KNOXVILLE - Classes began at the University of Tennessee on Wednesday, and the Volunteers football team took its final exam Thursday.
At least that's what first-year coach Butch Jones called the nearly three-hour practice that began a little sluggishly after the players had two days off for the start of school.
"Our players have to learn the intensity and the mental preparation has to be turned up," Jones said. "I'm going to rely on our player staff and our seniors. I'll lead that charge as we continue to move forward."
Jones certainly led it Thursday afternoon.
The coach was on the players from the start of practice, urging them to get their minds and techniques right with the season opener against Austin Peay a little more than a week away. As they stretched, Jones barked two options: "Invest in the win" or "just wear the 'T'" on the Vols' helmets. He repeatedly reminded the team that a game is very near.
Defensive end Corey Miller said Jones' pre-practice message to the Vols was to finish the week.
"I feel Butch was trying to set the foundation," the senior said. "This is a big opportunity for us to end the week strong and start game week on a good note. Guys come off a couple days off, and you're sluggish and not really ready to practice.
"I feel like it was necessary that he got under us to get us going."
For Tennessee's receivers, it was just another practice.
Jones typically oversees the period when the wideouts run routes on air and catch passes from the quarterbacks and shouts tips, corrects mistakes or calls out guys on seemingly every repetition. He honed in Thursday on Josh Smith, at one point even chasing the freshman down the field to reinforce proper ball security after he caught a short pass.
"If they're worried about me on the football field, what happens when there's 102,455 in the stands," the coach wondered aloud, mentioning the seating capacity of Neyland Stadium. "All that is the mental toughness and the mental conditioning. It is a challenge, and we have to have some individuals step up. I think they kind of look forward to seeing who's going to get called out a little bit, but it's all productive.
"It's a compliment in a way, saying, 'Hey, we need you. Step up and lock in.'"
"That's an everday thing," receiver Pig Howard said. "I respect him for that. He coaches us hard each and every day to get us better."
And though the days are dwindling between now and when the "live bullets," as Jones put it to one of his assistant coaches, start flying, the approach doesn't appear to have changed much. Sure, Jones was active and vocal and energetic Thursday, but players now expect that.
"He's always ramped up," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "There's never a slow version of Coach Jones. If there's ever a slow day with Coach Jones, I know something's wrong."
As the staff begins to formulate a game plan and some semblance of the depth chart takes shape, the Vols had one final chance to leave an impression. It wasn't necessarily a make-or-break day for some players, but it was one final evaluation. The Vols, with a new staff, new systems in all three phases of the game and new faces at certain positions across the board, remain a work in progress.
"We've got no choice but to be ready," Miller said. "We can't take any days off. I don't want to see us go out there and fail and have the what-ifs, so we have to be ready."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.