KNOXVILLE — During his tenure as Tennessee's head football coach, Butch Jones often has relied on his player staff to provide leadership, assist him when delicate situations arose and serve as an avenue between coach and team.
Earlier this offseason, Jones decided he wanted to tweak the player staff. After the group swelled to 13 last season, Jones wanted it "condensed" for 2015, so during exit interviews after spring practice, he asked all the players to name the four Volunteers they viewed as the team's "most powerful leaders."
One of the top vote-getters, fifth-year senior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt, will be on Tennessee's now six-man player staff for a third straight year.
That doesn't make the role he's continued to fill throughout his career any easier, though.
"Definitely not," he said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., "especially with some guys coming in in January and some guys coming in a month and a half ago. It's definitely not, I would say, easy at all.
"You've got a lot of different personalities, but it's something I embrace."
For cornerback Cameron Sutton, a 25-game starter who's one of the hardest workers and film junkies in the program, the role is a little bit newer. Sutton was one of the top vote-getters, along with Maggitt and quarterback Josh Dobbs, when Jones asked the Vols to rank their top leaders, but his style is more introverted. He's quieter. It's something he's trying to adjust.
"Not talking enough was a big problem for me," he explained. "Just being more vocal, I have a powerful influence with my voice. I'm starting to realize that the more I'm being around my teammates. They listen to me, of course, but just being more vocal, the guys will follow."
"Me and the other five guys on the player staff just have a lot of influence on the team. Guys come to us about anything, whether it's football or whether it's just about life. We're just another outlet. Sometimes you might not be able to talk to coaches about things, but you're able to talk to the players about (them). It's just another outlet and influence for the guys."
Leadership can become an overused buzzword for college football teams during the offseason and preseason, but it's an essential part of every team's makeup. Great players are needed to win games, but any successful team can point to strong leadership, from the top with the head coach and coaching staff down to the players, as part of its formula.
A strong leadership core can keep a team focused on a singular prize during the offseason and help a roster manage the ups and downs of games or the rigors of a season.
The Tennessee teams of the 1990s, the program's most recent heyday, were loaded with talented players, but they also had team leaders who were easily recognizable.
Through continual coaching changes and heavy attrition sapping the Vols of their junior and senior classes, Tennessee's often lacked that element, but the Vols, though more than half the roster is comprised of first- or second-year players, have enough experience and veteran players this year that should provide that strong leadership core.
"I think we have a pretty mature team with a lot of guys returning," Maggitt said. "We definitely do. We're not going to sneak up on anybody, that's for sure.
"We've got older guys like (Brian) Randolph in the secondary, we've got Cam Sutton, (Jalen) Reeves-Maybin, (Derek) Barnett, myself, (Danny ) O'Brien. The offense is loaded.
"We've got a lot of weapons; we've got to keep everybody together and keep that same vision."
That vision is returning Tennessee to relevance both nationally and within the SEC.
"We're competitive about the littlest things that you could possibly imagine," Dobbs said. "It's definitely great to have that on our team. We're a team that's very hungry.
"We have guys after a three-hour workout on Friday, when there's a lot of other things you could be doing on a Friday night, they're in the complex working out or throwing or working footwork drills."
After tasting the modest success of a bowl game last season, the Vols should be craving more, and Jones and the players roundly have embraced the pressure that comes with the expectation of more success.
"That's the expectations of other people," Maggitt said. "What I can control is leading the team. We came to Tennessee for that reason. We're not blind to it. We know it's being talked about, but our job is to get ready for the season, then take it one game at a time, Nashville first."
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