KNOXVILLE — Jacques Smith called it a party, and he was being serious.
Sure, music played over the Neyland Stadium loudspeakers, and the Tennessee football team enjoyed some offseason camaraderie in the warmth of a late night in late June.
But the Volunteers were running 52 110-yard sprints, too.
That amounts to more than 57 football fields and 3.25 miles.
“It was all effort,” Smith, the defensive end from Ooltewah, recalled at SEC media days this past week in Hoover, Ala. “We weren’t counting at all. It was a party. That’s exactly what it was. We had the music playing, we were jamming on some 90s music and ’80s music and going at it.
“We were having a good time. We landed at 52, and [strength coach Dave] Lawson was like, ‘Guys, that’s the most we’ve ever run as our strength staff.’ It was surprising that we could do it.”
Some players still look back and wonder how they survived such a grueling test they faced the night of June 27.
“I’ve never done anything like that in my life, but I think it was more challenging us mentally than anything,” left tackle Antonio “Tiny” Richardson said. “[Lawson] just said, ‘Show up and let’s go.’ It was challenging, and we accepted it.”
Prohibited to do so by NCAA rules, Butch Jones, the Vols’ first-year head coach, couldn’t watch the team grind through its tortuous night, but he was proud when told what happened.
“Everything we talk about is a championship expectation,” he said. “Our players spoke about it, and the thing that was encouraging to me, according to Dave Lawson, is they were going to stop at a certain point, and our players wanted to keep going. To me, that’s the building, that’s a building block in our foundation, that they had enough pride that they wanted to break the record, they wanted to keep going.
“Once they accomplished it, you could see the pride that they had.”
The Vols got a brief taste of the pace of Jones’ practices during the spring and entered summer knowing they needed to prepare themselves for training camp in August, when the tempo is cranked up even more. The pace Jones wants for the Tennessee offense requires improved conditioning, especially for linemen and receivers.
Jones has said previously his players are doing the most running they’ve ever done in perhaps their entire football careers.
“Me and Zach [Fulton, the right guard] tried to calculate it the other day,” right tackle Ja’Wuan James joked when asked to estimate how much the Vols have run this summer. “We were running a mile a day four days a week. I don’t how many miles that adds up to right now.
“It feels like we’re still running right now.”
Even in Tennessee’s shiny new weight room, Lawson sticks to his old-school approach, which employs more weightlifting max-outs and plenty of running, and players said the amount and emphasis on conditioning have been different from previous summers.
“Coach Lawson, he focuses on the little things, even the little things about putting your hand behind the line and making sure it’s behind the line and lining up,” Smith said. “The little things like that is what this team needed to be critiqued, and that’s something that we’ve worked on this whole entire offseason, and it’s helped a bunch. There’s been times where the little breakdowns and things like that have gotten us in trouble in games.
“Once we transfer all those little details that we’ve worked on this offseason onto the field, I think we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Jones, with help from Tennessee’s nutrition staff, has mentioned the numbers of how much weight his team has lost and how much muscle it’s gained, and the players, particularly the offensive linemen, have noticed a difference.
“It’s just the way that we condition and the way that our coaches push us, and when I say they push us, they really push us to our limit,” Richardson said. “During the offseason, I was trying to lose some weight, and right now I’m down to a good 318 [pounds]. That’s the lightest I’ve been since I’ve been in college, so the work shows.”
The Vols hope it continues to show when the season begins.
“That’s something we’ve been working on this whole offseason,” Smith said, “our mentality during workouts and whatever that we’re doing, making sure that we’re going above and beyond what we think we can do. That’s something that the standard is about that we’re setting, and it’s going to show this year on the field.”
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...