A handful of Tennessee players met with the media on Tuesday afternoon to discuss Saturday’s SEC game against LSU at Neyland Stadium, their outlook on the rest of the season and new interim head coach Brady Hoke.
With two regular-season games left to play, both at Neyland Stadium, the Vols primary focus is sending the seniors out on a high note.
“Coach Hoke has told the team we’re playing for the seniors for these last two games, trying to get to three,” senior place-kicker Aaron Medley said.
“I think the underclassmen are really taking that to heart and playing for us.”
In order to reach a bowl game for the fourth straight year, the Vols know they must move on from some of the past disappointments this season and lock in on their preparation for the final two games.
"We're just kind of keeping the same focus,” senior punter and Ray Guy Award candidate Trevor Daniel said. “We have two games promised right now, so we're just trying to win those out and hope for a third one."
“It would definitely mean a lot,” Medley said. “Every year we want to get to a bowl game. But I think personally for me that would just be another game to be with my teammates. To go somewhere and be able to kind of hang out and relax and then have on last ride off into the sunset.”
Winning the final two games and reaching a bowl game will be no easy task as UT prepares to face a solid No. 21-ranked LSU team that has won four of their past five games, with the lone loss coming on the road to top-ranked Alabama.
LSU ranks 16th nationally in total defense, holding opponents to 317.1 yards per game and 11th in sacks with 3.1 per game. The Tigers’ offense leans heavily on talented running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams. Guice ranks second in the SEC in rushing yards per game (103.2) while Williams is averaging over 5 yards per carry and has six rushing touchdowns.
“LSU creates a bunch of problems,” senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “They have a great o-line. They have two running backs that do a lot. They have one of the best running backs in the nation. He creates a bunch of problems. We got to have a good preparation this week and we will be ready for the game.”
In the aftermath of athletic director John Currie firing coach Butch Jones on Sunday and naming Brady Hoke as interim coach shortly thereafter, Tennessee’s players that spoke to media on Tuesday appear to be in support of Hoke.
Hoke is in his first year at Tennessee and arrived with the titles associate head coach and defensive line coach.
“He is going to push you,” senior defensive tackle Kendal Vickers said. “He will let you know when you are doing good and when you are messing up. That is a great quality he has and he is a great motivator. I know he is going to get everybody’s 100 percent game winning (effort) when the time comes.”
Hoke’s personality has also meshed well with the players and helped him relate to guys on both sides of the ball despite spending the majority of his time with the defensive line this season.
“A lot of guys on the offensive side of the ball know him,” senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. “He is a real personal guy. He’s old fashioned, not into technology so he talks to you face to face a lot.
“Every time you walk by him he’s not going to let you walk by without saying something. He is really personable. He’s been a head coach in the past and he knows what he’s doing, and we’re going to do things his way.”
Senior Defensive Tackle Kendal Vickers
On how he will remember Butch Jones’ tenure:
“He gave me an opportunity when not many other people would. He pushed me every day. He pushed me to be a better player and a better person.”
On how he thinks the Butch Jones era should be remembered:
“We have had some pretty good years here under his tenure. The past three seasons, we won bowl games, starting in Jacksonville, then the Outback Bowl, then Nashville. The past three years we have won three bowls games, and he left it in a better place than when I got here.”
On what he is expecting out of Coach Brady Hoke and what he has been like the past couple days:
“I know the defensive line has a good feel on how Coach Hoke is going to approach things. He is going to push you. He will let you know when you are doing good and when you are messing up. That is a great quality he has and he is a great motivator. I know he is going to get everybody’s 100 percent game winning (effort) when the time comes.”
On the challenge of stopping LSU and Derrius Guice:
“LSU creates a bunch of problems too. They have a great o-line. They have two running backs that do a lot. They have one of the best running backs in the nation. He creates a bunch of problems. We got to have a good preparation this week and we will be ready for the game.”
Junior Defensive End Kyle Phillips
On season so far:
“It has been very disappointing. Especially, losing some tough games and things not going our way. It is what it is, and we work hard and come every day preparing to win. It sucks that things haven’t been going our way so far.”
On tough news about coach Jones:
“It was disappointing, but at the end of the day it’s a business and we understand that. We need to move forward and try to get these next two games for our seniors.”
On coach Brady Hoke’s message:
“Focusing on finishing out strong. We’ve got two games left, and we are going to do our best to leave our seniors with two victories.”
On coach Jones preparing players for life after football:
“I think people don’t realize that football ends. It’s more than just right now. Football has taken me to places I never thought I would go. The champions of life, and phrases like that are real phrases. Football does end. We’ve had people on this past team that their football careers have ended, and it happened in a snap. Life is more than just football, and that was the message he was trying to convey.”
Senior Punter Trevor Daniel
On the mentality of the team:
"We're just kind of keeping the same focus. We have two games promised right now, so we're just trying to win those out and hope for a third one."
On interim head coach Brady Hoke:
"He's great .I don't know him too well right now, but from what I know he coached really well at Michigan. He's going to do a great job."
On his relationship with Butch Jones:
"He gave me a scholarship. He gave me an opportunity to play here. I'm so thankful for that and I hate to this happen to him, but it's part of the business. He's big on punt and he always pushed me to be great. I'll miss that for sure, but Coach (Charlton) Warren is going to step up and takeover and we'll be fine."
On the potential impact of the coaching change:
"We'll be fine. We want to win these two games to hopefully go to a bowl game. We're not dwelling on that. We just want to move forward."
Senior Place-kicker Aaron Medley
On how the team has responded to Brady Hoke being named interim coach:
“I think we’ve had good energy. I think everyone understands the position that he’s in right now, and we’re just trying to make the best of it.”
On treating this game week like any other game week:
“Football teaches you a lot. It’s life sped up a lot quicker. Things happen, and you just have to put the blinders on, and keep going at it.”
On the team trying to make a bowl game:
“It would definitely mean a lot. Every year we want to get to a bowl game. For me, that would just be another game to be with my teammates. To go somewhere and be able to kind of hang out and relax and then have on last ride off into the sunset.”
VFL Flyovers This Saturday
A pair of VFLs will lead military flyovers prior to this Saturday’s game versus LSU.
4:45 p.m. – Air Force Captain Leigh Smith will pilot one of five F/A 15 jets for a flyover during the Vol Walk. Smith was a three-time All-American and a 2008 Olympian in the javelin.
6:55 p.m. – Navy Captain Stan Jones will pilot one of three F/A 18 jets for a flyover at the end of the national anthem. Jones competed on the football team from 1985 to 1987.
Jones will be available at TAC Air for a public Q & A and for photos with the F/A 18s from 1 to 4 p.m. on Friday.
Also on Saturday, the 1997 SEC Championship will be honored and coach Phillip Fulmer and several members of the team, including Peyton Manning, Leonard Little, Al Wilson, Jamal Lewis and Marcus Nash are expected to be in attendance.
The 1997 squad went 11-2 and overcame a 10-point, second-half deficit to beat Auburn 30-29 in the SEC title game.
(Contact Larry Fleming at email@example.com and on Twitter @larryfleming44)