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UT's Jordan Williams (54), left, LaTroy Lewis (4) and Jakob Johnson (44) attempt to block a field goal attempt while at the Vanderbilt Commodore's home field in Nashville on Nov. 29, 2014. The Vols won over the Commodores with a final sore of 24-17.
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Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (34) raises his hands after stopping a run during the Vols' fgame against the Missouri Tigers.

KNOXVILLE -- Shortly after the hugs and high-fives ended early Sunday evening, Jordan Williams was on his phone sharing the news.

It had to be pretty cool for Tennessee's senior defensive tackle to learn he would play his final college game in his home state.

"It was a great feeling, man," Williams said as he flashed a huge grin Monday morning, about 18 hours after Tennessee's players found out in a team meeting they were playing Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. (Jan. 2, 3:30 p.m.).

"We didn't really know what bowl we were going to play in. There was a lot of rumors going around. When they said we were playing in Jacksonville, the first thing I did was text all my friends back home and text my parents to let them know."

Their primary goal for the season accomplished, the Vols now can focus on getting better over the course of bowl practices the next three weeks. They will be preparing for a game that could serve as a springboard into the offseason for a program with a young roster and confidence about future success.

"I think it's going to be big," linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. "The way I see it, there's no turning back now. We had a 6-6 season, and we've got a chance to play in the Taxslayer Bowl, so now we've just got to keep climbing.

"I feel like this is just the first steppingstone, and next year we want to elevate it and the year after that one elevate it."

For the program's first bowl appearance since 2010, the Vols were going to be happy with wherever they landed, but second-year coach Butch Jones and his players are pumping up their opportunity to play in one of the Florida bowl games in January.

It's been seven years, dating back to the 21-17 Outback Bowl win against Wisconsin to cap the 2007 season, since Tennessee did that.

"It's really huge," offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said. "It's a monkey off your back, so to speak. I really wanted to do it for the guys that were leaving. I still have the extra year, but guys I came in with like Jordan and some of the older guys, they don't have another chance. This is their last chance, and I really wanted to do that for them."

The Vols are still ironing out the details of their travel itinerary and practice schedule for the next three weeks, but Jones spent Monday morning watching one of Iowa's games before attending his news conference and heading back on the road for the final week of recruiting before the NCAA's dead period.

"It's a reward," he said. "It's a reward for our fan base. It's a reward for our football team. It's a reward for our seniors.

"But make no mistake about it: You go there to win the football game. Your preparation, your mental effort, your mental intensity doesn't change one bit. It's all in your approach."

The extra practices are going to have different value for different players.

The seniors will enjoy the extension of their college careers and the camaraderie with teammates, and for the younger players who comprise most of Tennessee's roster, individual development will be key.

Jones called the extra practices "invaluable" and said they were "needed" for his program.

"Young guys, a lot of them play on scout team during the season, and they don't get to get first-team looks," Williams said. "They're always in another position they normally wouldn't be playing, and to get them reps here, 15 practices here, and take that into the spring, when they get another 15 practices, it's like a whole other spring.

"To get them a lot of reps and to get them a lot of looks is real important."

At stake for the Vols is the program's first winning season since 2009.

"We spoke all year about digging for that gold," Jones said. "We've talked about we're in a pit and we're digging for that gold. We could finally start to see that gold starting to shine through, and most people quit right before, when maybe they need just one more shovel full of dirt to reach that gold. A lot of people quit when the success is right there."

The more immediate success for Williams, who hails from Gainesville, might be convincing some of his teammates to let him use some of the six tickets each player is allotted for the bowl.

"Coach Jones always says seniors have a life expectancy that gets shorter and shorter each week," he said. "It could have been over two weeks ago ago. I'm just blessed that I get to keep playing football and keep spending time with my brothers."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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