Thursday marked the midway point for the Tennessee Volunteers in their spring practice. Suffice it to say, the Vols still have a lot of work to do, especially when it comes to fundamentals like tackling.

“It’s not so much that they’re missing tackles, it’s about us knowing the assignment. Guys fitting where they’re supposed to be at, when our guys get in position they’re making the tackles. We just got to make sure we line up and get the plays right,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said.

Tennessee is also trying to find ways to boost its pass rush from the past two years when it ranked last in the SEC with 17 sacks in 2012 and 16 sacks in 2011.

“You have to have a pass rush mentality and we don’t have it yet. We talked about third down being the ‘money down,’ that’s the down when you make all the money in the NFL,” defensive line coach Steve Stripling said. “You have to have that mentality on third down. Jacques Smith is the closest we have right now. He’s starting to show up as far as his techniques and his mentality.”

On offense Tennessee is challenged with replacing the pass-catching talents of now departed wide receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers. The Vols have receivers who were heavily recruited out of high school but have not had much impact on the field to date because of the talent of the aforementioned players. The onus is now on players like redshirt freshmen Jason Croom and Drae Bowles and sophomore Alton “Pig” Howard to step up into bigger roles in the Vols’ offense.

“They responded good today,” wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said. “We knocked a little beach off them Tuesday, knocked a little Spring Break out of them. They responded well today, they came out, they’re not resistant and that’s what’s good, they’re diving in. I coach them hard, I don’t let them breathe, they came out today with a better mindset.”

Azzanni is looking for standouts to emerge from his group of receivers and may have found one in Croom, who has made a good impression on the coaches this week.

“There’s a direct correlation to guys that really care and how fast guys get better,” Azzanni said. “Jason really cares. He’s getting better, faster than some guys, because his care factor is higher. He was in the cold tubs, he’s watching film, he was running, he did all the things he needed to do to continue to not waste a week and it showed.”

The Vols will scrimmage on Saturday in Neyland Stadium. It will be the second such practice of the spring and will offer another opportunity for the Vols to check their progress so far.

“We’ve been working on it pretty hard,” defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “A lot of our periods have been ‘thud’ (meaning they are hitting, but not taking players to the ground). Saturday we’ll find out if all those drills and things that we’re doing are paying off because that’ll be a live day.”