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Small Vols: Tennessee and the Children’s Hour

Tennessee has a long way to go before it once again stands among the SEC powers, but second-year head coach Butch Jones has the young Volunteers growing up in a hurry. Here’s a two-day peek into the world of a sleeping giant.

Two days on the road with the hatchling Volunteers.

Friday, September 12, 3 p.m. ET

Tennessee’s 73-player travel squad files onto the chartered Delta plane waiting at the farthest gate of the Knoxville airport. Clad in orange-striped gray track suits, the Volunteers receive chicken sandwiches from a waiting flight attendant and collect bottles of orange Powerade at their seats. The few roomy rows of first-class seats mostly go to the big guys: linemen and seniors. Everyone else heads to coach. Most middle seats remain empty so that extra-long limbs can spill into the free space, but in Row 31, running backs coach Robert Gillespie and his wife, Crystal, squeeze in with true freshman tailback Jalen Hurd. In Row 24, Evan and Elliott Berry, true freshman defenders and twin younger brothers of former Tennessee star Eric Berry, pile in with Todd Kelly Jr., a true freshman safety whose father, Todd Sr., was a Vols standout in the early ’90s. Of the 36 true freshmen playing for the Vols this year, these four and 16 others have made the travel roster.

If that seems like a lot of youngsters, it is. A dizzying, dismaying succession of head coaches in Knoxville1 has made roster churn a way of life on Rocky Top lately, and has left second-year head coach Butch Jones with a 2014 squad that includes no returning starters on either line. What Jones does have is a massive 2014 recruiting class, and that group’s first ranked opponent is as about gnarly of a hurdle as any it’ll go on to face in SEC play: the no. 4 Oklahoma Sooners on the road in Week 3.


1.

For perspective: Even though he took the long way around, Bryce Petty, currently playing in his final season at Baylor, was initially recruited to Tennessee — four head coaches ago.

This is how Tennessee schedules in good years and bad, not that there have been good years to speak of recently. The Vols have played three home-and-home series with Pac-12 teams in the past eight seasons, losing all but one game, a resounding defeat of Cal in 2006. This Saturday’s trip to the Big 12 will be followed by a return visit from the Sooners in 2015. Future series are booked with USC and Nebraska. This is how things are done here, and done too far in advance to account for years when, say, the team has two seniors starting on offense, three on defense, and two among the specialists. The skinny kids from the signing day photo are up.

All the way to Oklahoma City, the team is quiet. The Vols have already had breakfast, a team meeting, assorted position meetings, and a quick, intense practice before boarding, but they’re not fatigued into silence. What they are, according to their coaches, is an unusually introspective bunch. “You know,” says Jones, “it’s just the personality of this team. And everything is new. I think that’s probably part of that quietness. It’s why, at times, they’ve been hard to read.” He laughs: “I’m not usually quiet.”

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6:10 p.m. CT

The calm silence lingers through dinner. After a stretch session in a ballroom in their hotel in Norman, the players form four lines and file past buffet tables piled with beef tenderloin, grilled chicken breasts, lasagna, and shrimp. Team nutritionist Allison Maurer directs the pans of green beans and asparagus to the heads of the tables, in an effort to swindle her boys into piling their plates with veggies. Equal parts den mother and behavioral engineer, her chief challenge with this overabundance of underclassmen is simple: A lot of them aren’t completely grown yet.

“They’re still finishing puberty,” Maurer says. “So you have that, a strength and conditioning program that they’ve never been through before, and more food than they’ve ever been offered. The first week, they can gain five pounds just from hydrating better.” Her best students are the legacy kids. “Everything I say, they’re doing to the word. The Todd Kellys who come in like ‘What. Do. I. Do?’ Dillon Bates,2 who’s constantly showing me his plate and asking, ‘Is this enough?’ They understand the role that they play on this team, because they’re so young and everybody’s needed.”

7:05 p.m. CT


2.

Bates is a true freshman linebacker and the son of former Vol Bill Bates.

After dinner, the players scatter to a chapel session or to comfortable lounging spots around the hotel’s ground floor. Nobody goes far. There’s a third ballroom set up as the team meeting room, and every player is inside well before Jones begins pacing back and forth in the glare of a projector light.

“Prepare yourselves,” he says. “It’s gonna be fast. But if you make a mistake? I don’t care. Make it going a hundred miles an hour. One day, somebody in this room is getting married, and this whole team will be at that reception, and you’ll be talking, telling stories. And when you get that bowl ring? A bowl ring is the equivalent of a storybook. The two sides of it tell the story of your season. Team 118 will be bonded by that ring for the rest of their lives.”

