Wiedmer: Vols stronger, but bowl may be year away

Wiedmer: Vols stronger, but bowl may be year away

August 3rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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As the first day of Tennessee's preseason football practices ended Friday evening, senior linebacker A.J. Johnson made the following observations to the assembled media:

"I came back [rather than opting for the NFL] to be the best we can be, but we're taking it one day at a time. Like today, we had a great practice today, we'll come back and have one more practice. That's our motto: One day at a time."

One day at a time. Brick by brick. Trust the process. Be a champion today. Team 118.

Good mottos all. And entering the second year of the Butch Jones coaching era, they all seem to be working.

Or as senior defensive lineman Jordan Williams noted during a Thursday news conference: "Some things might seem cheesy and some things might seem a little bit corny, but the overall messages of being positive and staying together, I feel like it's going to help us."

Yet given a schedule only the Marquis de Sade could love, the overall message may not be enough to much improve Team 118's record from last year's 5-7 finish. With Utah State a possible loss in the opener, a road trip to Oklahoma and home SEC games against Florida, Alabama and Missouri, Tennessee could be better and still record its fifth straight losing season.

In fact, without beating the Gators at home on Oct. 4, it's almost impossible to see the Volunteers finishing 6-6 or better.

But Johnson also noted Friday: "One thing I always say is work on the little things. I know we have a whole bunch of new guys, so working on that and just trying to show them the right way."

This was how former coach Phillip Fulmer's best teams developed. The old developed the young. Leonard Little begat Al Wilson, who begat Eddie Moore. Toughness begat toughness. Experience developed experience. Winning became contagious.

But losing becomes contagious, too. The disease of me is the Ebola virus of athletics. As Johnson noted, little things done well can indeed win you games. But little problems can become big headaches when the breaks bounce against you season after season, as they pretty much have for the Vols every season since their 2007 run to the SEC title game, the last year the Big Orange really mattered on so much as a regional stage.

Fulmer coached that team, and when he was in town last week, his pat answer whenever he was asked about the opening of preseason practice was his concern over chemistry.

"I wanted to see how their chemistry had developed over the summer," he said. "Were they close? Were the right people assuming leadership roles?"

Now fast-forward to Thurday morning inside Neyland Stadium's Stokely Family Media Center, Jones discussing the upcoming season.

"It's not just hoping to win, but it's earning that right to win in your approach, team chemistry, leadership, your toughness or mental conditioning," Jones noted. "We have to rely on our older players. I think our team chemistry has greatly evolved."

You hear it in the voices of the players. Not just what they say, but how they say it, with strength and conviction.

"We've got much more depth this year," said senior quarterback Justin Worley, the expected starter for the opener against Utah State on Aug. 31, exactly four weeks from today. "Everyone has made great strides, [especially] a lot of these guys from year one to year two. I think our chemistry is going to be really strong."

Then there are the detailed reasons for his confidence. Bringing up a solid point about his game-experienced offensive line, the one with five new starters, Worley said: "You say it's brand new, but a lot of these guys have been here two or three years, and basically one unit. They've actually played together for a while."

It's all a lot of moving parts at the moment, a third of the roster brand new. There are only 15 total seniors, including walk-ons placed on scholarship this year. There is still a starting quarterback to name, presumably between Worley and Josh Dobbs, and 36 pure freshmen (including walk-ons) to blend into the system.

"I don't know if there's ever been a roster flipped like this one in the history of college football," Jones said Thursday. "Sometimes I feel like we're an expansion team."

In a way, they have been. Four head coaches in the last seven seasons, including this one about to begin. Blown recruiting classes due to those changes. Experienced offensive and defensive lines last year with raw, unproven skill players. The exact opposite this year.

There are also positives, however. Zero UT players could squat 600 pounds at the start of last season. Eleven can today.

"We'll be much different in terms of physicality," the coach said. "If you've seen our bodies, they've changed. Our overall team speed is going to be a little better."

It all needs to be a lot better to compete game in and game out in the SEC. The Vols' six league defeats last season were by an average of 19.3 points. And that was with senior-laden lines.

But brick by brick, things seem to be consistently improving, even if Jones also rightly injected this note of caution: "We're still not where we need to be in terms of depth, and we won't be there for a number of years."

In other words, to best enjoy Team 118, the Big Orange Nation would do well to focus on the little things, concerned with just one day at a time, the bricks in the wall not nearly strong enough to pass for a fortress. Any big improvement figures to be at least one more season away, when Team 119 should far more strongly resemble a mid-level bowl squad than an expansion team.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.