HOOVER, Ala. — As a new Tennessee football season dawns with the unofficial start to the college football calendar at SEC Media Days, there are plenty of questions surrounding head coach Butch Jones and the Vols in 2017.
The expectations from a year ago — when the Vols were picked in Hoover to win the SEC East only to end up finishing second to Florida — don't appear to be to be found anywhere this year.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to the man tasked with leading team those orange and white jerseys into Atlanta in less than two months.
"We have had our best summer to date," head coach Butch Jones said. "It's a tribute to our players. It's a tribute to our leadership and it's a tribute to Rock Gullickson and the entire strength and conditioning staff. These individuals have had a great workmanlike approach starting in January after the bowl victory over Nebraska going through the summer months. We are excited to get back and start working with them."
Gone are the names Dobbs, Barnett, Kamara, Sutton, Malone and Reeves-Maybin. Instead, insert a group that doesn't carry the cashe of household names, but a group that definitely cares about the 'T' they represent on their chest.
"We have a lot of guys working their butts off," offensive lineman Jashon Robertson said. "Giving everything they have day in and day out, whether that's in the meeting rooms or on the field or in the weight room. That's what you can expect from this team. A team that's going to work hard and give everything they have."
Without all that fire power on offense and the loss of a first-round draft pick and the school's all-time sack specialist Derek Barnett lead many to think Tennessee is in store for a down season. This group of upperclassmen doesn't want to hear that. Their time is now, and they are equally prepared to fight for what they want.
"Those guys were talented," defensive tackle Kendall Vickers said. "Derek (Barnett) is probably one of the best defensive lineman in SEC history. We lost (Corey) Vereen and those guys. But it's always been next man up and we have had this whole offseason to prepare. I love those guys, but it's not about them. It's about us as a team and we just have to go out and compete each day and play like we are going to be SEC champions.
"We just have a lot of guys that like to work hard, and they don't like to lose either. When you get a lot of guys with the same mentality then it makes things easier. I think we are gong to go into this year with a chip on our shoulder. Just try to prove everyone right that believed in us in the first place."
As the favorite last season, Jones wasn't always eager to grab the brass ring and always took the "one game at a time" coach speak to heart. This year, he appears more laid back and is embracing the future journey and path to bigger goals.
"I really like this football team," Jones said. "I think they have shown a great spirit and workmanlike approach and sometimes you are looking to what's next. We were talking about it on the plane. 'Four years ago we were going to be the first college football team to face the APR penalty.' You look at our football program right now and how difficult it is to win the Southeastern Conference and there are only three programs to win nine games or more in back to back seasons and Tennessee is one of those three. There is still so much more to be accomplished and we want more."
For a player like Vickers, being doubted isn't anything new. Overcoming the odds is the norm and he is prepared to lead the way.
"I personally have always had that mentality just to go out there and work as hard as you can and the results will speak for itself," Vickers said. "As long as I'm putting that on those guys as well, they can just follow me and we will all have that blue-collar mentality."
No word as of yet on if Jones and his "workmanlike" group have uniform changes headed into this fall.
If so, they have likely added a little blue around the collar.