As the Music City Bowl came to a close and former players Josh Malone, Derek Barnett and Josh Dobbs all met with the media one final time, the trio was asked about the state of the program going forward.
Each former Vol gave a positive answer with Barnett and Malone saying the program was in “good hands” with this year’s group. Dobbs added that last year’s leaders had instilled “our drive, our hard work (and) our work ethic” into this year’s team.
Now that Dobbs, Malone, Barnett and other playmakers are gone, that hard work isn’t being spotlighted by the national media. Multiple spring practice polls have the Vols at the very bottom of the Top 25 — if they’re even in there at all.
“In terms of our teams, we have challenged our players in three areas: details, accountability and toughness,” head coach Butch Jones said on Monday. “It’s really about zeroing in on the details and turning it up a notch … I think tomorrow, when you are out there during practice, you are going to see a much stronger, a much bigger and much more explosive football team.”
It isn’t something that shouldn’t be expected. After early 2016 polls had the Vols ranked high in the Top 10 (one poll even had the team ranked No. 1 in the country), a 9-4 (4-4 SEC) campaign wasn’t supposed to happen. Multiple football analysts and other media members projected the Vols to win the SEC East, challenge Alabama in the SEC Championship game and go to a New Year's Six Bowl.
But that wasn’t in the cards for the Vols. After beating rivals Florida and Georgia to improve to 5-0, the team dropped three straight games to Texas A&M, Alabama and South Carolina before losing the regular season finale to Vanderbilt, promptly kicking them out of the SEC East race and shuffling them down to the Music City Bowl.
However, this isn’t a team that focuses on the past — only toward a bright beginning with spring practices starting on Tuesday.
“It felt good to get back out here,” senior defensive back Emmanuel Moseley said after practice. “We’re working hard in the weight room. It’s good to get back out here and play with the guys.”
This season’s team will have a far different makeup than last year’s. Not only will the team need a new starting quarterback, but a pass rusher, a lockdown secondary member and a legitimate running threat is also on the Vols’ laundry list of demands.
As Jones said at Monday’s opening press conference, the Vols don’t have a depth chart yet. Competition is fierce at every position.
“We’re judging every spring practice on the things we talked about in the press conference,” Jones said on Tuesday. “Details, accountability and toughness. I really liked this team’s approach starting yesterday. I like their mindset. I like their approach to practices. It was a little sloppy, but that’s to be expected from the first practice.”
Looking for Leaders: All four of Tennessee’s captains last year are now gone. Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton and Alvin Kamara are all expected to be drafted in April’s NFL Draft, so the Vols are currently in the process of finding leaders to replace those captains.
But Jones isn’t looking just for simple replacements. He knows that replacing last year’s leaders won’t be a walk in the park.
“You never really know (leaders) until you get out here,” Jones said. “I like what I saw from leadership today. Those individuals (leaders), you just don’t replace … If this football team continues to stay eager and coach each other like I saw today, we’re going to continue to improve and get better and better.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano is one player who benefitted from the learnings of his mentor. After Tuesday’s practice, Guarantano said that Dobbs “was the best quarterback for that job” of teaching the rookie gunslinger the ropes.
“Josh helped me out more than anyone could have possibly,” Guarantano said. “I was able to watch all the ups and downs of the season and how he reacted to things. He had a great season last year, able to throw the ball well and run the ball well. I think that all those types of things helped me prepare for the upcoming season.”
New coaches galore: The newest additions to the Tennessee coaching staff also saw the practice field for the first time on Tuesday.
Jones admitted that while he’s coaching his players, he’s also coaching the staff itself.
“I’m excited to get back and meet as a staff and say, ‘Okay, tell me your guys' thoughts on day one,’” Jones said. “I was kind of a quiet coach today. I sat back and I took notes … What I see is that (the coaching staff) have built great relationships with our players already from a trust factor.”
New defensive backs coach Charlton Warren is an offseason signing that has stood out due in part to Warren’s military background.
Moseley said having Warren around “brings energy” and that his focus has been on players’ eyes when they run down the field.
“He brings a lot of details. I really like him,” Moseley said. “Just having good eyes, I think that’s what messed us up last year. I think we’re doing a better job of going over that now and getting better at it.”
Position Change: To conclude Tuesday’s practice, Jones announced a position change on his defense.
Junior Austin Smith, who was a linebacker in 2015 and moved to defensive line in 2016, has moved back to the linebacker position. In 2015, Smith started one game in place of the injured Curt Maggitt and played in all 13 games of that season as a linebacker.
Smith didn’t, however, play in any games last season as a defensive lineman.