Tennessee football hardly stamped its reemergence Saturday inside Neyland Stadium, where first-year coach Butch Jones talked openly about the progress his team displayed simply from an attitude and effort standpoint, but it took an important stride. One eight days in the making.
Turns out, the catalyst for the Vols' obvious improvement --- players made plays, and while it sounds simple it cannot be overstated --- on this last major intrasquad showcase likely came the Friday after Tennessee returned from spring break because the squad met as one, sans coaches.
Frustrated at the team's response in practices coming out of spring break, and spurred to action when a pair of players blew off an early-morning workout, Tennessee's players took matters into their own hands.
"We just felt the need to do it to hold each other accountable. I can't really say too much about it because it's a players-only meeting. But it was to let guys know that you will be held accountable on this team. Myself included," said Marlon Walls, who along with A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Dontavis Sapp was critical in the meeting being held. "That meeting was basically about that. We touched a few areas where we need to get stronger. We felt like we need to bond more as a team. We felt like we needed to get together to cover that."
Added Sapp, "As players, we were not satisfied with the way things were going this spring. It started out good early, but we could kind of feel like the intensity falling back. We just decided to get the team in and talk to the team and get that back the way it needed to be."
Perhaps it's a reach to suggest that the players' decision to meet and air grievances once coaches had departed the room that Friday facilitated the bruising touchdown run Alden Hill uncorked during red-zone work, or that Justin Coleman and Geraldo Orta generated big-play interceptions because the Vols' core leadership is emerging.
Still, count Butch Jones among those who believe it's a significant step in the program's rebuilding process. The Vols could have been affected by the ongoing absence of tailback Marlin Lane. Instead, Hill, Neal and others on both sides of the ball are showing signs of maturing.
"It is a sign of growth, and we still have a long way to go," Jones said following Saturday's scrimmage that featured hundreds of high school coaches looking on. "But it's also our job as coaches to teach players how to lead. To give them examples. To teach them. Leadership is one of those words that's very misunderstood, and it's our job as a program to foster leadership. To put our players in leadership roles and opportunities. So I thought that was another big step in the evolution of our program."
Both younger and veteran players insist they are seizing upon a sense of urgency and obligation in helping bring back Tennessee football.
"All these guys, everybody has the same mentality. Everybody's bought in to this system. Everybody's disappointed from last year, but that's team 116. This is team 117. We're moving forward, and we're going to do what we've got to do to get some wins in the column and do our thing," said redshirt freshman defensive tackle Danny O'Brien. "For the team, everybody's really holding each other accountable. We had an early workout last Friday, and it was at 6 a.m. and a couple of guys missed and everybody was held accountable. We had a team meeting with no coaches, and we held everybody accountable for who was there and who wasn't."
Junior quarterback Justin Worley, locked in a position battle alongside Nathan Peterman, believes the defensive leaders' decisions to join their offensive teammates in the weight room that morning can be a unifying factor, more so than anything Worley recalls in his three seasons in Knoxville.
"The offense came out on Wednesday (April 3), and we had a terrible, terrible lift. Coach (Dave) Lawson wasn't pleased with us at all, and Friday morning we came in and had a 6 a.m. workout, and I think A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt stepped up and said 'Hey defense, let's join the offense. Let's come and lift. We're all a team.' Things like that," Worley said. "We had a couple guys miss it; just didn't show up. I can't speak on their part or anything, but we had a team meeting Friday after that lift. A.J. Johnson told all the players to stay in after the coaches left. He stood up, called a couple guys out and that's exactly what we need. That leadership and accountability. Hold these guys accountable to their actions. It was good to see some guys step up like that.
"This is the greatest amount of accountability we've been held to. I mean, it's great to see individual players take ownership of this team."
That is a staple element Jones is urging in his program.
"We've been talking about a full level of accountability in the way we play and the actions of one affect all of them. The actions of one are a reflection of the football program, on the field and off the field," Jones said. "So we've been stressing leadership, and being a player-coached team because in one more week, we're done. And it's going to be a player-led football team in the summer so they better learn the standard and the expectation. So it was good; (Saturday) it was great to see because I really liked the mindset that they came with."
Players know the process is in its early stages, but work on their legacies and how they leave Tennessee football is ongoing.
"I think it touched them guys letting them know that we needed to be all in and that this is a different team. We won't start living that way till we really start believing that and we get guys on the same page," Walls said. "We are team 117. Coach Jones preaches that all the time. We get to start our own legacy. We have a chance to bring it back and guys need to take heed of that."
Sapp believes his veteran teammates feel responsible to help get Tennessee off the mat.
"We've got a good senior group. We realize that this is our last go-round, and we're not going to go out and have regrets on the way we played and the way we left this place," Sapp said. "We're trying to get this and turn this around before we leave so that we can be that class that, you know, turned Tennessee around and got Tennessee back on track."
In other words, the Vols are meeting their challenges head-on.
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