That's why it's difficult to watch the Vols' revolving door spinning like a top without wondering if things are getting better or worse. Ultimately, that question can only be answered in the heat of autumn's gridiron battles, but it can and is being examined by interested observers.
These losses break down into three categories which are easily delineated. LaRon Harris and Heath Benedict are academic casualties and their suspension for the 2003 season may, or may not, signal the end of their athletic careers at UT. Since both redshirted as freshmen it will at the very least cost them a season while two years without game experience will leave lots of rust whether they return or not. Without uncommon dedication in both the classroom and weight room, a couple of four-year careers have effectively been cut in half.
That's a high price to pay for two players who came in with promise and potential and it costs Tennessee a pair of probable difference-makers in the trenches. Benedict was a Parade All-American with great size and an explosive first step, but he didn't come in ready to play last fall and watched while classmates Cody Douglas and Rob Smith earned letters as offensive linemen.
Harris was thought to be the signee most likely to see playing time in the D-line as a true freshman, but he struggled while classmates Greg Jones, a high school linebacker, and Justin Harrell, a high school tight end, worked their way into this fall's rotation at defensive tackle. Neither Jones or Harrell possesses the classic run-stopper physique Harris has, or the experience of playing in the defensive middle.
Shannon Benton and Andre Taylor left to seek more playing time at other schools. They followed tailback Keldrick Williams who left for the same reason before spring practice began. None of the three were expected to see significant playing time this season and none could be blamed for seeking a better situation. By all accounts, they left in good standing not for greener pastures, but for pastures less populated by thoroughbreds. Realistically, such decisions are normally win-win situations for both player and school.
Montrell Jones and Ruben Mayes were dismissed for repeated violations of team rules — translated as three strikes and you're out. Certainly, either player had the ability to help Tennessee on the field, but their consistent contempt for program policy is as inexcusable as it is intolerable. Certainly anything positive Jones and Mayes may have contributed to the team physically would have been negated by their lack of discipline and dedication.
In truth, Jones and Mayes wasted their talent and let down their teammates. Moreover, they violated the core principle to any successful group effort by putting themselves before the team. Similarly, Benedict and Harris failed the team by not living up to the same standard as their teammates.
To create an environment of unity there simply can't be two sets of standards in any aspect of team function. If it is tolerated in the behavior of one it will tried by many and, ultimately, regretted by all. Because of the high volume of personnel it demands and the coordination of tactics it employs, football is the truest of team sports.
Of course, players should be treated as individuals when it comes to communication and motivation because they respond differently and you want to get the best out of everyone. Otherwise, coaches have to be even handed in their treatment of players and the enforcement of team rules. Likewise, the needs of the team have to come before the needs of the individual. That is an edict that must be unerringly adhered to by everyone and peer pressure is the best means to protect the sanctity of the team concept.
The loss of the aforementioned players is part natural attrition, part purging. If it prevents others from making the same mistakes it is a positive development. If it is followed by similar losses, it might be an indication of a team that is still infected by the disease of self-indulgence.
Only the gridiron trails of the fall will yield the answer, but there's still time for the Volunteers better angels to prevail.