Knoxville, Tenn.—On Aug. 15 the University of Tennessee football team had a very good morning workout at the Haslam practice fields. The night time drills would be held under the lights at Neyland Stadium. The public was invited and head coach Butch Jones hoped for a good crowd.
Over 40,000 fans showed up.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Hope looks like.
“It was an incredible teaching moment,” said Jones, set to begin his third year as head coach. “For a significant number of our guys that was the largest crowd they had ever seen. It made them understand the relevancy of Tennessee football and how important it is to our fans.”
After seven difficult years which included only two winning seasons and no seasons of more than seven wins, Tennessee fans DESPERATELY want the Volunteers to be relevant again on the SEC and national stage. And the fans who turned out on that Saturday night by the Tennessee River are convinced that this is the team that will finally do it.
Tennessee, which went 7-6 last season, was picked to finish second in the SEC East during the conference’s media days in July. Both the Associated Press media poll and the USA Today Coaches poll have the Volunteers ranked No. 25 in the preseason.
If you don’t think that preseason love is a big deal to the Tennessee fans then consider this: In 2008, Phillip Fulmer’s last season as head coach, Tennessee was ranked No. 18 in the preseason AP poll. The Volunteers lost their opener to UCLA 27-24 (OT) and dropped out of the rankings. There have been 94 AP polls since. Tennessee has been ranked in only one of them (the third week of 2012).
So when 40,000 fans—a figure that is higher than the average regular-season attendance for 38 of the 125 FBS schools–show up just to watch the team go through a light practice, you know something big is going on. In Big Orange Country they just can’t wait for the 2015 season to start.
“Our fan base has been patient, passionate and loyal,” said Dave Hart, the vice chancellor and director of athletics at Tennessee. “It is very gratifying to see their tangible positive energy on display. They are hungry.”
The meaning of that Saturday night at Neyland Stadium was not lost on the Tennessee players.
“Everywhere you go in Knoxville people will come up to you and tell you how excited they are about this season,” said junior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. “We took a step forward last season and now they want us to take another step. And you want to do it for them. Some of the young guys were looking pretty wide-eyed at that.”
One of those wide-eyed freshmen was quarterback turned wide receiver Jauan Jennings.
“Incredible,” said Jennings. “Just incredible.”
But here is the challenge for Jones and his staff. They want their players to embrace the expectations—which are always high. When Tennessee was a fixture in the Top 10 under Fulmer, the Volunteers’ roster was stocked with great players who expected to win and contend for championships. Tennessee is trying to get back to that point and Jones wants his players to believe it will happen sooner rather than later.
“We understand that and so the challenge for us to embrace the expectations but not get caught up in the clutter and the noise,” said Jones. “We have gotten better but we are still a very young football team.”
After spending the day in Knoxville on Tuesday talking to coaches and players and attending practice, here is what I’m saying about the Vols: If Tennessee football was a stock you would buy and hold it because all of the leading economic indicators are pointing in the right direction:
**–The Volunteers have posted two straight recruiting classes ranked in the Top 5. The depth on the offensive and defensive lines, which has been lacking for so long, is finally starting to take shape.
**–They have a proven player at quarterback—a rare commodity in the SEC—in Joshua Dobbs.
**–They have a great young player at running back in sophomore Jalen Hurd (who evokes Eddie George comparisons) and to that position have added one of the best junior college backs in the country in Alvin Kamara, who started his career at Alabama.
**–The receiving position is deep and talented but is a little banged up right now.
**–Tennessee’s defensive ends—senior Curt Maggitt and sophomore Derek Barnett—are as good as any pair in the country.
**–The linebackers—led by Reeves-Maybin—are good and so is the secondary. Cameron Sutton is one of the most underrated corners in the SEC.
But my gut tells me that Tennessee is still a year away. The offensive line—which gave up 43 quarterback sacks last season—suffered a couple of tough injures to guards Marcus Jackson and Austin Sanders. Some freshmen are going to have to play, which is always a red flag.
Tennessee has addressed its need at defensive tackle in recruiting with guys like Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle. But stopping the run between the tackles was a problem area last season and may still be this season.
“Our main problem last season was that our guys stayed on the field for too many snaps,” said defensive coordinator John Jancek. “Now we have some depth.”
Sophomore Rashaan Gaulden, projected to be a starter at defensive back, suffered a broken foot and is also out for the season. Sutton will wear his No. 7 jersey.
“That (losing Gaulden) was a big blow, especially to our special teams,” said Jones. “But now there is an opportunity for somebody else to step up.”
The Volunteers open with trip to Nashville to play Bowling Green, an up -tempo team that was second nationally in plays (1,103) run last season. Then there is the home opener against Oklahoma, another tempo team that has a new offensive coordinator in Lincoln Riley. That game plus the Sept. 26 trip to Florida, where the Vols have not won since 2003, should be a pretty good indicator for fans as to whether or not this team can really challenge Georgia in the SEC East.
But I will close with this. Sometimes teams fool us. Sometimes a team that appears to be a year away wins the close ones and has a special season. If Georgia, which has to play Alabama and Auburn from the SEC West and has to go Tennessee the week after playing Alabama, were to stumble like it did last season, then a young group of Volunteers could walk through the door that leads at Atlanta.
“Part of me wishes the season started tomorrow and part of me wishes we had another month to prepare,” said Jones. “Like our fans, I’m anxious to see what this team can do.”
Next stop: Texas A&M