HOOVER, Ala. — There's no avoiding anything at SEC Media Days.
If you're claustrophobic, there's no dodging the pressing media crowd that hovers over each table in the ballroom of The Wynfrey Hotel. If you don't like talking, there's certainly no skirting the dozens of questions pelted at you from the over 1,500 media members in attendance. And if you're Butch Jones, there's no avoiding the inquiries on the growing expectations permeating around Team 119 as it prepares to begin what many believe will be a turning point for the Tennessee program under its head coach, who is confidently entering his third season at the helm in Knoxville.
"It's our program philosophy. We'll always have high expectations internally," Jones said at SEC Media Days Tuesday. "It's high expectations we have for ourselves and we have to go out and we have to prove it ... That's why you coach at the University of Tennessee and it's why you play at the University of Tennessee. We want those expectations to be extremely high."But there would be no quantifying those expectations into tangible, specific goals on this day, as Jones and the three Vol players with him focused on letting everyone know they have embraced those expectations without becoming a victim of them. "I don't know if you can ever manage them. As we know, expectations are always high at Tennessee, but as the caretaker of this football program, I also have to be realistic," Jones said. "That's why we can't worry about two months from now and we can't worry about two weeks from now. We've got to worry about winning today." Curt Maggitt, Cameron Sutton and Josh Dobbs also shied away from saying specifically that their goal was an SEC East crown, but what was left unsaid spoke the loudest. This team has embraced these lofty expectations and isn't backing down from them.
Not so fast my friendSteve Spurrier began his press conference Tuesday morning with a jab at both Tennessee and Arkansas, two teams that went 7-6 last season and enjoyed bowl game blowouts to end the year. “We got rejuvenated. We got new life," Spurrier said. "We were 7-6, same as Tennessee and the same as Arkansas, and I think they’re sort of celebrating big seasons last year. So we were celebrating also. We were doing cartwheels and high-fiving after that Independence Bowl game because it was a year that could have gone real south.” Butch Jones refuted that notion by subtly firing back at Spurrier when it was his turn at the podium. "Contrary to reports, there were no backflips or somersaults," Jones said about his team's 7-6 campaign last season. As if this rivalry wasn't fun enough.
Sutton's snubIn what may be the most surprising omission of the (admittedly meaningless) preseason award watch lists, Tennessee cornerback Cam Sutton was not one of the 42 players named on the watch list for the Thorpe Award, an annual honor which goes to the best defensive back in the NCAA. Despite Sutton's 37 tackles, 14 defended passes and three picks last season, the potential lockdown corner missed the cut. When asked about the slight, the rising junior said he "definitely" believes he's one of the 42 best defensive backs in the country but isn't letting it get to him mentally. "I see it. I recognize it, but I don't really concern myself with that because I'm not in control of that," he said. "All I'm in control of is what I do each and every Saturday with my team and doing anything and everything that I can possible to win ballgames. That's what I'm here for."
Dobbs digs inJosh Dobbs is undoubtedly the face of this Tennessee program and has developed himself into, as Butch Jones says, a "CEO quarterback." But as Jones mentioned in his press conference, being a CEO means taking the emotion out of your decision making, and Dobbs is starting to understand that life lesson by learning to say things to his teammates that goes beyond simple encouragement. "This offseason Dobbs did a great job," Curt Maggitt said. "The way he carries himself off the field, no one can question that. But on the field he's matured a lot in just leading and being more vocal. Instead of just being a nice teammate, he's been more grounded and being firm in what he says."
Culture shiftJones didn't hesitate when asked what the most significant change in the program has been since he took the reins three years ago. "Culture. Culture and character," he said. "It's one thing to hope to win, but our program and our players believe they're going to win. Learning how to win is one of the most difficult things in all of sport and I thought last year our program learned how to win. We took monumental steps moving forward."
Young guns smokingThe third-year head coach was quick to point out that 64 percent of his current roster has played only one year of college football or less, and the Vols could be the youngest team in the NCAA in 2015. But a lot of those young freshman players, like defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie and linebacker Dillon Bates, are already showcasing why they might become household names for Vol fans sooner than some may think. Maggitt raved about McKenzie's high motor and enormous size, while Jones highlighted the freshman crop of linebackers who have caught on rather quickly. "I think just the overall freshman class in general (has excelled)," Jones said. "We've done more with educating them on how we live the Tennessee way with everything in our football program and they've responded."
Jones discusses Vols at SECMD