By Alex Norman
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, and seniors Josh Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton are in a much different situation today than the one they faced in 2013.
Back then they were getting started on the rebuilding process in Knoxville… a first year coach and three freshmen trying to find a way to keep the Vols out of the SEC East basement.
Fast forward to last week when those four arrived at the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, with Tennessee the presumptive favorite to win the SEC’s Eastern Division for the first time in nearly a decade.
Yes, the times are a-changing…
“You look back at it and Cameron Sutton was my roommate freshman year,” said Dobbs. “Jalen, Cam and I are all close. I look back on the times in the dorm room where we talked about where we wanted to get to at this time in our careers. It is really great to look up and see what we have done and what is yet to be done. It is definitely exciting to look back at that class (of 2013) and at the guys who are still productive and competing on the field for us. That class was Coach Jones’ first class and we have definitely done a lot for the program and we look forward to this season and finishing strong.”
“You want those expectations. I think it’s a compliment to everyone in our program of how far we’ve come,” said Jones. “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. But I think it is a compliment in how we’ve grown and developed this football program. That’s why you come to the University of Tennessee. That’s why you coach at the University of Tennessee. You want those expectations. But like I said, Team 120 has not played one down. We’re responsible for what we create on a daily basis. And that’s kind of been our theme, is control the controllables.”
The Vols have shown improvement each season in the Butch Jones era, from 5 wins and no bowl game in 2013, to 7 wins including a TaxSlayer Bowl victory in 2014, to 9 wins with an Outback Bowl triumph in 2015. That ascension, along with tons of returning talent (9 starters on offense and 8 on defense are back) puts Tennessee back in the spotlight.
“They’ve seen what we’ve done and what we have coming back,” said Maybin. “We’re focused on our preparation, our setbacks, and what we’ve got coming up. We’re coming in to playing Tennessee football.”
“I am excited for the upcoming season. I am excited to get back on the field and compete again,” said Dobbs. “Our goals and expectations for ourselves are getting better each and every game of the season. How can we be the best football players we can possibly be by September 1st (season opener against Appalachian State)? We are pushing ourselves everyday trying to find the one thing to make us better. It has been a great mindset for our team and we will be ready when the first game comes around.”
The Vols will play the “Battle at Bristol” on September 10th against Virginia Tech. That game will be held at Bristol Motor Speedway in front of what is expected to be the biggest crowd to ever watch a college football game. That contest aside, the biggest game on the UT schedule comes on September 24th when the Vols host Florida. It is well documented that Tennessee has lost 11 straight games at the hands of their Gainesville rivals. Some of the Gators players have engaged in trash talk in recent weeks on social media. At least for now, the Vols aren’t getting into a war of words.
“I don’t really get into that or get involved in that,” said Sutton. “That’s not my priority or something I worry about, but obviously we see it because a lot of our guys are connected to social media and it’s something we cannot really turn ourselves from, but we have a lot more to worry about than just that.”
Tennessee is still a couple of weeks away from opening fall camp. Anticipation grows each and every day. We’ll find out soon enough if they are worthy of the hype.