KNOXVILLE -- The University of Tennessee football program replaced seven assistant coaches this offseason.
Oddly enough, though, the coaching post that underwent more change than any other the past five seasons remained unchanged.
The Volunteers, who report for preseason training camp Thursday, spent the summer under the watchful eye of Ron McKeefery, the program's fifth strength and conditioning coach since the 2008 season began, for the second consecutive season.
And while seemingly every college football player in the country claims he improved physically every summer, UT's players have noted McKeefery's role in bringing them closer as a team.
"He's a guy that stays up thinking about what he can do better for his team, his athletes and put them in the best shape they can be for the season," senior linebacker Herman Lathers said at SEC media days. "He has a real big impact.
"Coach Mac lets us handle workouts. He lets us run workouts, but it's his workout plan."
McKeefery's plan goes beyond the weight room and the practice field, and it's rubbed off on his players. A former human performance coordinator for a U.S. Army Special Forces regiment at Fort Campbell, Ky., McKeefery organized the Vols' team-building hike in June up Mount LeConte, one of the highest peaks in Tennessee. Lathers has taken it further, organizing weekend cookouts and even team laser-tag and whitewater-rafting outings.
Leadership and chemistry were lacking last season, when the Vols struggled to respond to adversity. Improving the unity has been a main goal of the offseason, though such team-bonding activities aren't uncommon everywhere. The Vols do believe, though, this summer's efforts have had an impact.
"The coaches, they did a good job this summer saying they were going to let it be player-led," said junior right tackle Ja'Wuan James. "They put it in our hands, put it in the seniors' and juniors' hands to get everybody together and get this team going. I feel like we've got a lot more ownership on this team and a lot more people invested in it."
Lathers' presence on the field already has had an impact, but UT's juniors also know what's expected of them.
"You need leadership and you need team unity in order to win ballgames," said quarterback Tyler Bray, one of those juniors. "I don't want to say it was absent [last year], but it just wasn't enough. This year we're trying to make it to where we have more than we need."
The Vols won't know until the heat of the season if they've improved in those two target areas. Lathers said there's been "less arguing" this summer and the chemistry "is there" for UT to win games. It's been mostly player-driven, but McKeefery shares some of the responsibility.
During the long summer months, strength coaches become arguably the most important figures for college-football programs. With NCAA rules prohibiting contact between players and head and assistant coaches for workouts, a player's development largely depends on the strength coach and his own dedication. McKeefery can report only to UT head coach Derek Dooley.
"I've seen a big difference in their development, I've seen a big difference in the team chemistry, and I think [Ron's] had a lot to do with that," Dooley said. "He's worked very hard at it. He takes a lot of pride in developing a team that can go out there and can win an SEC championship.
"We've seen a lot of results so far, and hopefully it'll carry over on the field."
McKeefery said last week the Vols have "taken a huge step" physically since his arrival more than 16 months ago. He's had eight weeks to prepare them for the start of training camp, when the players go back into the hands of the rest of the coaching staff. Yet he won't know until the season starts how much of his work pays off.
"He pushes us to our limits," sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson said. "You can see the physical benefits on everybody. I think everybody's coming back stronger and faster.
"He doesn't the take role of just a coach. He's looking out for our best interests in life, on the field and in the weight room. It's vey beneficial to have a guy who's looking out for us in that manner."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.