Garner: 'Nobody came to Tennessee to say they want to be 7-6'

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee second-year defensive line coach Rodney Garner stressed Monday that the Volunteers have to take a step forward and not rely on last year's team that exceeded most expectations.

For many players in Tennessee's football program, last year's 7-5 regular-season record and journey to the Music City Bowl represented the high-water mark of their time in Knoxville.

Not defensive line coach Rodney Garner.

Last season was Garner's first under head coach Josh Heupel but his third with the Volunteers, having been an offensive assistant for Tennessee's 1996-97 teams that combined to go 21-4 overall and 14-2 in Southeastern Conference play. The 1997 Vols won the league championship by rallying past Auburn 30-29 in Atlanta.

So forgive Garner for putting last season in a bit of personal perspective.

"We've got to take a step forward," Garner said Monday during a news conference. "I think we exceeded the expectations for everybody except for the guys in the room and probably the coaching staff, but nobody came to Tennessee to say they want to be 7-6. That is not the standard.

"We are moving in the right direction, but everybody, when they look in the mirror, can see where we can get better. If we want to be great, then we've got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. That's what it takes."

The Vols began their second week of preseason practices Monday morning and will scrimmage for the first time Tuesday morning.

Garner is using this month to find 10 players he can rotate up front, and he does possess the program's only first-team preseason All-SEC selection - senior edge rusher Byron Young. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder who began his career at Georgia Military College has "improved his football IQ tremendously," according to Garner, but he is looking to Young, junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas and others to fill the leadership void left by Matthew Butler.

Butler, the defensive tackle who used his super senior season last year, was a fifth-round selection of the Las Vegas Raiders.

"That's been a big void," Garner said. "I guess we kind of took it for granted how valuable he was, and I don't know if we've filled that role yet. We've just got to keep pushing the guys to see who rises to the top.

"I think 'B.Y.' is trying. He's just much quieter."

When Thomas was asked Monday about the situation, the 6-4, 320-pounder said, "I need to be able to step up."

Though Ja'Quain Blakely, Aubrey Solomon and Caleb Tremblay extinguished their eligibility in addition to Butler, the Vols do return the familiar faces of Thomas, Young, Tyler Baron, LaTrell Bumphus, Da'Jon Terry, Kurott Garland and Elijah Simmons. Garner said the most improved defensive lineman from a year ago is redshirt sophomore Dominic Bailey, who played in just two games last season and collected one tackle.

As for Garner's relentless pushing of his position players, especially the freshmen, well, they should be a little more adjusted now that it's week two.

"So many times they take it personal, and I know I can be aggressive and brutal," Garner said, "but I tell them to receive the message. At the end of the day, 99% of my guys come back and love me. I just want them to be the best version of themselves."

Said Thomas: "He's a legend at this, so you've got to respect that he knows what he's talking about."

Starting unranked

Tennessee was not ranked in the USA Today preseason poll released Monday, placing third among others receiving votes behind Iowa and Penn State. Six SEC teams cracked the top 25 as voted on by coaches - Alabama (No. 1), Georgia (No. 3), Texas A&M (No. 7), Kentucky (No. 21), Arkansas (No. 23) and Ole Miss (No. 24).

The Associated Press preseason poll will be released later this month.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.