HOOVER, Ala. -- Departures, personnel changes and annual roster turnover are a part of life in the world of college football. Things can change a great deal from one year to the next and dealing with those transitions is one of the more pivotal aspects of a head coach’s duties.
Butch Jones is fond of saying that in the college game your team's the identity changes every year.
That’s undoubtedly true. However, in the case of the 2017 Tennessee Vols, it’s even more true than usual.
Jones and the Vols lost six players to the NFL Draft off of last year’s 9-4 squad. That alone would be enough at least put most teams in ‘reload’ mode if not ‘rebuild.'
On a more subtle level, though, the Vols aren't just looking to replace lost starters and lost production, they’re honestly searching for those players next in line to become the faces of the program.
That’s a mantle that guys like Derek Barnett, Josh Dobbs and Jalen Reeves-Maybin wore with ease. But who’s next? Is it John Kelly? Maybe. What about Jauan Jennings or Darrin Kirkland Jr.? Possibly.
The bottom line is that at this moment, we don’t know the answer to that question and it’s the first time the Vols have been in this position in awhile.
Take last year for instance, Dobbs was a Sports Information Director’s dream-come true: A multi-year starter back at quarterback and a superstar in the classroom. Similarly, Barnett returned as an All-SEC performer with an excellent shot at breaking Reggie White’s school sack record.
Those guys already had a body of work behind them were both comfortable with an familiar with the spotlight.
The presence of guys like Dobbs, Barnett, Reeves-Maybin, along with Alvin Kamara and Cameron Sutton were the biggest reason why Tennessee was an overwhelming choice to win its first SEC East title since 2007.
Now, a year later, on the cusp of a new season, questions abound about these Vols.
What are the reasonable expectations for a team that lost its best player from every position group except for linebacker and offensive line?
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult to make the argument that this year will be better than last, simply based on personnel.
This group of Vols, along with their head coach, have been hearing that they’re expected to take a step back since before spring practice started.
Not surprisingly, the members of Team 121 don’t share that sentiment. They know what kind of talent they lost off of the roster. Better than anyone. They simply take exception to those who don’t think the pieces are in place to take up the slack.
“It’s not something that we’re really trying to argue, it’s just the expectation that we have as a team, when guys depart other guys step in,” senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson said on Monday.
“Our coaching staff has done a great job of taking guys like myself, E-Man (Emmanuel Moseley) and Kendall Vickers, starting at ground zero with us and have steadily helped build us up through our three years here. We’ve had our own experience, so that now when guys like that leave guys like us have opportunities to step into those same roles.”
That’s obviously the hope and the expectation, that players already on the roster are ready to step up and into some glaring holes left by players like Barnett, Dobbs and Kamara.
Robertson’s stance is the expected one from a player in his position.
No one is going to step in front of a microphone in his spot and say, ‘Oh, there’s no way we’re winning nine games again without those guys. Forget it.’
It’s the party line, and no matter the circumstances, it’s the position players and coaches alike have to take.
In this instance though, it seems like the Vols’ parroting those lines believe what they’re saying. It’s not as though this group is salty, but everyone seems to be carrying a little chip on their shoulder due to many observers writing them off as a result of those personnel losses.
Kendall Vickers doesn’t exactly bristle at the notion that people expect Tennessee to take a step back this fall, but he is quick to acknowledge that the perception out there is serving to motivate this group.
“We definitely feel that and I think guys are motivated by it,” Vickers said of the notion that Tennessee isn’t as talented as last year’s group. “We have a bunch of guys that don’t like losing and when you have a big group with that kind of mentality it makes things a lot easier.
“I think this group is going into the year with a chip on our shoulder and try to prove all those people right that believe in us in the first place.”
Unlike last year this team will have a chance to sneak up on some people. A year ago, anything short of an East Division title was going to be a disappointment. We all know how that turned out.
This year, the Vols are back in the role of underdogs, or in the eyes of some, underachievers.
That ‘nobody believes in us tag’ seems to fit this team, and its head coach, well. Jones never seemed entirely comfortable with the outsized expectations his team carried into 2016. While I think that the rash of injuries the Vols had to deal with had more to do with falling short of those expectations than anything else, dealing with those expectations still seemed like a learning curve for Jones and his team.
That’s certainly not a problem this fall, not with all the question marks on this roster. From breaking in a new starter at quarterback, finding someone to help Kelly shoulder the load in the backfield, getting Shy Tuttle healthy in the trenches and establishing some sort of defensive end rotation from a unit that has virtually no experience Jones has some obvious challenges.
One of those challenges, apparently, is not going to be convincing his team that they have what it takes to compete in the SEC despite new faces in big spots.
“We’re driven,” Emmanuel Moseley said of this team’s mindset. “We want to prove that we’re still a great team. I don’t think us losing the kind of people that went to the NFL. I actually think it’s going to help us because of everything that they’ve passed down to us.”
That’s a nice sentiment from Moseley but one that this team will be hard pressed to prove on the field this fall.
If they can pull it off Tennessee will find itself in the unfamiliar position of having exceeded expectations. Given what they’re looking to replace, that would be Jones’ niftiest trick yet in his fifth season in Knoxville.