KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The journey from spring practice to off-season workouts to training camp has been long – even uncertain at times – but the next step is game day and the most uncertain.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones described Sunday night's opener against Utah State as a journey into the unknown with his young football team. It’s a situation where the Vols will face an experienced football team in Utah State, with a high-powered offense fueled by quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
"The first games are the games of the unknowns," Jones said at his first weekly press briefing of the 2014 season. "We probably have more unknowns than anyone else in the country. How will your players respond?"
The depth chart released Monday listed 28 freshmen and sophomores and just six seniors. Three true freshmen, right guard Jashon Robertson, defensive end Derek Barnett and tight end Ethan Wolf are slated to start their first collegiate game.
"We have to be disciplined, assignment sound and handle turnovers," said Jones. "The winner of the first game usually manages the turnovers. They don't beat themselves. They play well on special teams, and they tackle. Being a good tackling team is going to be very critical for us throughout the entire year. We also need leadership. How will we respond to the adversities brought by game situations?"
The newcomers had the opportunity to get accustomed to a game situation at Tennessee's open practice on Aug. 16 and have had crowd noise blasted at them from the speakers that line Haslam Field during practice each day. The preparation helps, but a couple of returning Volunteers said the freshman had to be ready for their own journey into the unknown.
"I tell the guys to be mentally locked-in 24/7," sophomore wideout Marquez North said. "It's going to be a loud crowd roar, but with the preparation we do, we should be able to handle that."
Senior quarterback Justin Worley had similar advice for his younger teammates.
"Keep your head on straight, try to block out the noise," Worley said of his conversations with the Vol newcomers. "It's going to be loud, different than the piped-in crowd noise that we have in practice. Handle the situation, handle the elements and you're going to be alright."
North understands the adjustment the freshmen will face. He was one of three freshmen that started the opener against Austin Peay in 2013 and grew into his role as the season went on.
"There's always going to be nerves," North said. "Just coming in from high school, it's a big step from playing in front of a crowd of 1,000 to playing in front of 102,455."
That's exactly the crowd that Jones expects to see on Saturday night, with only limited tickets left for the game and the remaining passes being sold "briskly." The head coach wants to give those fans the show they expect, but also wants to see the team use it as a launching point for the rest of the season.
"One bad day takes you away from all your dreams, goals and aspirations," Jones said. "You put so much training into the start of a season, but for this football team we've talked about that power of one. We have to continue to get better and better game in and game out. We have to have that focus each and every day."
Quarterback Justin Worley
(On comfort level vs. last year)
"I'm really comfortable. I think it helps that we're kind of in the second year of our development process. Marquez is in his second year. We've got some guys that have some experience at every position, so that helps with my comfort level a lot."
(On how he showed his leadership)
"Just organizing some things. We had a cookout, an offensive cookout, to start off the fall camp. Just some little things like that and just being able to let everybody know my presence on the field is still going to be there and everything like that."
(Worley on preparing for Sunday)
"Just keep your head on straight, try to block out the noise. Like he said, it's going to be loud, it's going to be a little different than just piping in some crowd noise practice. So, handle the situation, handle the elements, and you'll be all right."
(Worley on more weapons this year)
"It's awesome to have several tight ends, several receivers, three or four running backs to be able to get the ball out to and get it in their hands. We've got some great playmakers that can make plays when the ball's in their hands. It's going to help a lot having these guys around me."
(On the difference in weapons vs. last year)
"We were younger last year at the skill position. Maybe not at running back - we had Raijon Neal, who was a senior, and Marlin, who's had some experience, as well. But definitely out wide we didn't have much experience. We were working with a bunch of true freshman, so having them in their second year of their development and their understanding of the offense is helping a lot."
(On freshman tight end Ethan Wolf’s progress)
"Ethan's a big guy. He's probably 6-5 or 6-6. He's physical, he runs good routes and he has good hands so I don't know if you could say many bad things about Ethan. He's done a great job, came in early, got in the offense quickly and has really developed."
(On going against Daniel Gray)
"I don't have too many memories of throwing against him. That was a little while back but I mean, I'm excited for the opportunity. I'm excited to kick the season off."
(Worley on what he knows of Chuckie Keeton)
"We met at the Manning camp. We spoke here and there but I don't really know him too much outside of that, though."
(On whether he talked to Keeton about the game)
"A little bit. Not too much though. I've watched some film on him. He's a tremendous athlete and a good runner who throws the ball well too. So, he's definitely going to make things hard for us but I think everybody is ready and excited."
(On Utah State's defense)
"Yeah, they’re a really good defense, very sound in their coverages. They don't MA too often and you can tell they're very well-coached. Looking at their roster and stuff, they've lost a few guys in their secondary so they're a little unproven there. Overall, they've got a pretty solid defense."
(Worley on how Pig Howard worked his way back onto the team)
"Pig did a great job of meeting requirements that we set for him coming back. He did take the spring off and had some personal issues but he's really come back and been a tremendous asset for our football team. He makes guys around him better, he makes me look better. His work ethic and everything has been above and beyond what it was before and you can see that he really wants to make a name for himself and prove himself again."
(On his expectations for the team)
"I think we can surprise some people this year. I think we are really talented, even though we are young. There is an insane number of young guys on this team and being a senior, I mean, you'd hope there would be more seniors that we could lean on here and there but I'm excited. I think the sky is the limit for this football team."
(Worley on the difference in his confidence level this fall)
"Yeah, I think I'm more confident. The last game I played was the first half of Alabama but the previous two games, I played probably some of my best football and I've tried to build on that through spring practice and fall camp. Coach Bajakian has put a lot more in my hands in terms of running the offense and I think my leadership has improved so yeah, I think my confidence is higher."
Wide Receiver Marquez North
(On preparing young guys for Sunday)
"I would just say, just be mentally locked in 24/7. It's going to be a loud crowd roar. Our preparation that we take should be able to handle that."
(On handling his nerves last year)
"It's probably always going to be a little bit of nerves. Just coming in from high school, it's a big step playing in front of probably about 1,000 people at the most at my school, to 102,455. It's going to be a little nerves, but we've just got to prepare the same way each practice, and then hopefully we'll handle it."
(On improvements as route runner)
"Coach Z does a real good job just teaching us technique. He repeatedly talks about it and that's really our main focus, breaking points and just getting in and out of routes."
(On how there was more to the receiver position than he thought)
"Playing receiver is more than just `physical,' it's also `mental.' You've got to know your conversions due to the defense, so there's a lot of knowledge that goes with it, too."
(North on working with Howard through his comeback)
"Pig has always had a great work ethic. During the spring, it was just a different situation. Like Justin said, he was going through some things. But now that he's come back, he's just great competition. Me and him push each other every day and that's really where we're all getting better."
(On what he's doing to be productive in the red zone)
"Coach Jones harps on winning in the red zone so we do a lot of red zone plays in practice. Just like I said, I prepare myself for each week the same way and just go out there and give it my all. Hopefully it leads to success."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)