket Office at (865) 656-1200. All open sections of the bowl of Neyland Stadium will be general admission seating.
 
A transcript from Ekeler’s Thursday availability can be viewed below, along with select quotes from Campbell, Ross, redshirt junior defensive lineman Bryson Eason and senior defensive lineman Omari Thomas.

Tennessee Football Press Conference | April 13, 2023
 
Outside Linebackers Coach/Special Teams Coordinator Mike Ekeler

On how much growth he has seen from punter Jackson Ross in the past year…
“It was awesome to give him an opportunity to redshirt. He has a chance to be a really unique and special player. We are excited about him. Kolby Morgan is doing a great job too. Those guys are out there competing, which is the way you want it. They are both doing an awesome job and having a lot of fun. From a kicking standpoint, Charles Campbell came in and has been doing a nice job. Max (Gilbert) is doing well. JT (Carver) has been kicking it well. You have three guys doing a heck of a job from a kicking standpoint. You have Bennett (Brady) snapping who is pushing Matthew (Salansky) and Alton (Stephens). In year three, you should have great competition. It’s where you should be, or else I should not be standing here. That is what we have. We have great camaraderie in there. Those guys pull for each other, and we have great competition. Which again, that’s our job.”
 
On how different James Pearce Jr. and Joshua Josephs are in their second year on campus…
“Josh has had a good camp. James needs to continue to learn how to practice, compete and strain. Roman Harrison has done a heck of a job. He’s had the best camp of all of them. Caleb (Herring) is coming on, and that guy can be a freaky talent. He loves ball. The funny thing about Caleb is after practice, he’ll come in, and I won’t even have a chance to watch the film yet, and he’s watched it all. That guy eats, sleeps and drinks ball. He loves it. That’s what the great ones do. A lot of people want to talk about, “I want this” and, “I want that,” and their actions don’t match their expectations. You have a young guy like that who comes in, and he’s doing that on his own. He just goes in there, locks the door in the meeting room and gets after it. I am really excited about him as well.”
 
On Roman Harrison taking another step this offseason…
“He should. He’s a senior. That’s what he should be doing. He’s been consistent overall and consistent in meetings. He has stacked 12 great practices together, but that’s his job. He’s taken ownership in that, and he’s doing nothing other than what he is supposed to be doing, which is what we want.”
 
On if Roman Harrison has stepped into more of a leadership role with the departure of Byron Young
“It’s still a work in progress if I’m being honest and transparent. He would tell you the same thing. In order to lead, you have to set the standard and uphold it. You have to make sure that other guys in the room are upholding it. That’s what we are working towards right now, but it’s still a work in progress.”
 
On what he has seen from Charles Campbell
“He has a tremendous competitive spirit. He has a great mind as far as he’s able to snap and clear, focus and refocus. He might hit a bad one, but it does not affect his next one. He really has a pro mindset, works hard in the weight room, works hard in the film room and works hard on the practice field. He’s from Tennessee, and he wants to be here. It’ s important to him. When we offered him a spot here, I called his mom and played a joke on her. I said, “It’s great to meet you, and I just wanted to let you know we will do anything we can to help Charles find a ride to Knoxville. You better pack up his stuff and get it ready ASAP.” She was crying, so it’s important to him, and it’s neat to have someone from Tennessee who has this lifelong dream of playing here.”
 
On Jackson Ross’ recruitment and how he is acclimating to a new country…
“Probably about 20 years ago when I was coaching at another SEC school, I started dealing with some Australian punters. Over the years at different stops, have had different Australian punters. I have a great relationship with the guys over there who run the Prokick Australia program. John (Smith) and I go back 20 years ago. That is the guy who runs it, and he’s awesome. Just watching their guys and understanding what we wanted in a skillset, we got what we wanted. As far as acclimating goes, he’s a tremendous leader. It’s interesting that when you’re in Australia and you’re in high school, you aspire to get drafted out of high school to play Australian rules football. There are two levels; there’s an NFL level and there is a minor league level. He got drafted by the NFL level and played for three years. He’s been a professional, and he’s been in that arena playing in front of 100 thousand people. He goes out in Neyland, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool. That is kind of what I’m used to.’ It’s a great fit, and he’s a great guy. He is funnier than heck, just want until you get to know him.”
 
