KNOXVILLE — Tennessee football coach Butch Jones believed in the offseason that his 2017 team would be led by committee, saying at SEC Media Days in July that "this is probably the best collective leadership that we've had in our football program to date."
An optimistic school of thought emerged among some: Though the 2017 Volunteers lacked the stars and established leaders of the 2016 team, perhaps they were taking on an identity that Jones labeled "blue collar" and "workmanlike." It all started with the senior class, Jones said.
After five games, that narrative has died out and leadership roles are up for grabs again.
"We're going to find out who the true leaders are, and we're going to find out who the true competitors are," Jones said after Tennessee's 41-0 home loss to Georgia on Saturday. The Vols fell to 3-2 overall, including 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference.
It's the first of many issues set to be evaluated by the embattled fifth-year coach, who went on to say "everything will be looked at in our program from A to Z." The Vols don't play again until Oct. 14 against visiting South Carolina.
Jones said on his television show Sunday that Tennessee will practice in full pads this week and hang on the loss to Georgia longer than it typically would as it seeks to regroup with a chance at an SEC East title all but lost before October arrived.
"Our mentality hasn't changed — just come back and keep working," fifth-year senior offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said Saturday. "We've got a lot of places we can improve, so this next week is going to be huge for us. This is only game five, so we've got seven games left and then an eighth one. We've got a lot of season left. There's a lot of room for us to grow, but there's also opportunity left for us."
Tennessee needs to win six of its final eight games — assuming an eighth game awaits at season's end — to match its win total of the past two seasons.
Alabama appears to be the only unconquerable opponent among those remaining on Tennessee's schedule. But with Jones' job performance under heavy scrutiny and a trip to the SEC title game out of reach, it's unclear what objectives the players will use as a rallying point.
"I think this is really when you found out who you really are," senior middle linebacker Colton Jumper said. "I think everybody's true character come about. We are going to be able to go back and watch film and see what guys are fighting until the end. Leadership standpoints, that is just something that's got to pick up."
"We need more vocal leaders, and that starts with us two," Jumper added as he motioned toward himself and starting quarterback Quinten Dormady.
Jones termed the open week "the most important week of the season for us."
"Then, at the end of the week, we'll go out recruiting," Jones said on his TV show.
Tennessee had numerous high school prospects on campus for the Georgia game.
"The game was over with, you're very disappointed and you have to go recruit. But also it was kind of exciting," Jones said. "With all these players, they can see where they can come in and help our football program."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.