KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee coach Butch Jones announced following Tuesday's practice that the Vols will wear the smoky gray uniforms in Saturday's home finale for Senior Night.
"We are going to wear the grays," said Jones. "(It's) something we have spoken about. Our players, we talk about that. We talked about the gray becoming more standard a little bit in our football program.
"It is something with our seniors that they wanted to do.
I think it is a reward for them. It is not a big deal. The uniforms don't have any outcome or bearing in the game, it is our mentality, it is our focus, it is our effort, it is how we execute and it is our overall discipline."
Jones said the decision to wear the grays showed a sign of team solidarity.
"It was their decision," he said. "Just like we do every week. Our player’s staff chooses what we are doing and obviously I get the final say. But we talked to the seniors about it and it is their last home game."
Tennessee first wore the gray uniforms for the Georgia game back on Oct. 5, as the Vols suffered a heartbreaking 34-31 loss in overtime.
Jones originally unveiled the Vols' alternate adidas TECHFIT uniforms on Aug. 15, as the team's media day at a fashion show. Saturday will be just the fourth time since the 1930s that the Vols will wear something other than orange-based uniforms on Shields-Watkins Field. The team wore white-based throwbacks in the 2004 season opener and wore black jerseys on Halloween night in 2009 in addition to the Georgia game.
THE FRESHMAN READY TO LEAD SENIORS
When the seniors run through the `T' one last time on Saturday against Vanderbilt, it won't just be families and fans cheering them on- quarterback Josh Dobbs will be one of their biggest cheerleaders.
Although Dobbs will only be playing his second game in Neyland Stadium, the true freshman understands the importance of beating the Vanderbilt Commodores. Not only is it senior night but also a rivalry game important to the SEC and the state of Tennessee and coming off an open date, Dobbs believes the Volunteers are prepared for the 'Dores trip to Knoxville.
"It's just a big game, of course a lot of tradition behind the rivalry, so we're focused on what we have to do to execute in order to play the best football game we can," Dobbs said.
With two weeks to prepare for Vanderbilt, Dobbs and the wide receiver unit have been able to put in extra work to better their chemistry on and off the field.
"Bye weeks are great," said Dobbs. "We were able to regroup and focus in on this goal. Last week was good just to get our feet under us and continue to grow and improve as a team. It's a big week of preparation."
Dobbs and wide receivers such as Marquez North and Alton "Pig" Howard take every chance they get to run routes and Dobbs notices improvements each time.
"They've been doing a good job getting open and running their routes for me, so that's always great, as well as the other receivers- our receivers are doing a good job," Dobbs said. "Everyone on the receiving corp just works hard every day and is willing to."
The Volunteers must win their final two games to be bowl eligible and Dobbs is confident in the next task at hand in their final home game against Vandy.
"We're trying to get to a bowl game and it's extremely big for the seniors to make it to a bowl game, so every day we're working hard for that these next two games and to make it to a bowl in December," said Dobbs.
On Saturday, Ja'Wuan James will run through the T for one final time on Senior Day.
After his 29th time running through the T, James will take the field at right tackle, where after Saturday he will have started for the 48th consecutive time, every game of his Tennessee career.
In doing so, James will tie the Tennessee record, held by Jeff Smith (1992-95) for most career starts by an offensive lineman.
"I had no idea that was going to happen," said James. "That's just a blessing from God to be able to keep me healthy for this long and taking care of my body. Coaches gave me an opportunity when I was young. You just come in and work and try to be consistent."
And James has worked for his entire career on Rocky Top.
So much so that when Butch Jones arrived on campus last December he quickly realized the experience that James had to offer.
"He came to me and said from the beginning I was the most experienced guy on the team," said James. "He felt like I knew the team. So if I feel like something's wrong with the team, or something needs to be done, or he asks me, he feels that if he works together with us then the players start to get everything done."
Because of their honesty and communication, James and Jones have developed a strong relationship in a very short time.
"Coach Jones is a great coach," continued James. "He's a greater guy. I feel like we've bonded in this little time we've had and I wish I could play for him longer. I feel like we understand each other. He cares about where the team's headed and where the team stands so we can get stuff fixed."
The communication between the two never stops. James frequently sits in on coaches meetings and Jones is always texting and calling to see what he thinks about one play or another.
"It's funny," said James. "It might be 1 o' clock in the morning and you get a text or call and he's just thinking football, wanting to call you and talk to you. He says `hey I'm thinking about this, I thought about that.'"
"You're scared at first, thinking `why are you calling me at 12?' and I say `what's up.' He (Jones) says `Man, I've been watching film and I can't wait to play on Saturday. How are you feeling?' I respond, `Well I'm kind of tired.' He's a great guy. He loves football. I love how he tries to include all of us."
James, like the 27 other seniors honored on Saturday will go out and give their all for Tennessee.
