Vols hungry to put past behind them

Vols hungry to put past behind them

March 9th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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KNOXVILLE - His assistant coaches wore coats and ties and chose their words carefully, as one might expect of first-year employees. After all, if you promise nothing, it's hard to disappoint.

But new Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones was sans tie and all smiles Friday afternoon.

"I think I speak for everyone in Tennessee when I say I'm looking forward to our first spring practice," he said.

Then Jones referred to something that was the cornerstone of his successes at Central Michigan and Cincinnati.

"Before we throw a lot at them, we're going to teach them how to play," he said. "I believe in execution."

Precise execution never seemed all that important to the previous regime, which once had to burn a timeout to get a punter on the field. There were too many penalties, too many third-and-short snaps becoming fourth-and-longers, too many failed fundamentals on all fronts.

This is not to say former UT coach Derek Dooley did nothing right. Behind the scenes, where too much had been ignored for far too long regarding discipline, Dooley and his staff did good work, which might be one reason both Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian proclaimed on Friday, "Our players have been outstanding. They've done anything and everything we've asked of them."

Everything. From losing weight to academics to winter workouts in the weight room.

Said Jones: "I was talking to our nutritionist the other day and she said, 'I've never seen anything like this. [The team] has lost so much body fat but gained so much muscle.'"

Added junior linebacker A.J. Johnson: "The first couple of weeks [of winter workouts] you could already see changes in our bodies."

But it's their minds that seem to be undergoing the biggest changes to this point.

"Last year, we didn't finish games well," said junior quarterback Justin Worley, no doubt mindful that the Vols often were awful in the fourth quarter, collapsing against Florida and Missouri and committing game-losing turnovers against Georgia, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

"We need to focus our attention on the details. Little things led to losses last year."

Attention or aversion to details almost always determines success or failure over a long period of time. But energy and enthusiasm also play a role, especially with a new coaching regime.

Part of Dooley's failure could be traced back to a seeming lack of trust and commitment from the juniors and seniors he inherited -- players he didn't recruit and never seemed to win over.

If that's the case with Jones, rising senior Ja'Wuan James kept it well-hidden during Friday's news conference.

"You could see he was genuine," James said. "Everybody is starting over with a clean slate. I know I feel like I still have a lot to accomplish ... go to a bowl game, win a bowl game."

Said Worley: "We're trying not to look back at last year. We're moving on now."

Hard as it may be for some to digest, the Vols haven't gone to a bowl since the 2010 season and they lost that Music City Bowl to North Carolina, just like they'd lost to Virginia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl the year before. The Vols haven't finished with a winning season since Lane Kiffin's lone year in 2009, and that was a 7-6 campaign.

But Jones believes the leadership he's seen from James and the rest of the senior class could change all that.

"I've never had a successful season that didn't include a strong senior class," he said. "The hourglass has turned over for them. They've got 12 guaranteed opportunities left. They must work to get 13, work some more to get 14. I think this is a hungry football team."

Given the pounds they've shed, they could be hungry for nothing more than food. But the Vols are at least sounding like an emotionally hungry football team ready to deliver its victory-hungry fan base more wins than losses come autumn.

Then, and only then, will the Big Orange Nation be able to truly move on from its recent unsatisfactory past.