Inside the Anderson Training Facility, the familiar buzz of a Tennessee practice rings throughout the indoor practice field. Pads pop as coaches grunt encouragement. The music, ranging from AC/DC to Meek Mill, is the same that booms across the field during every practice session during the regular season. Butch Jones, the same as always, barks instruction on the microphone, the voice of God for however many hours practice lasts as he directs players to different drills and yells instruction.
But on top of all the constants, there's an added sense of intensity during these 15 practices as the Vols prepare for their second bowl game in two seasons under Jones and his staff. The team has seized on its late-game momentum after winnining five consecutive games to end the season and turned it into
"I think we have accomplished a lot," Jones said. "The players have come each and every day (and) they have had a high level of intensity. We've seen that and every practice has been with competitiveness, but also attention to details. We have had some younger players who have been set back with some nagging injuries, but for the most part, I think it has been productive."
For all of the Vols' recent continuity, a few things have changed. Players who haven't seen the field all season are finally back in action, including redshirt junior wide receiver Jason Croom, who's been sidelined all season while his surgically repaired knee rehabilitates.
“Jason has been out there this week, mostly in individual drills," Jones said. "You can see him progressing. We will have him back for spring football. He’s done an outstanding job with his recovery, but also getting stronger in the weight room and you can see it out here."
There will be sudden subtraction soon too to complement the addition of Croom and others like nickelback Rashaan Gaulden and wide receiver Vincent Perry, who have returned to practce. Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Mark Elder is still at his post during practice, but that will change as soon as the final whistle blows inside Raymond James Stadium Jan. 1. Elder, who came to Tennessee with Jones from Cincinnati, is headed to Richmond, where he'll be the new head coach at Eastern Kentucky University.
"You are trying to juggle so many things. I really think it is a tribute to him because he has been able to manage now being the head football coach at Eastern Kentucky and still being the tight ends coach at Tennessee," Jones said. "Coaching in this bowl game meant everything to him and I'm just thankful that he still wants to do it and be a part of us. You take great pride when anyone on your staff has an opportunity to better themsleves and be a head football coach."
But the more things change, the more they stay the same. The bowl practices look much like the ones that began the season that first week in September as Tennessee worked toward its opening date against Bowling Green.
"Now it's being able to go down to the bowl site, put all of your focus, your energy and your preparation down there and be ready to go," Jones said.