"I'm going to go out there and soak it all in," said James. "It's my last time playing in Neyland. I am just going to go out there and have fun."
TIME TO GET NASTY
Since racking up four sacks in a 23-21 victory over South Carolina, Tennessee's defensive front has been held sackless over the past three games.
For two senior leaders on the defensive line - Jacques Smith and Marlon Walls - it's time to end that streak and get nasty up front this week.
"One of our defensive points this week is being nasty," said Smith. "That is something we've lost in the past couple of weeks. We need to have that nasty mentality to get after the quarterback no matter what. Whether it is a hold or something else, we have to want to get after the quarterback. That's something we have been working on.
"We need to have more effort; we need to have more want-to and more drive. We have been telling ourselves to keep that in our minds. It's an imperative part of this game."
Associate head coach and defensive line leader Steve Stripling has stepped up the intensity the past two weeks.
"On the defensive line we take it personally and Coach Striping has got into our face about it this week and all last week," said Walls. "We take it personally. It's a defensive line game and we're going to go out there and have fun.
"We know if you dominate your man - the guy in front of you - that we have a good chance of winning this game. We take all the weight on our shoulders."
Both Walls and Coach Jones emphasized the importance of pressure, not just for the linemen, but for the entire defensive 11.
"It is a mindset of getting to the passer; it is a relentless approach," said Jones. It is second and third efforts. They are a good offensive front. So it is going to be the second and third efforts. It gets back to playing team defense. Sometimes you get a sack because of coverage so it all goes back to playing with great effort and strain and a mentality to get to the quarterback."
Walls - the team's sack leader with 4.5 - added that his group needs to get to the Commodore quarterbacks not to just pad the stats, but for the guys lined up behind them.
"Personally, I feel like I'm letting guys in the backend down," said Walls. "I take that very personally - for guys like LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph - they shouldn't have to cover that long. That's in direct correlation with how much pressure we get on the quarterback so I take it very personally.
"I challenged the defensive line. We've got to get some pressure; we have to help those guys out. Not just for the sacks, but to help them out. They are our brothers - they need us and we need them. It's our job to get pressure and help them out on the back end."
THEY'VE COME A LONG WAY
Back in 2010 a young Tennessee offensive line let up 41 sacks on the season, good for most in the SEC and ranked 115th in the nation.
The line was inconsistent in starters save for Dallas Thomas at left tackle and Ja'Wuan James at right tackle.
Yesterday, the offensive line went deep into the archives to look at film from their freshman year.
"It was fun," said senior Ja'Wuan James. "Me, Zach [Fulton], and James [Stone] all watched our film from freshman year and it looked terrible. Back then, you think you're doing good, but it looked terrible."
"We were just watching film on Vandy, and we said, `let's turn on the game from sophomore year and the game from freshman year,'" said James. "Then we just went down the line and watched UT-Martin, Memphis, Ole Miss, all of those games. It was all our idea. We were in there laughing at how terrible we looked."
Since then the Vols have accounted for the fewest sacks allowed in the SEC in the last three seasons, by a large margin.
In 2011, with more stability in the front five the Vols allowed 18 sacks (third in the SEC, 40th in the NCAA). Last season the Vols allowed just eight, leading in the conference and ranking third in the country.
Tennessee has allowed 12 this season, third in the conference and 17th in the nation.
"It is crazy to see how bad we actually were," said fellow senior offensive lineman Zach Fulton. "We understand why coach was yelling at us all the time. It is great to see that we have improved."
"We've come a long way," said James. "It's a blessing just to play this long and play for this university."
Here are sound bites from Coach Jones and the players after Tuesday's practice.
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
»(On Joshua Dobbs sitting in on offensive line meetings)
"That is what we expect from our quarterbacks. So much of it, in the run game or the pass protections, is they all have to think as one, one mindset. So that does not surprise me. We talk to our quarterbacks about the expectation of what it takes to play quarterback, not only on the field but off the field.
"Josh, like we talked about, poised beyond his years. He understands the importance of that. But it is also about building relationships, the more time you spend with a group like the o-line or the running backs with the o-line, it doesn't matter by positionally, but you grow closer as a family. That is something that we expect in our football program."
»(On the emphasis of eye discipline)
"Absolutely, it is every week. But this is a football team that will expose you if you are not disciplined, with all the different personnel groupings, formations, run scheme, but also the different throws. We know at some point in time there is going to be a trick play and we understand that. We have to be ready for anything and everything.
"It comes down to executing your assignment and doing your job and have the discipline with the eye discipline that we talk about. Just focusing on the play one snap at a time and not worrying about the next play or thinking about the previous play. Just push the reset button. We talk about snap and clear, that is going to be critical in this football game."
»(On importance of playing an instate rival)
"No I think it is the next game. We are trying to get to win number five. We are trying to continue to build our football program. That is another brick, another step in what we are working towards. It is a great opportunity for our seniors, last home game. It is a great opportunity, national television, playing in Neyland Stadium, one of the greatest football venues in the country. But it is just another part of developing and building our football program."
