KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Volunteers hit the field Friday night for the opening practice of fall camp, a two-hour workout on Haslam Field.
Coach Butch Jones was pleased with the effort of his football team, but reminded everyone that the first one is easy, the story now is how the players come back to the field tomorrow and the other 20+ practices that remain on the pre-season schedule.
"It was good to get back out on the grass to go to work," Jones said. "There was a lot of thinking going on, a lot of great energy. Now the challenge for the football team comes. You've had one practice and you can never simulate being in football condition. You can have the greatest summer that you can possibly have, but it never simulates football conditioning. How do we bounce back tomorrow? What kind of mindset do we have at 7:30 in the morning walking into our team meeting? What's our mental approach?"
Jones spoke at length leading up to camp about becoming a player led team, a theme he continued to focus on after the opening practice.
"I thought our older players did a great job of coaching our younger players," said Jones. "Everything is about habits. We're forming habits, we're forming our identity, we're forming our style of play, so every rep is critical."
The Volunteers have stepped up the intensity level for this fall camp, turning up the dial in every area, starting with a team meeting Thursday night and extending to the dinner table, the meeting rooms and, finally, the practice field.
"We've challenged every player in our program from yesterday to today in our meetings in retention of information, even right away in the meetings," Jones said. "Even our meetings have been intense and that's what you've got to have to get a lot of players ready to play for the first time."
A.J. THE INVALUABLE
One of Tennessee's most notable linebackers has begun the final training camp of his collegiate career. A.J. Johnson. He comes back not only with three years of experience in the program, garnering SEC and All-American honors, but also with the title of a true leader.
"AJ is invaluable and you can't simulate game speed repetitions and game experience," head coach Butch Jones said. "A.J. Johnson has played a lot of football here. We have really challenged him from the communicative aspect, spending time with the younger players, talking football with them.
"One of the things AJ discussed is, overall as a football team, improving our football intelligence. And that is something we are spending a lot of time on. But to have his experience. I watch where our players sit, who they kind of gravitate towards, and I am always looking at Dillon Bates and it is amazing, he is always finding AJ Johnson and sitting next to him."
The decision for Johnson to play an additional year with Tennessee came with much thought but more enthusiasm and focus.
"When I made my decision, somebody told me `Whatever decision you make, make the best of it' and that's what I'm doing," Johnson said. "It's full speed. Everything I do, I'm trying to go full speed.
Johnson strives to get better as an individual in everything he does, but never speaks about himself without including the `we' of Team 118.
"I didn't come back to not win a bowl game. I came back to be the best we can be, but we're taking it one day at a time. Like today, we had a great practice today, we'll come back and have one more practice. That's our motto: one day at a time."
"One thing I always say is work on the little things. That's what's going to carry the furthest. The little things throughout practice, feet work and working on leadership is a big thing. I know we have a whole bunch of new guys so working on that and just trying to show them the right way."
With 43 newcomers to the team, Johnson realizes there's more responsibility in leading the underclassmen but is ready for the challenge as training camp moves forward.
"There's more responsibility to set the tone," Johnson said. "It's having more presence and making sure the guys feel you on the field. We have 43 new guys who have never played college football before. We had a great day for a team that never had a college practice. We had a pretty productive day today."
VETERAN RANDOLPH BREAKS DOWN NEWBIES
Brian Randolph has spent his time so far at Tennessee as young player flying around the field. Now, as a redshirt junior, Randolph finds himself in an unfamiliar role as the old man on the block.
With the addition of six new secondary players, the influx of new talent has definitely caught the eye of the veteran safety. Randolph says the newcomers have definitely made an impact in upgrading the team speed.
"They are definitely fast," he said. "They probably upgraded [the team speed] a good amount. They're swarming around out there. You can tell they're quick on their feet." "They definitely bring juice to the secondary."
Not only are the freshmen talented, they have also shown a strong work ethic and desire to improve each day.
"They come in extra - they're very diligent," said Randolph. "They come in extra, they come in after hours, they come in before practice and meet up with the coaches to get some extra drills in."