On the expectations coming into the spring and how the group has held up to those expectations…
“The expectation, and Coach Heupel said it when we got here, is to be the best. That is the standard. Last year, we were ranked second in the SEC. That is not good enough. We have the talent in that room to do it, and it’s just a matter of, you have to go earn it. That is what our focus has been on, is finding those ways to continue to push the envelope, get better and continue to teach it and drill it better so our guys understand the concepts. We have worked our tails off, but that is our job. We are not going to stop until we are the best.”
 
On how influential it is to get recruits on campus for the Orange and White game…
“It is huge. Everybody in the country talks about Neyland Stadium. Everybody in the country is talking about the games that were played there last year and in the past. All the recruits, they feel that. They have not only been here and have seen it firsthand, but they know. They want to play in that type of environment. As a player, you want to play somewhere where it’s important. As a coach, you want to coach somewhere where it’s important. That is pretty important over there. Peyton Manning said it best in year one when we got here. He looked at Coach Heupel and goes, ‘If the Colts lose, I’m alright. If the Broncos lose, I’m good. If the Vols lose on Saturday, it hurts my soul.’ There are 103 thousand people every Saturday who will say the same thing, and there are probably a million more watching it at home. It is important here, and those guys feel that.”

RS-Senior PK Charles Campbell

On being a Tennessee native and how much thought went into playing for Tennessee…
“I grew up liking Tennessee, I’m from Jackson, Tennessee, my whole family has gone to college here, my little brother is coming here, my little sister is coming here, so for me it means so much. Representing my home state and representing my whole family too, and how they’ve been living in this home state.”
 
On if he was able to watch Chase McGrath’s game-winning kick against Alabama last season…
“I did watch that. I am friends with the Alabama kicker, so whenever I get done with my games I watch his games. I did get to see that game and see Chase hit that field goal, that was a huge moment for him. I’m so proud of him, what better stage to go out and kick a game winner.”
 
On pressure situations during spring practice…
“I’ve been under some pressure situations at practice. Coach will bring all the guys around for a last second field goal or something with me kicking. It’s kind of fun, I like it. I like all the guys yelling at me, it’s a way to prove myself in a sense to them, so I really enjoy situations like that.”

RS-Freshman P Jackson Ross

On adjusting to living in the United States and playing American football over the last year…
“It has been awesome. I guess coming to a different country, adjusting to the time zone and being jet lagged for a bit was a little annoying. But once I started practicing, learning from Paxton (Brooks) and getting to know all the boys, it made the transition pretty seamless after a while to be honest. Coming into this season, it’s put me in good stead to take what I learned from last year and put that into scenarios that I am being put into training at the moment.”
 
On how playing Australian rules football professionally helped him prepare for games here…
“I was pro for three years I guess, and I was put in scenarios which are going to be similar here with some fair crowds and stuff like that. I guess it’s a different game now. I mean last year, I was watching games and thinking ‘what’s that flag?’ The first time they threw a flag, I didn’t actually know what it was, stuff like that is going to be difficult. I’ve gathered knowledge on the sport now. But being around professional coaches made my transition here seamless. I feel like I have a great bond with the coaches in terms of more like friends rather than looking up to them which is good as well.”

RS-Junior DL Bryson Eason

On how spring practice has been going…
“The spring has been going very well. I’ve just been really getting comfortable with the position from the changes from the past couple of years, learning new things and feeling comfortable with the techniques. I’m just trying to be the best player I can be for my team, my teammates and myself as well. I’m just getting very comfortable with the D-line position. It’s all clicking for me right now. I’ve been feeling very good about it and I feel like we, as a unit, have had a very good spring.”
 