»(On Coach Gillespie's injury)
"Progressing. He will be ready. He will be able to coach from the sideline."
FRESHMAN QUARTERBACK JOSHUA DOBBS
»(On senior night)
"It's extremely important. We want to go out and get this win for the seniors and every week gets us closer to our goal of a bowl game, so we just have to take it one step at a time."
»(On preparation for Vanderbilt)
"I have. I know mostly what to expect, but I know I haven't seen everything. Each week is a new week, new team, new game plan, so just have to take it one step at a time and stay focused."
»(On biggest difference playing home and away)
"It's always different. Just getting a chance in Neyland and play against our great fans- that's probably the biggest thing, but at the end of the day, it comes down to- it's football. You just have to execute."
SENIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN JA'WUAN JAMES
»(On the line's overall performance this season)
"We have to play our best game together. We have a bunch of guys doing good here, doing good there, but not all five of us are having our greatest game. We still have two opportunities to do that, and I think that we can. "
»(On what the game means to Nashville natives)
"It means a lot to them and a lot to this university, to this team. We want to win Tennessee basically, and be state champs. This is a big game for our tradition and we just want to keep the tradition going and go out and play as hard as we can for this university."
»(On keeping the bowl game possible)
"We've got an experienced group. We've got to lead the young guys. We've been in this situation three times and this is our fourth time. We've got to get the best out of the situation. The experience has helped us and I feel like we're going to go out there and perform."
SENIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN ZACH FULTON
»(On controlling emotions)
"It helps and gives us a little more passion especially being the last game for the seniors. Not that we need any more but it is going to be a great night with senior night and playing against Vanderbilt for the last time. It will be awesome."
»(On Joshua Dobbs leading the team as a freshman)
"He can do great things. He is capable of great things in the future. He is improving his leadership skills now so by his senior year he will be unbelievable. I believe he is a little less timid and more confident in everything he is doing. That is probably the biggest change I have seen."
»(On how much is riding on this game)
"Basically what Coach Jones has been preaching is that we want to leave this program the right way. We are the building blocks of a great program so getting to a bowl game this year is a big step for now and years from now."
»(On dealing with the expectations)
"We really don't think about it too much. Even if they didn't say we were the best offensive line in the country we would still try to be that no matter what."
SENIOR LINEBACKER DONTAVIS SAPP
»(On Jordan Matthews)
"We just have to play sound football, have great eye discipline. From the DBs to the D Line, getting pressure on the quarterback and not allowing them to throw the ball. We just have to play team defense and do what we do."
»(On Vanderbilt going for it on fourth down)
"We just can't allow them to get to a manageable fourth down. Getting a long third or fourth down, get them off the field, and get our offense the ball."
»(On eye discipline)
"It is always important. A lot of times it is smoke and mirrors, trying to get you out of position, show you a lot of things so you can't really adjust to it. At the end of the day it is all the same thing. We just have to have great eyes, get lined up and play sound defense."
SENIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMAN MARLON WALLS
»(On reflecting during his career)
"Football is in direct correlation to life and going through these things prepares you for life. I was talking to Coach (Phillip) Fulmer the other day - he's still a great guy - and if I could do it all over again I'd still do the same thing.
"I feel like I'm a better man for it - going through those situations and all that adversity. When you go through stuff like that you're ready for anything and feel like you can go through anything and still come out of it."
»(On a bowl bid being the motivation)
"It's big. It's for guys like Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson that haven't been to a bowl game. We're fighting for those guys and they're fighting for us. But at the same time we want the seniors to experience what it feels like to be at a bowl game - being around your team for a week locked up in a hotel and just having fun. I want them to experience that so I'm fighting for them."
»(On his status after the bye week)
"I feel good. We don't like bye weeks around here. It's a good chance to recover, but it sucks not being able to play football on Saturday. We're glad to be back out here again."
SENIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMAN JACQUES SMITH
»(On Vanderbilt being an in-state game)
"Knowing that we are Tennessee, we are this state's team. It's a motivating thing. They are a good football team and ball club. They have had a lot of success on the way. It is going to be a really good match, and I can't wait to go out and play on Saturday."
»(On preparing for last home game)
"It is going to be an emotional moment, but I am just really looking forward to playing in Neyland, on that grass, and especially with it being at night. It will be a special game, and I can't wait to get out on that field and play Vanderbilt."
»(On how Vanderbilt looks on film)
"Vanderbilt is a good football team. Their offensive line has a lot of seniors and is very physical and will get after you if you are not ready for them. They are very fast pace and a quick team. All of the things that we haven't played well this year, they are.
"We have to take a lot of time this week on Vanderbilt, especially on the detailed things on defense to get ready for them. They are a very talented team and they have a lot of talent on the field we just ready to go out and play them."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)