Wiedmer: Can UT's season turn as bright as Smith's blazer?

Wiedmer: Can UT's season turn as bright as Smith's blazer?

July 18th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee player Jacques Smith talks with reporters Wednesday during the Southeastern Conference football Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

HOOVER, Ala. - For a brief moment Wednesday morning it appeared as if Tennessee senior defensive end Jacques Smith had lost coach Butch Jones's wardrobe memo for SEC Media Days.

While Jones and senior offensive linemen Tiny Richardson and Ja'Wuan James all entered the Hyatt's Wynfrey Hotel wearing similar versions of a white shirt/dark gray suit/orange necktie ensemble, Smith opted for a more eye-catching look.

Or as Richardson said upon first spying his classmate's bright orange blazer: "Man, you look like a black Bruce Pearl."

Added James, "I told him he pulled it off kind of cool, but he could still be seen by a Google satellite."

Think a 6-foot-2, supremely chiseled Pearl without a single bead of sweat and you have some idea of how good Smith looked in his white shirt, black and orange tie, UT orange blazer, black slacks and black alligator loafers.

"Being from Ooltewah, everyone's all Vol-ed out all the time, everybody always dressed in orange," Smith said. "So I decided I was going to walk down the Vol Walk wearing an orange coat every game during my senior year. I'm testing it out today."

The Vols are now 44 days from the first football test of their new coach's regime. Austin Peay will face the Big Orange for the first time in its history on August 31 inside Neyland Stadium. Dangerous Western Kentucky and the Hilltoppers' personally reviled but professionally respected first-year coach Bobby Petrino will arrive one week later.

Then the mean season begins, a ridiculously tough stretch of games that includes road trips to Oregon, Florida, Alabama and Missouri sandwiched around a three-game homestand of South Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Five of those teams -- Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Bama -- were in last year's Top 10. Smith might need to wear his Big Orange blazer before each of those games in hopes of temporarily blinding the opponent.

But whether or not clothes make the man, it is apparent that the Vols' new coach has made this a tight team off the field, which might not always have been the case with the previous regimes.

"There's so much difference from three years ago to now," Smith said. "We have no off-field issues. Our whole mindset, our effort and energy will be hard for anyone to beat in the fourth quarter. I've never seen us play that fast (as we did in the spring) before."

Jones is no less complimentary of Smith, who arrived at UT with great promise, yet has recorded only 4.5 sacks over his first three seasons.

Asked why he selected Smith to join potential NFL first-round draft picks James and Richardson at Media Days, the coach swiftly said, "Jacques has earned that right. He's been a model of consistency both on and off the field. He bought in way early to what we wanted and he's brought others with him."

Former UT coach Derek Dooley brought James to this event a year ago and when the offensive lineman heard Smith was coming this year he gave him three bits of advice: "Have fun, try to relax and don't stutter too much."

Smith intends to also carry that advice to the field, where he is more than a little happy to return to the 4-3 defense after a disastrous season attempting to run former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri's sieve-like 3-4.

"I just want to blow past the tackle and get to the quarterback," he said. "I want to become the SEC's leader in sacks this year. It's such a blessing to put my hand back on the ground (before the snap of the ball, instead of standing like a linebacker in the 3-4)."

It's been four years since the Vols had so much as a .500 record in SEC play (4-4) and six years (2007) since they finished with a winning league mark.

Most experts don't expect that to change this season, seeing the Vols as no better than the fourth best team in the SEC East behind Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and possibly sixth in the division behind both Vanderbilt and Missouri.

But Smith believes otherwise.

"I think our senior leadership is going to take us far," he said. "And we have the best staff in the country. We're determined to return to the legacy guys like Al Wilson left for us. This is Tennessee. We set the standard."

They are mere words for now, first uttered by Jones in his earliest days on the job, yet firmly embraced by this 2013 team in the months since.

Smith even has Jones considering slipping on his own Big Orange blazer.

"I like the coat," Jones said with a wide smile. "I'm working on getting one myself."

Like Smith, he did not stutter as he spoke.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.