Tennessee Vols seniors focus on Vandy in final Neyland game

Tennessee Vols seniors focus on Vandy in final Neyland game

November 19th, 2013 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee offensive lineman Alex Bullard (78) prepares to block for quarterback Joshua Dobbs (11) against Auburn Saturday in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- If you need to find James Stone sometime this week, there's not many places on Tennessee's campus you'll need to look.

The Volunteers' center and Tennessee's other seniors will play their final game in Neyland Stadium against Vanderbilt on Saturday night, but the Nashville native is trying to approach it like the previous 47 games of his career.

"I've tried really not to think about that as much and try to just approach this how we've been approaching all our other games," the preseason All-SEC selection said Monday. "I feel like I can think about that probably later on after the fact, but right now I'm just trying to focus on being as prepared as I can for the football game.

"Once you get into the complex and you're around the guys on the team and you see everybody else focusing on the football game, it's easier to get focused when you're around the team. I'm trying to spend as much time as I can in the complex and on film and in school, so I can keep myself occupied and ready to go."

To extend their careers by one more game, the seniors need Tennessee to win the next two Saturdays against the Commodores, who blasted the Vols 41-18 in Nashville last season, and then Kentucky in Lexington. At 4-6, the Vols must win out to get the program to its first bowl game since 2010, Derek Dooley's first season as coach.

Tennessee last went three years without a bowl game during a 1975-78 drought and last lost consecutive games to Vanderbilt in 1925 and 1926, which was Gen. Robert Neyland's first season as the Vols' coach.

"I'm not really looking at it as my last home game," said kicker Michael Palardy, who is 13-of-15 on field goals and averaging 44.6 yards per punt in his final season.

"I'll worry about that after the season and worry about those emotions and those feelings. Right now we're trying to get win number five and just focus on beating Vandy and preparing for them this week. We know we've got a nice test ahead of us."

Including walk-ons, Tennessee will honor 28 seniors before Saturday's game.

Only three players (linebacker Greg King and defensive linemen Daniel Hood and Marlon Walls) remain from the infamous lone Lane Kiffin signing class of 2009. Alex Bullard transferred to Tennessee from Notre Dame in 2011, and safety Byron Moore and defensive tackle Daniel McCullers signed as junior college transfers in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

The core of this senior class signed with Tennessee in 2010 and carries a 20-27 record into the final two games of this season.

Butch Jones, the first-year Tennessee coach, said he's talked to those players about controlling their emotions and maintaining focus for their final home game.

"You're dealing with human emotions, and these seniors have been through a lot," he said. "I talk to them all the time about their experiences here -- some good, some bad, some indifferent. It's been a resilient group of young men, and they've been through a lot, but like I told them, they're laying the foundation for the future successes of Tennessee football.

"We'll talk about it and just focus on the task at hand. We've talked about playing meaningful games in November, and we're still playing meaningful games in November. We need them to play their best football and not get up caught up in the clutter and the external factors and all that that go into making up that emotional state of mind."

Jones said the seniors have been a "great reference" for him in his first season, and he's praised the upperclassmen throughout the past year for their attitudes and how they've gone about dealing with a new coach, a new staff, new systems and schemes and a new way of life amid Tennessee's rebuilding project.

"It's not as tough as it seems," Stone said, "just because when you've got somebody leading you like Coach Jones and you see the things that he's trying to institute for a program that you love, you take pride in that, and you take pride in trying to help build what he's trying to build, because you see something special there."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.