Several staffers who followed Jones from Cincinnati are monitoring the Bearcats game on the lobby televisions. The team is granted an early release from meetings to take advantage of the training room, the snack tables,3 or their beds. There aren’t enough seniors on the travel roster to pair each one with a freshman roommate, like the staff would prefer. Jones dismisses the team: “The rest of the night, don’t hang out in the lobby. We don’t do that. Get up to your rooms and relax. Enjoy being with your teammates. Get some rest, and dream great things.”


3.

Following up chicken, steak, and shrimp with a snack of cheese steak sandwiches, PB&Js, and chicken noodle soup, as one does.

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Saturday, September 13, 10:35 a.m. CT

Oklahoma and Tennessee each boast football programs that date back to the 1890s. They played each other in the 1939 and 1968 Orange Bowls, but have never met in the regular season. There are no whoops as the Vols enter OU’s stadium for a preliminary walk-around, taking the field via a crimson-turfed ramp with the years of the Sooners’ national championships listed in white. The sky is gray from horizon to horizon, and here the team’s silence is almost eerie. Players pace the visitors’ sideline space, smaller than what they’re used to in Knoxville.

Jones drills them verbally in special teams substitution procedures, and after 20 or so minutes of exploration, he sends the squad back to the buses. “Your position coach will be with you at some point during the day to get you up, get you moving around, get you breathing some fresh air so you’re ready to hunt tonight,” he says. As the buses roll through Norman back to the hotel, a lone fan stands on a sidewalk, pulling up his fleece jacket to display a Tennessee-branded polo shirt. The quiet holds.

4:25 p.m. CT

“There’s a certain comfort level to having 14 midyear enrollees,” says offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, “but you still have to realize, as a coach, that even though they’ve been here for six months, those guys are still experiencing a road trip for the first time. Even next game, we’ll have to focus on playing after a bye week for the first time. Every little thing is brand-new to these guys.”

Sixteen of the 20 true freshmen on the trip will play tonight, five of them as starters, including one offensive lineman, Jashon Robertson, who was originally committed to Vanderbilt under James Franklin, then came to Tennessee — as a defensive tackle. “We were very thin at the offensive line,” says Bajakian. “And it all kind of came to fruition one day in practice. We were short some offensive linemen, so he said he’d jump in. And Jashon, never having sat in an offensive line meeting before, started to ask very pointed and very relevant questions. And you could tell from the very first snap that he’s got a very good understanding of how to play the position. We moved him the next day.”

As the final departure to the stadium approaches, coaches’ wives mill about the hotel’s ground floor, greeting their husbands’ charges. In the middle of a hallway, junior linebacker Curt Maggitt quizzes his position coach, Tommy Thigpen, on Oklahoma’s offensive looks. Players pile their duffel bags in the back of the team meeting room. Jones delivers his penultimate pregame instructions:

“You’re prepared. Now just go and enjoy it. This is what you’ve worked for. So I don’t need to say anything else. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of this hotel. I’m ready to do what we came for.”

6:52 p.m. CT

The Vols wear white pants and white jerseys with a subtle orange-on-orange checkerboard pattern in the numbers, an homage to the end zones at Neyland Stadium. Their white helmets have a faint pearlescent sheen to them, like a fine bass boat.4 Senior quarterback Justin Worley walks from locker to locker, speaking a few words to each teammate. Senior running back Marlin Lane stalks behind him, a little more intensely. Maggitt follows, amped to the gills, slapping hands and helmets.

7:06 p.m. CT


4.

Tennessee calls this combination the “Storm Trooper.” Like Luke Skywalker, the Vols are a little short.

It’s time for Tennessee’s final pregame rituals, and the players form a circular mass at the center of the room, but then the referee sticks his head in the door, calling the captains out for the coin toss. “Captains, I need you! Gotta go, gotta go!” Worley, Maggitt, and senior linebacker A.J. Johnson follow him out, and the sounds of the rest of the team muttering the Lord’s Prayer at a rapid clip echo after them.

“Listen up,” says Jones. “There is no crowd tonight. All it is, is we’re playin’ ball. Have a great night, men. ONE!”

