From my seat at what seemed like Klingman’s Dome at last season’s Music City Bowl loss to North Carolina, I couldn’t see the Tyler Bray throat-slashes. From our point-of-view as couch coaches, we had no way of knowing to what level running back Tauren Poole got down on himself last year for his inconsistency. And from my bed in New Market, Ala., I didn’t exactly have a very good look at just what caused senior linebacker Austin Johnson to go into a drunken rage and start banging on car hoods in the wee hours of a morning last week.
But all of those things not only happened, but happened to players the University of Tennessee football team will be looking to for leadership when practice kicks off this week and the season opens in about a month.
I know that isn’t the best news, but I also know that all of that stuff — even that which happened last week — is in the past. For all intents and purposes, the slate was wiped clean Monday when head coach Derek Dooley’s preseason-opening press conference took place; Bray and Poole spoke to media and Dooley made it clear that Johnson would be punished internally and ready for the season-opener if he took care of business.
The second-year UT head coach said his team is stronger across the board after a commitment to new strength and conditioning coach Ron McKeefery’s offseason program [same thing they say every year]. Poole appeared calm and even focused in talking to the media. Even the normally brash and flippant Bray acknowledged the throat slashes, said they were in the heat of the moment and that something like that “won’t happen again.”
Bray’s teammates are even paying him lip service now where, before [and possibly still] many quietly questioned his ability to mature and lead.
“This offseason, it’s been great because he’s definitely more commanding, and we need him as a quarterback to be more commanding. It’s just being a better leader. He controlled all of the seven-on-seven, him and the other quarterbacks. He didn’t do any last year. It was a whole group of guys doing it. Tyler has made great strides, and I know he wants to continue to learn more,” Poole said. “He’s not where he wants to be, no one is satisfied, and that’s why I’m excited about camp. Now it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hot. Nobody’s going to want to be out there, so where is the leadership going to come from? And I hope we see it from Tyler.”
All of that is wonderful to hear [other than the 'nobody's going to want to be out there' comment], but it’s even better to see in action. It’s funny Poole — who has had leadership issues of his own in the past — was asked about Bray. We have to have them both take those words and turn them into works.
How is Poole going to react the first time he is held to 12 first-half rushing yards? When Bray is getting an earful after a costly interception, will he truly care or will he shrug it off? Can Johnson — who Dooley noted has been a leader all throughout the offseason — put a mistake in the past and learn from it? When adversity hits the Vols this year [and it certainly will], who will take charge?
Teams with superior talent are very difficult to beat, but teams with keen leadership and experience are often just as successful. While a sophomore- and freshman-laden UT team can’t boast a wealth of experience, the Vols did play so many first-year players last season that not many fans expect them to come out quite as wide-eyed and in awe as a year ago. They’ve been in the battles against the SEC, and they now know what to expect. From an offensive line, defense and wide receiver standpoint, that’s very encouraging. From Bray’s perspective, he still hasn’t run the gauntlet that he’ll face in September and October.
How will he handle it? If he can be cool and calm and minimizes mistakes [another by-product of mental toughness], that will go a long way in determining how good the Vols will be. How Poole [and a stable of young, unproven runners] perform and take pressure off the passing game will also play a key role.
A year ago, Tennessee was devoid of leadership for much of the season. That goes for players and coaches as well. Too often early in the season, the shallow Vols would play a team close in the first half only to come out and get waylayed after the break. Even though you’d expect fatigue to have some impact, there is also the element of, “Hey, we can play with these guys! Let’s go out there and keep doing what we’re doing,” and that simply wasn’t there. To me, that’s as much the coaches to blame as it is the lack of depth.
Then, we all know about the debacles at the end of the LSU game [substitution patterns; 13 men, anyone?] and the bad luck at the North Carolina closure. For every player breakdown like the Tigers’ fourth-and-13 conversion on the go-ahead drive to Janzen Jackson’s 15-yard personal foul penalty at the start of North Carolina’s game-tying field goal drive in regulation, there were discipline issues. That starts with the coaches and filters through the team.
This year, the Vols don’t have any excuses from a talent standpoint. It’s there, even though it’s young. They’ve even built a little depth everywhere besides the defensive line and linebacking corps. It’s going to be up to Dooley to not only develop the talent that’s there but to coach them like they’re upperclassmen because they have to play like upperclassmen.
Dooley alluded to this at SEC Media Days a couple of weeks ago, and it was refreshing to hear. For a smart, well-spoken, speak-his-mind kind of guy like Dooley, you’d think he’ll be able to relay that message loud and clear to his team. By now, most of them should have his philosophy down. The coaching staff — following the departure of defensive line coach Chuck Smith — is tighter and much closer than they were a year ago, and these players [at least the sophomore core] have had an entire year to play and grow up together. In other words, it’s no longer time for youth and unfamiliarity to be used as excuses. It’s time to improve and produce on the football field.
Whether they realize it or not, guys like Bray, Poole, Johnson, Justin Hunter, Da’Rick Rogers, Jacques Smith, Malik Jackson — those guys are the leaders of this team. Whether they act like it or not will go a long way in determining if UT takes that next step forward or the program takes another one back.