When you look back at the rich and storied history of Tennessee football, no season was as bad and controversy-filled as last year. Vol fans don’t need a rehashing of what happened in 2017; everyone knows about the 4-8 record and winless SEC mark, the infamous coaching search, and everything in between.
That was last year. Fans are doing all they can to bury the past where it belongs, and Tennessee’s players have already moved on and are focusing on what they can do to make sure 2018 is nothing like last season.
Several Tennessee players met with the media on Sunday as part of Media Day for the Vols, and a lot of them were asked about last season and what they’re doing to prepare for this year. For junior receiver Brandon Johnson, he’s ignoring everything that happened last year and just focusing on what he can do personally to make the team better.
“The past is in the past, and football just comes down to football,” Johnson said on Sunday. “Not too much has changed. I really just need to go out there and run the correct routes and play hard. That’s all I can do.”
Johnson quietly led the team in catches (37) and receiving yards (482) last year. But he was part of one of the worst offenses in school history, and he and the rest of his teammates on the offensive side of the ball need to step up their game for 2018 to be a success.
And according to his teammate, tight end/H-back Austin Pope, this year is serving as a clean slate for the team.
“Last season was obviously disappointing, but everybody feels like it’s a fresh start,” Pope said. “It’s like a new beginning. This camp has been a confidence booster, and that is when you start playing to your best ability. I definitely think having a new start is going to be a confidence boost.”
That confidence boost is desperately needed after how things ended for the Vols last year. After starting out the season with a dramatic double overtime victory over Georgia Tech and a blowout against Indiana State, Tennessee suffered a heartbreaking loss to Florida in Gainesville. They won a lackluster game against UMass the following week, but they still sat 3-1 on the year and still controlled their own fate.
Then, the bottom fell out.
The Vols got smothered by Georgia the next week and wound up only winning one more game all season after their 3-1 start. Tennessee defensive tackle Shy Tuttle used more colorful language than Pope to describe how he felt about last year, but however it’s described, 2017 was a massive disappointment to Tennessee’s players and fans alike.
A lot of the reason Tennessee collapsed down the stretch was due to injuries and not having good team chemistry. And that last part is something Pope says he hopes to improve on this fall.
“For myself personally, I don’t have a set number of catches or touchdowns,” Pope added. “I kind of just want to go out there and gel together, play together and make things happen. Whether I am getting the ball or making a block, whatever I am doing, I am just trying to do the best I can do for the team.”
Junior linebacker Daniel Bituli echoed Pope’s sentiment, saying that his teammates hold him accountable and he does the same for them. He and his fellow Vols still have a lot of pride in wearing the orange and white, and that’s helping them focus on making this year better.
“A lot of guys on this team take a lot of pride in Tennessee, so we’re just holding each other accountable,” Bituli stated. “If I’m ever down there not doing what I’m supposed to be doing, they’ll do the same to me. That’s what we expect from each other.”
But it’s one thing to talk the talk. Tennessee has to walk the walk this year for things to be different, and that starts with practice habits. According to offensive lineman Drew Richmond, Tennessee’s coaches have made sure practice this year is different. And he and his fellow linemen really like what new offensive line coach Will Friend brings to the table.
“They say sometimes you take the personality of your coach, so it’s good that he is on us like that,” Richmond said of Friend’s intensity at practice. “Coach Friend wants us to have every detail hammered out. He is very detailed orientated.
“We’re just learning day by day, just trying to craft ourselves to be the best group and position we can be.”
Tennessee gets their first chance to prove that this year won’t be like last season when they take the field on September 1st in Charlotte to face a potent West Virginia team. In the meantime, the Vols have several fall practices left to continue to improve and prepare.