Randolph broke down each of the newcomers:
On Emmanuel Moseley: "You can tell he's one of the veterans. You ain't gotta watch him as much as the other ones. He's always making calls out there. You can tell he's been here."
On Evan Berry: "He's definitely a dual threat. He can play any position in the secondary. He's fast and he's also got size to him."
On Elliot Berry: "He's a little bit bigger. Right now, they've got him rotating at nickel and at safety. He's definitely shown us some things out there."
On Rashaan Gaulden: "He's doing well, as well. Right now they've got him at nickel, so he's getting some reps out there. He's very fast and has good ball skills."
On Todd Kelly: "He's very driven. He's a driven individual. You can tell he wants to play and be the best he can be. He's always in here trying to watch film and do the extra things."
On Cortez McDowell: "That's one of my guys right there. He's pretty much the same as TK. He's always watching film, always asking coach questions, always trying to come in early and look at film and stuff like that."
IN THE RIGHT LANE TO LEAD
On the other side of the ball, another four-year veteran in the program is primed to take on the role of leader. Marlin Lane is preparing to guide a fresh group of newcomers.
"To me, it feels the same," Lane said. "Playing my freshmen and sophomore year and then my junior year, it made me feel like a senior because me and (Rajion Neal) were the older guys in the room and had the most experience. We coached the others. I feel like I'm in the same role. I just need to step it up more.
"We have a lot of freshmen and newcomers. We tried to go out there as veterans and help them through the plays as we go onward fast. "
With his leadership needed with a young team at hand, many see Lane in charge of the backfield. His goals as a leader?
"Leading the power of my position. When I'm out there, I'm representing my running back group, my coach, my head coach and my team, so I just want to go out there and give it everything I got."
Lane not only wants to lead through his experience as an upperclassmen but also his through his dedication to improve in his senior season. Having averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his junior season, Lane is striving for more.
"I worked on it in the offseason," Lane said. "I work on my legs, strength, keeping up with my weight and just knowing the plays more so I can understand it to get up to six yards ad work up to seven and eight (yards per carry)."
REPS WITH THE BIG BOYS
Experience has been a constant theme for Tennessee's offensive line, led in-part by Marcus Jackson and Kyler Kerbyson this season. Each has redshirt-season time behind them as they move into leadership roles among a now younger, yet quicker, offensive line.
"I took [my redshirt season] as a time for me to improve on what I needed to improve on," said Jackson. "There are a lot of things for a lineman. You have technique, you have finishing, hands inside, footwork, making sure I sprint down the field and leadership skills. All of those things I had to work on last year."
Despite the initial disappointment of his redshirt assignment, Jackson appreciates the time to work on his own skill set.
"I figured that was a time that I would improve the most in my career, since I did have time to just focus on me," Jackson added. "Taking a leadership role this year has been placed on me. I had that feeling a long time ago, as far as being a leader."
Kerbyson, coming off of a pair of seasons where he played as a back-up, lets the questions regarding Tennessee's offensive line motivate him while he strives to be an example for his younger teammates looking to him for guidance.
"I spent the past three years behind some really good guys in Zach Fulton and Ja'Wuan James," said Kerbyson. "I just learned as much as I could from them and I'm excited to get out there now and have my chance.
"I like the fact that people don't think we're going to be alright," added Kerbyson. "They think that we're going to be the weak spot. It motivates me every day and it keeps me going. I think we're more experienced than people think we are."
Here are sound bites from Butch Jones and the players after Friday's practice.
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
»(On the flow of practice)
"I thought the flow was better and it should be we have a year of experience with the players we do have in our program. But our younger players have done a great job of following the older players. But as we continue to grow and develop throughout the course of training camp, our practices need to continue to improve. Championship football teams have championship practices.
Just the overall tempo, transitions form drill to drill, the familiarities on the practice field but also we like sudden change. But also I thought Aaron Medley did a great job. We threw in already a last game, game-winning kick field goal when he didn't have any idea it was coming and I thought we executed that well today."
