KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Folks left Neyland Stadium on Thursday with two burning questions etched in their minds about the Tennessee football team.
First, who will be the starting quarterback when the Vols open the season against visiting Austin Peay on Aug. 31?
Second, in which home game will the Vols unveil that fancy new adidas smoky gray uniform unveiled by Curt Maggitt on media day?
Most of the buzz centered on the five different uniforms rolled out, first in a fancy video production and then by current players, and without question everyone wanted to know about the slick shoulder-to-toe smokey grays.
“It’s about pride of who you are,” coach Butch Jones said, speaking to media in the Peyton Manning Locker Room press conference after the uniforms were modeled by Zach Fulton, A.J. Johnson, Maggitt, Justin Worley and Justin Coleman.
“We’re really excited,” Jones said.
To make his point, a video was played showing Maggitt, the last of five players wearing the new duds, entering the team meeting room to a harmonious roar of approval. A few players were seen giving Jones high-fives and hugs.
“Everything is about tradition because that’s who you are,” Jones said, “but it’s also building on that tradition.”
To view the video of Tennessee players reacting to the new uniform click the following link:
Jones put forth certain parameters with adidas regarding the highly touted gray uniform, stressing that neither he nor the Vols wanted to “lose our identity.” In other words, the idea was to stick closely with tradition, but at the same time expand it.
“You look at any great company, any great organization, they’re always trying to stay ahead of the times,” said Jones, proving to be both a coach and aggressive marketing genius. “They’re always embracing change and change is difficult.
“I think these are very subtle changes. It’s about recruiting as well. My phone has blown up with recruits across the country very, very excited about that.”
Traditions, Jones pointed out, have a beginning stage. They are enriched over years with the total acceptance of the changes among fans, alumni and student body.
“We’re hoping that in 20, 30, 40, 50 years from now that’s still part of our great tradition, just like our seven game maxims, the Vol Walk, Vol Navy and the checkerboard end zones.”
OK, so when will fans and television audiences see the Vols were the uniforms on Shields-Watkins Field?
“As of right now,” Jones said. “It’ll be a one-game deal. We have not decided what game it will be. You look at the alternate jerseys and the smoky gray: it’s the world we live in. One of the top three questions we’re asked in recruiting is about our uniforms, our jersey colors. It attracts the best student-athletes. We have the best colors in the country and now with the smoky gray, that just adds to it.”
Jones just happened to mention that the 1914 Tennessee wore gray and those Vols went 9-0 and outscored their opponents, 374-37.
In 2009, the Vols broke out a black uniform, trimmed in orange, for a Halloween night game against South Carolina. Tennessee beat the heck out of the Gamecocks, 31-13, and it was downright spooky. It was also the last time the Vols defeated a ranked team.
That’s the only good memory Tennessee fans have of Lane Kiffin.
More than once orange-clad faithful have clamored for a return of the all-black uniforms. For at least one game this year, they’ll get a shade-of-gray compromise.
The other four uniforms showcased Thursday were for pure traditionalists.
There was the all-orange – jersey and pants – worn by the mammoth Fulton.
Next was the orange pant-white jersey item for road games, modeled by hard-hitting linebacker A.J. Johnson.
Maggitt – a linebacker sidelined by injury – wore the smoky gray and stood in the middle of the fivesome.
Justin Worley, one of four quarterbacks trying to nail down the starting job, was to Maggitt’s left in an orange jersey and white pants, the road-game attire.
Justin Coleman, a defensive back, was decked out in all white.
Quarterback Nathan Peterman confirmed the players’ inspirational moment when Maggitt walked into the room in the smoky gray get-up.
“There had been talk about gray uniforms,” he said. “Coach Jones brought in all the orange and white uniforms, but no gray. I thought something was missing. Curt was still not in the room, so something was going on. When Curt came in I was really pumped to be honest.”
The gray jersey has “VOLS” stitched across the front just above the jersey number. Orange jerseys have the power “T.” White jerseys sport “TENNESSEE” above the numbers. An outline of the state is on all the jerseys.
The Vols will continue with the white helmets and orange “Power T” logo, no matter which uniform is being worn.
Jones assured the purists, some of whom are turning over in their graves, that there is a line he’s not ready to cross when it comes to fashion.
“Make no mistake about it, we don’t want to be a program that has wholesale changes,” he said. “It’s a tradition-rich program. There’s only one Tennessee. We’re not going to be a program that’s all over the place with their uniforms. That’s not going to be the case.”
Now, for the other pressing matter.
Who’s the quarterback?
Worley played in five games in 2012 while temperamental Tyler Bray threw for thousands of yards. Coupled with a defense that had trouble stopping anybody wearing a different-color uniform, the Vols managed a 5-7 record, their third consecutive seven-loss season under Derek Dooley.
Dooley is in Dallas right now, somehow corralling an assistant’s job out of Jerry Jones’ Cowboys.
Bray attempted 451 passes. Worley, a junior from Rock Hill, S.C., has thrown 110 passes in two seasons, completing 63 with one touchdown and five interceptions. Bray’s in the NFL and Worley possesses the only tangible experience, albeit extremely limited, among the four signal callers trying to do anything possible to become the No. 1 guy.
Peterman, out of Fruit Grove, Fla., redshirted in 2012.
Neither player has separated himself from the other, thus opening the door for two four-star freshmen – Joshua Dobbs, of Alpharetta, Ga., and Riley Ferguson of Matthews, N.C. – to climb into the fray.
It brings up a logical question for Mike Bajakian, the Vols’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“A lot of things goes into evaluating who the starter will be and I don’t think until you get into those true pressure situations that we try to emulate in practice and see how they respond, I don’t think you know how that’s going to turn out,” said Bajakian, who first recruited Peterman while still at Cincinnati and wound up coaching him at Tennessee after making the move with Jones.
Despite still not knowing who will open under center for the Austin Peay game, Bajakian is far from frustrated by not having a starter.
“I’m thinking back to last year (at Cincinnati), we went up to game week – it might have been into game week – before we made that decision,” he said. “As long as the guys are competing, as long as they’re improving, we want to see some progress, but I wouldn’t call it frustrating.”
Something is holding both Worley and Peterman back.
“The main thing with me is that I haven’t taken complete control of the team,” Worley said. “There are times I could use my voice a little better. I understand leadership is always a work in progress. Over time that will come more naturally for me.”
It’s debatable whether Worley has the luxury of time.
If grabbing the reins is a problem for Worley, what is Peterman lacking that keeps him from being No. 1 on the depth chart?
“I’m not completely sure,” he said. “I just give my best every day, every second, every rep and hope that’s going to be enough.”
Peterman was asked if Bajakian supplies him with a critique that points out his shortcomings.
“They don’t say this is what’s going to make you the starter,” the 6-foot-2-inch, 221-pounder said. “We go over certain plays and they might say, ‘Here maybe just throw the ball away. Or, maybe here get your check-down. Maybe a drop here wasn’t as good.’ It’s about the little details.
“I’m not really sure about the big details they’re looking at.”
The final say, obviously, belongs to Jones.
“(I will decide) whenever I feel somebody has really asserted themselves as (a) starting quarterback,” Jones said. “That could be next week, that could be Thursday, that could be Friday prior to Austin Peay. When we have that comfort level and we can say, ‘Hey, this is going to be the guy for game one starting the season,’ ”
Note: Jones was asked when senior defensive end Jacques Smith, who played high school ball at Ooltewah High, might return to action. He said Smith will visit the doctor “very soon” to get the pins taken out of his broken thumb and then go to a cast. The coach said Smith is “one schedule” and he should know during the Austin Peay week about his playing status.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)