The fourth quarter separates the men from the boys in SEC football. Tennessee learned that lesson the hard way last fall. Relying heavily on underdeveloped freshmen, the Vols tended to fade late against teams primarily fielding physically mature juniors and seniors.
Crunch these numbers: Tennessee scored 96 first-quarter points and 128 second-quarter points last fall, then dipped to just 75 third-quarter points and 74 fourth-quarter points.
The numbers are even more dramatic on defense. The Vols allowed a mere 51 third-quarter points but surrendered a whopping 110 fourth-quarter points.
Why the finishing fades? Easy. Eighteen-year-olds eventually wear down when facing 21-year-olds who are more physically mature thanks to three years in a college strength-and-conditioning program. That’s especially true in the trenches, where strength and stamina reign supreme.
Coleman Thomas, who started five games at right tackle for the Vols as a true freshman in 2014, admits feeling physically overmatched last season.
“It was an unbelievable wake-up call,” he told InsideTennessee, “but I’m glad I got the experience. I’m glad I got to work through that. This offseason has really benefited me, and I think I’ll be able to compete.”
Thomas says he increased his bench press by 30 pounds since the TaxSlayer Bowl defeat of Iowa and bumped his squat by 50 pounds.
“I also dropped two percent body fat,” he said, “so I feel well where I’m at right now.”
Thomas is one of many Vols who made dramatic strides physically since January. Tennessee still projects to be significantly younger than most of its opponents but the strength gap has been narrowed considerably. That should make a difference this fall, especially in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Butch Jones described the value of additional strength as “tremendous,” noting: “You win games, you win championships, in the fourth quarter. You have to have the ability to close games out and come from behind.”
There is no better example than the Florida game last October. Tennessee dominated for 45 minutes but led just 9-0. The Gators struck for 10 points in the final quarter and sneaked out of Neyland Stadum with an unlikely 10-9 victory. The Vols played well enough to win but couldn’t close the deal.
“I think everything is about the mental toughness, the physical toughness,” Jones said. “And if you don't have the strength it’s hard to have the physical toughness. We always talk about working to dominate your opponent … wear your opponent out. You don't wear your opponent out on Play 1, Play 2 or Play 5. You wear your opponent out with a consistency in approach, and that usually occurs on Play 50, Play 55."
|TENNESSEE OFFENSIVE LINEMAN COLEMAN THOMAS|
Based on incredible gains made during the offseason, the Vols should be a whole lot stronger and fresher on Play 55 than they were last fall. A whopping 115 players posted personal records in the squat during the winter, improving by an average of 50 pounds per man. Eighty-nine recorded a new best in the bench press, averaging 25 pounds per man. Seventy-six achieved a new best in bench repetitions, with a team average of three reps per man.
Jashon Robertson, who started all 13 games at right guard last fall en route to Freshman All-America honors, is one of the strongest players on the Vol roster. Even he admits that the strength and stamina he has added in recent months is likely to produce dramatic results.
“A little more strength and conditioning will help anytime – the fourth quarter especially,” he said. “I can handle a lot more work capacity, as far as how many reps we do. I can do higher weight and higher reps, so it definitely helps.
“I haven’t seen the full benefits of it yet because we haven’t been in pads. But the time we’ve spent with the strength coaches, as far as take-off and movement, it definitely has helped so far.”
Thomas believes the added strength and stamina will make a huge difference for the entire team this fall, especially in those late-game situations that routinely determine who wins and who loses.
“Very much so,” he said. “We worked on that all offseason – pushing through extra reps and focusing on the fourth quarter. That’s really what it comes down to — guys stepping up and being mentally tough enough to finish the job.”
Butch Jones after Practice 1