KNOXVILLE — "We got a lot better as a football team."
University of Tennessee senior tight end Ethan Wolf didn't hesitate in his assessment of Team 121 on Wednesday afternoon. Instead, he smiled — as if he already knew what the rest of country will learn Monday night at 8, when the Volunteers face Georgia Tech on national television inside Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the season opener for both.
Coaches converse in coachspeak, especially Tennessee's Butch "Coach Cliché" Jones. It's all about saying as little as possible in as few words as necessary. Such as, to pull but three such gems from Jones' news conference Wednesday that focused on the opener:
1. "This will be what a game of complementary football is all about."
2. "We will have to be able to get off the field defensively."
3. "Field position will play a vital key in the outcome of the game."
We don't think so, but he may have even slipped this bit of wisdom into mix: "The team with the most points at the end of the game will win."
Yet clichés also become clichés because of the truth in those well-worn words. If the Vols expect to beat the Yellow Jackets, they'll need to play well in all three phases of the game: offense, defense and special teams. They'll also need to limit Tech's option offense as much as possible, both to limit the physical wear and tear on their defense and to give the Big Orange offense enough possessions to do damage.
And field position — especially regarding Tech's offense — is more important in some games, because while it's tough for any run-oriented attack to drive 80 yards averaging, say, 4 yards a carry, grinding out 55- to 60-yard scoring drives is much more plausible, given that it would require five or six fewer plays to score.
Still, players say what they really think, even those at Tennessee's level, who are often coached on what to say in order to say nothing that could fire up a foe.
So Wolf and fellow senior Kendal Vickers followed Jones on Wednesday inside the school's media center. They even slipped on Tennessee orange polo shirts to look a tad bit more official.
"We're all juiced up and ready to go," said Wolf, surely unaware of the more sinister meaning of those words.
He quickly added, his smile growing wider, as if he was about to unwrap his biggest Christmas package from Santa Claus: "Everybody on the team from all levels — managers all the way to coaches and definitely the players — are excited for this game, and we're going to go out and give everything we've got."
This team will need to give it everything it has in almost every game it plays this season in order to win. That's especially true against a schedule that could realistically see the Vols tabbed as underdogs five times: vs. Tech, at Florida, vs. Georgia, at Alabama and vs. LSU.
The Vols were already plagued by injuries, and on Wednesday morning, Darrin Kirkland Jr. had somewhat minor knee surgery with plans for him to return shortly, though almost certainly not in time to face Tech. Wide receiver Josh Smith is practicing, but not yet certain to be available against the Jackets. Nor is defensive lineman Shy Tuttle, whose presence is much needed.
Beyond that, when you still haven't named a starting quarterback to replace somewhat irreplaceable leader Josh Dobbs less than a week from the opener, your margin for error would seem small from the first week forward.
But that doesn't mean the Vols can't once more win eight regular-season games. Beat Tech, and that number feels more like nine.
And speaking of that quarterback battle between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, one thing Wolf said might tip the scales in favor of the latter: "They're both great passers."
If Wolf is right, if less separates them as passers than previously believed, Guarantano's fleet feet might earn him the starting job.
What might most earn the Vols an opening victory came from Vickers, however. Regarding Tennessee's offensive line, he said, "(They're more) physical, as is the physicality of the team really."
Added Wolf, "You can never be too physical."
Not against Tech and its cut blocking throughout its option offense. Not against the Southeastern Conference a little further down the road.
We return to Wolf's words at the start of this column: "We got a lot better as a football team."
Trouble is, they may need to be just to finish with the same 8-4 record they posted a year ago.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.