"It has to be the importance of staying together as a team," junior offensive tackle JaWuan James said recently. "A lot of stuff broke down last year in different games. You'd see guys go separate ways, things like that."
Those days appear to be gone. Head coach Derek Dooley told the Vols to develop their camaraderie, as well as their football skills, during the offseason. They listened. Several climbed Mount LeConte. Some helped build a house working with Habitat for Humanity. One group toured Dollywood, another participated in a rafting excursion. Assorted players hosted gatherings for video games and cookouts. Vols showed up in bunches to play hoops or swim at the recreation center.
From all accounts, the time was well spent.
"Definitely," James said. "The past years I've been here, especially my first year, the team really didn't seem all together — (with peer groups such as) the seniors, the juniors, this and that. Now I feel like we're all one team and out there working for each other."
Senior tight end Mychal Rivera also sees Tennessee as a more bonded, unified team.
"We've done so many things outside of football just to come together," he said. "When we went back on the field you see everybody coming together. You see everybody knowing each other. That's the most important thing.
"In the fourth quarter, when the game gets hard, you have to be ready to fight for your brother. You have to be ready to fight for the one next to you. The coach can't do that for you because the coach can't cross that line; it's got to be up to the players."
|Fifth-year linebacker Herman Lathers has been focused on making sure team chemistry is not something that slows down the Vols in 2012.|
"I see it mainly with Herm," sophomore safety Brian Randolph said. "He brings the team together, not just the linebackers. He controls the whole defense. He's like another coach out there. He's not afraid to tell you when you're messing up. He's helped bring us very close."
Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson said Lathers and other defenders often dine together following workouts. This will pay dividends this fall, he believes.
"I think that will pay off a lot this season," Johnson said. "You know the person beside you will have your back and you know you're going to have their back. We know everybody's going to go hard for each other, and that's going to help us a lot."
Tennessee did not respond well to adversity last fall. When the going got tough, the Vols unraveled. Dooley is hoping the 2012 team will develop a bond strong enough to survive whatever difficulties it might face.
"It's really important going into every year," he said. "I've never been around a championship football team that didn't say 'We had great team chemistry, great leadership, tremendous unity.' I think that — combined with the fact it was pretty apparent we didn't have what we needed last year from that standpoint — is probably why there is such a bigger emphasis on it."
Preseason camp has yet to start, yet the head man sees signs that the 2012 team has more unity than its predecessors.
"I think it's fair to say that this group is showing more signs of chemistry and leadership than any group since I've been here," Dooley said.
Senior guard Dallas Thomas believes the rest of the team is trying to develop the bond the offensive line had last fall.
"I really do feel like a lot of the team saw how together the O-line was last year," he said. "We were such a tight-knit group; we were always together. You never saw nobody in the O-line by themselves. I really think the rest used that for an example of how to be. The D-line started doing like we do when we go out. I can't tell you what we do when we go out (laughs) but they started doing what we were doing."
Most of Tennessee's best players were sophomores last fall. They'll be juniors this fall, so they should be more assertive in keeping the team together and focused.
"I feel like the guys in my class, including myself, needed to take more ownership of the team," James said. "We put in just as much work as anybody but our class didn't take a lot of ownership. This year we are."