KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee ended a string of four straight losing seasons last year and enters training camp trying to live up to expectations that it can compete for a Southeastern Conference East Division title.
The Volunteers return the nucleus of a team that won four of its final five games and have one of the SEC’s top returning quarterbacks in Joshua Dobbs. SEC media have picked Tennessee to finish second in the East, behind only Georgia.
Tennessee believes its opponents will notice the difference.
“We really have a target on our back now,” senior offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson said Tuesday night after the Vols’ first training camp workout. “We’re not seen as just the easy game on the schedule. Teams are going to give us their best, the best they have. Coach (Butch) Jones reminds us of that every day.”
That represents a major step forward for a program that hasn’t won more than seven games in a season since 2007, which also happens to be the last year Tennessee reached the SEC championship game. The Vols went 7-6 last season and won 45-28 over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl for their first bowl victory in seven years.
The Vols clearly are more talented. Jones said the team speed was “visibly different,” particularly in the offensive backfield. He also noted the team has greater depth and more maturity. He pointed out the way junior cornerback Cam Sutton responded when the second-team defense didn’t sprint onto the field at one point.
“He called them all back and had them re-huddle and sprint onto the football field,” Jones said. “He said that’s not the way we do things at Tennessee, and he took advantage of that leadership opportunity. I think just the maturation and growth of a football family and football program, you see that.”
Tennessee’s players say they have a better understanding of what Jones wants from them now that this staff is entering its third season.
“Coach Jones has been here a couple of years … and our team has definitely matured a lot since I first got here,” Dobbs said. “There’s a great flow to practice. When we walked on the practice field, it was kind of like we had practiced yesterday. It wasn’t like we haven’t been practicing for a couple of months.”
The Vols played the most true freshmen of any Football Bowl Subdivision program last year and will rely heavily on underclassmen again this season. Jones wants to make sure his young team understands the effort required in becoming a legitimate SEC contender.
Jones says the team’s motto this season is “My All,” a nod to the “I Will Give My All For Tennessee Today” sign that players touch as they exit the locker room and head to the field before every home game.
“You don’t touch that sign every time you run out onto the field of competition as a good-luck charm,” Jones said. “You touch that sign because you believe you are going to give your all for Tennessee.”
NOTES: Redshirt freshman Charles Mosley was working out on the offensive line, two weeks after getting arrested on a charge of driving under the influence. Jones has said the team punishment for Mosley would be handled internally. … Jones complimented the way Jauan Jennings performed while working out at receiver. The freshman had played quarterback throughout spring practice. “He made some catches today where you kind of did a double take and it got you excited,” Jones said. “For day one, I was very, very, very encouraged with him.”