On what the defense is looking to accomplish Saturday at the Orange and White Game…
“I feel like the defense, overall, has been doing a great job. The atmosphere and the intensity that we’ve been playing with has been out of this world and we’ve been on one accord. It’s been a great spring for us as a unit. For the spring game, I’m just looking to get more work from the offensive guys and the O-line to test our eye skills and see where we’re at in a game atmosphere. We’re going to go out there, have fun, enjoy ourselves and have a good game out there with those guys.”
 
On what defensive line coach Rodney Garner has been focusing the group on…
“He’s been on us about knowing what we have to do, knowing our assignment, and playing with strain and effort. He wants us to play with relentless effort, have an edge about us, having our hats on fire just to go out there and get on some guys. He wants us to be violent dudes up front, in the middle and on the outside to do our job in that setting. It’s little things like that. We’re going to go out there, have fun, play with effort, know your assignment and do what you can to the best of your ability.”

Senior DL Omari Thomas

On if being a leader is part of his personality…
“I feel like it’s within my personality. I’m kind of laid back, quiet type guy for the most part. I’ve been put on that pedestal and Coach (Rodney) Garner, he always puts me in situations where I have to be more vocal and lead more. That’s something that I’ve just really embraced, just being more vocal. I know that’s something that I’m still coming along with, because like I said, I’m just kind of quiet and laid back. Obviously, I feel like I’ve taken a step in myself just being more vocal as a leader. That’s something that I really want to just continue to get better at throughout the rest of this offseason, over the summer and going into the season.”
 
On what goes into group getting better as pass rushers…
“It’s actually both (technique and watching film). Just you can learn a lot off of film. We go back, we watch all film from last year. Just practice film and game film, just seeing how at times where we would just stop, and we would just be looking at the ball and different things like that. Now, you see we’ve always been active, we’re always using our hands. That’s something that Coach Rob Ayres, as well, has just came in. He was a great player for the University of Tennessee and that’s something that he’s really been focused a lot is our pass rush game. He’s done a great job with us, and Coach Garner is behind him with everything that he does. Coach G is getting more into our pass rush game as well, so it’s good just being able to use our hands. Technique things, on the field, just the little things in the meeting room and then just watching film as well.”
 
On what is different about this year’s spring practice…
“I feel like it’s just, you know what you’re going to get. You know what to expect. I feel like this might have been one of my springs where I probably the least amount of weight. It made a total difference, I feel way quicker, way twitchier, more endurance. I feel like this is one of my best springs that I’ve had here. The main thing was you knowing what you’re going to get, you knowing what you’re going to get out of Coach Garner. You’re going to get coached hard, and my thing was, a lot of the older guys, we just really came in. We were just telling the younger guys what to expect, what to get. Don’t be discouraged when coach gets on you. Don’t take it, don’t get down on yourself, just know he’s trying to make you better as a person. That’s something that we all had to learn too when he first got here. He makes sure he tells them that all the time. It’s just been good for them, but sometimes it’s better to hear from your teammate, all the people on the team that have been through it. We just try to make sure that we’re always just doing that for the youngest guys on the team.”

-UT Athletics

Vols special teams / Credit: UT Athletics

Headlines

What's happening

MEDIC Regional Blood Center has Critical Need for Blood O Blood Types

MEDIC Regional Blood Center has Critical Need for Blood O Blood Types

Medic needs your help this June! Donate blood between now and June 14th and receive free Ripley’s Aquarium tickets while supplies lasts. June 14th is National Blood Donor Day! Receive a FREE Tennessee Blood Donor themed BEACH TOWEL when you donate blood the entire month of June while supplies lasts!

Paint It Forward! (with McLain’s Painting Service)

Paint It Forward! (with McLain’s Painting Service)

NewsTalk 98.7 is teaming up with McLain’s Painting Service to help “Paint It Forward” this spring. Nominate your favorite Non-profit organization to get a fresh coat of paint up to $10,000 provided by Sherwin Williams!

Heart- 8/24/24

Heart- 8/24/24

Heart- Saturday, August 24th- Food City Center at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tickets on sale now!

Free NewsTalk 98.7 App

Free NewsTalk 98.7 App

Take WOKI with you wherever you go with the free NewsTalk 98.7 App, available on the App Store and Google Play!