» (On seeing improvement in team speed)
"Yeah I did, I saw a much faster football team in all areas in moving around. Now it is being able to get off blocks and make plays. Just our overall team speed I could see much improvement."
SENIOR LINEBACKER A.J. JOHNSON
»(On team work ethic)
"We try to work on everything. Pursuit, tackling, running on and off the field. We're trying to work on everything. It's hard to pinpoint one thing because if you try to work on just one thing, you're missing out on something else you could be working on. "
» (On his last training camp)
"Coach brought it up in meetings. He said for all your seniors this is your last first day of fall camp. You have to go out there and go hard but any day I'm going to go as hard as I can. It's my last first day. It goes by fast.
SENIOR RUNNING BACK MARLIN LANE
»(On if the running backs will make a big impact on the team)
"I could say that. We can contribute in a lot of stuff, pass protection, running the ball, just help a lot in the running game and opening it up for the wide receivers."
»(On Jalen Hurd's improvements)
"He did a big turnaround from the spring. He's more outspoken now. He knows the offense a little bit more so he can help me lead other people. I feel like everyone is pretty much catching on quick and that's hard to do in a fast-paced offense."
JUNIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN MARCUS JACKSON
»(On the biggest difference in this year's offensive line)
"We're in a lot better shape. The offseason program was really hard and Dave Lawson pushed us. We're in great shape."
»(On what he's teaching the younger linemen)
"It's just sharing our experiences with them and the little things every day, making sure they understand the fundamentals. They are great guys. Every time we tell them something, they always come out and put it to good use. They're very smart individuals."
JUNIOR OFFENSIVE LINEMAN KYLER KERBYSON
»(On how the younger linemen performed on Practice Day 1)
"Some of the young guys on the O-line have come a long way because they came in the spring. I'm really proud of them. They couldn't make it through the first practice in the spring and they really held their own today."
JUNIOR DEFENSIVE BACK BRIAN RANDOLPH
»(On adding weight to prevent injury)
"I wanted to add some more weight around my neck and my shoulders so I can take hits and give hits better. The coaches definitely stressed it. They talk about getting rid of stingers and protecting against stingers - getting your traps and your neck bigger. That was one of my main focuses in the off season."
» (On his time with the new secondary players over the summer)
"We put them under our wing. They're easy to work with. They picked up everything very quickly. For the most part they've been very easy to work with."
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK CAMERON SUTTON
»(On training camp)
"It's only the beginning. It's a beginning process. We know our expectations and what we need to get done. As camp rolls along and leading into the season, we will become more comfortable."
»(On summer enrollees)
"They're more than capable of doing it. They just have to take it day by day and getting reps and repeating."
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE LINEMAN COREY VEREEN
»(On the difference in team speed)
"Monumentally. Last year we had a lot of guys who could plug up holes, and that was good, but we didn't have a lot of playmakers on the D-line. Now I feel we've got a lot of guys who can move, there are a lot of blitzes we're drawing up and I like how people are moving inside and outside."
»(On the motivation to prove criticizers wrong)
"Coach Jones tells us every day, you know, they picked us last and that's how they feel. But we're going to come back strong, we're going to work every day and we're not going to listen to them. Basically, we're just going to play Tennessee football at the end of the day."
SOPHOMORE LINEBACKER JALEN REEVES-MAYBIN
»(On being back on the field)
"It's definitely good. Been itching to get back to it since spring ball, so it definitely feels good to get back out there with the guys."
» (On if he believes this team is faster)
"I do. Out there I can tell everyone is looking fast. Everyone is getting to the ball fast. We don't have guys who are liabilities on the good. Everyone is looking good."
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE LINEMAN DANNY O'BRIEN
»(On the pace of Practice Day 1)
"In the SEC, there is no taking it easy. We went after it. Just because we didn't have pads on doesn't mean we're not running hard to the ball and getting after each other on the field."
» (On building camaraderie off the field)
"I think there were six or seven weekends where we had defensive cookouts out by the pool. I think that helps the young guys out. I cooked up some venison one day for them all and they liked that a lot. But we just had a good time hanging out and getting comfortable because that's what makes defenses great."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)