Right about here, these guys get loud. Before each home game, seven of former Vols coach Robert Neyland’s game maxims are recited in the stadium bearing his name, and the sound of 100,000 or so voices trying to keep time feels like a rhythmless roar in the open UT air. The 70 or so voices doing it in a cramped visitors’ locker room are entirely in unison, and the volume is skull-rattling. The cadence speeds up as they go along, and when they finish blurting out the final maxim (“CARRY THE FIGHT TO OKLAHOMA AND KEEP IT THERE FOR 60 MINUTES”), they turn and run for the field. Just as they hit the stadium concourse leading back to that ramp, ominous bell-tolling sounds roll in, signaling the Sooners’ emergence. It’s just dark enough to see pregame fireworks burst and glitter behind the top rows of bleachers.

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7:14 p.m. CT

It’s a heavy, heavy fight to carry to Oklahoma, and one Tennessee doesn’t quite have the ability to heft. The Vols’ first drive lasts three plays, goes three yards backward, and takes just 1:19 off the clock. Holding the Sooners to a field goal on the ensuing drive feels like a win in itself. Letting a wide-open Keith Ford score a touchdown four minutes later, not so much. The Vols’ second drive of the second quarter is their most successful of the night, and here’s how it goes: incomplete pass, sack, sack, 30-yard pass, two-yard loss, incomplete pass, timeout, 14-yard pass, two-yard loss, 40-yard touchdown pass from Worley to Josh Smith.

The Vols’ composure is there; they’re penalized only once. The defensive front has readily visible athleticism and moves fluidly, and is particularly effective on third downs, but Tennessee is outsized and outpaced along both lines. Worley is sacked five times and more frequently mauled behind an offensive line that isn’t entirely functional yet. The ground attack also suffers as a result, though its overall numbers get a boost from two late, long breakthroughs for Hurd.

Breaks come and go, in both directions. Tennessee recovers one of its own fumbles on a punt return, intercepts Trevor Knight in the red zone to end the half, and recovers a bad punt after it hits a Sooner defender for an accidental first down. Worley throws an end zone interception with the Vols trailing 27-10 in the third quarter, then another pick on a tipped ball on the very next series that turns into a 100-yard touchdown return for OU’s Julian Wilson.

That 34-10 score holds, and though it’s a bad beat, it easily could’ve gotten so much further away from Tennessee. It could’ve been 44-10 or worse if the Vols hadn’t intercepted Knight and blocked a field goal attempt. Or it could’ve been closer if Tennessee receiver Jason Croom had dragged that first intercepted pass away from Zack Sanchez. Or somebody else had managed to bring down Wilson on that return or block downfield for Hurd on one of his breakaways. (“That’s football, guys,” Jones tells assembled media after the game. “You can run the same play three times in a row and have the same defense and you’re gonna have three different results.”) The actual outcome falls somewhere in between, the product of mistakes and seized moments on both sides: a simple but timely lesson for a team in transition.

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11:37 p.m. CT

“Gimme your eyes,” says Jones, back in the locker room. “This football team can be as good as we wanna be if we take care of the small things. That was in evidence tonight. So you learn and you move on. It should hurt. If it don’t hurt, you didn’t invest. That’s how this works. Any questions?” The stillness is back.

“Stay together.”

11:57 p.m. CT

“I see progress every day,” Jones says in his postgame press conference. “Unfortunately, sometimes progress isn’t measured in a victory. We still have a long, long ways to go in understanding what it takes at certain stages of the game to play winning football. Losing will never be accepted here.”

He talks for a couple more minutes, and then there’s a beat that’s long enough to make everybody in the room look up from their notepads before he says: “That locker room’s different. In all aspects. The hurt factor, the care factor is much different. Now what do we do with it? How do we build on it?”

12:10 a.m. CT

Shortly before catching the bus that will take him to the plane that will take him to another bus, Jones is still musing. “I thought they kept fighting, you know? That’s the thing. I think this game will serve for a reference point for a long, long time in the evolution of our football program. I think they’re still just feeling their way into place right now.”

And after all that, the Vols are just one step into their gantlet: Following a Week 4 bye, five more ranked opponents await Tennessee in SEC play, with two more (Florida and Kentucky) unranked but not to be overlooked in a tangled East division. League play kicks off with a trip to no. 13 Georgia in Week 5. In the meantime, Jones takes comfort from his fledglings visibly exerting themselves to flap their wings, and takes pride in moments of ownership from the mouths of babes:

“Dillon Bates will always look at me on game days and say, ‘You all right, Coach?’ He tries to be the comforting voice. I kinda chuckle when he asks me that.”

Travel photos courtesy of Tennessee Athletics