There are plenty of enormous differences about this year’s Tennessee team from the one Butch Jones took over in Knoxville in 2013.
You could point to the offensive line, where the unit’s two-deep is comprised of scholarship players for the first time under Jones. You may say it’s on the defensive line, where Tennessee boasts two potential All-America stars in Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt. It could even be the talent level, which has grown tremendously since Jones hauled in consecutive top five recruiting classes in 2014 and 2015.
There’s a long list to pore over. But if you ask the head man himself, he points to one specific change that has affected the team across the board.
"The first glaring difference is the team's speed, particularly in our backfield,” Jones said. “Obviously, with Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, it's the speed in the backfield and then you throw David Abernathy in there. You throw Joe Young in there, you throw John Kelly in there; it's visibly different from a speed-level standpoint.”
Since Jones, strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson and the rest of the coaching staff took the reins of Tennessee, they have installed a rigorous strength and conditioning program with an emphasis on speed to wear opponents down physically.
Because of that, players feel like they’re in better shape than ever before.
“Speed is a big difference,” wide receiver Marquez North said. “Coach Lawson did a great job this summer drilling it on us. It’s obvious how it’s showing up.”
It’s not just the offense that feels the difference, either. Defensive lineman Danny O’Brien pointed to a noticeable change in his unit’s tenacity due to the benefits of Tennessee’s strength and conditioning program and practice itinerary.
“Watching film, we’re seeing stuff on film that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here,” O’Brien said. “Maybe if you go back to watch the John Hendersons and those guys – the way they got after it – maybe that would compare to it, but we’re getting after it."
It’s telling the redshirt junior went all the way back to a player who last saw the field for Tennessee in 2001 to draw a comparison, but that’s just how revolutionary the change has been. By building hamstring depth in the weight room, working on agility drills and maintaining healthy eating habits, the Vols have — simply put — become a faster unit.
Linebacker Dillon Bates witnesses it daily in the defensive backfield, where the corners and safeties are now moving with a palpable and obvious quickness.
“There’s cats back there that are making plays. They’re flying around. The speed they’re playing with is incredible,” Bates said. “They’ll go from hash to hash and make an interception that, really, anybody else couldn’t make. I’ve been really impressed.”
Strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson, who was recognized as a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach by the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association while also becoming a certified speed and explosion specialist by the National Association of Speed and Explosion in 2009, has helped build a team confident in both its speed and strength heading into 2015.
Because of it, Jones is now not only overseeing one of his most talented teams to date at Tennessee — he’s also the leader of one of his quickest.
“We still need to recruit and there is still going to be an opportunity for players to come in here and play right away, but in the growth and maturation of our football program, you could see the team's speed continue to grow,” Jones said. “You could see our bodies, our strength levels continue to elevate as well. It's very, very encouraging."
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