Vol vindication

Whenever oppressive heat and aching muscles tempted Tennessee football players to ease off during summer conditioning drills, one thing kept them from doing so.

Senior tailback Montario Hardesty said it best:

"While we were running and guys started getting a little tired, we thought, 'We went 5-7 last year. We've got to push through.'"

Hardesty was among a dozen Vols who met with the media earlier today at the Neyland-Thompson Football Complex. Most made clear that the disappointment of last fall's 5-7 record remains an open wound.

"I feel the same way I felt when I walked off the field (after the season finale) against Kentucky - really disappointed, obviously disgusted with the way the season went," senior center Josh McNeil said. "We all had a lot of high hopes going into the season, and it did not go the way we expected it to."

McNeil, one of the Vols' most outspoken players, is determined that history will not repeat.

"We fully expect it to be turned around this season," he said. "I still feel the same way about last season. I haven't lost any bitterness toward that at all. I won't lose any of it until we get a W in the first game."

Although most of Tennessee's fans are focused on a new coaching staff and the arrival of a top-10 recruiting class, Tennessee's veteran players continue to revisit last season. It is not a pleasant trip.

"With our new coaching staff and a lot of new things going on, it's like a brand new program (to many fans)," McNeil said. "It's like last year's completely forgotten. But every player in this complex, every time we go to the film room, we get reminded of a 5-7 season. That's all we keep thinking about. We never forget. Even with new coaches and all of the other new things going on, it's never far from our minds.

"It's not something you need to dwell on because that can create negative feelings around here, but I think it's something you need to focus on."

Clearly, McNeil is focused on it. So is senior defensive lineman Wes Brown.

"We go home and people ask, 'What happened? What are you all going to do this next year?' We're tired of hearing that," he said. "We want to prove what Tennessee's about, get Tennessee back on the map and show why we came to play at Tennessee."

Asked if the losing season sticks in his craw, Brown nodded emphatically.

"Oh, yeah. It does," he said. "It was so frustrating last year that you want to get out there and prove to people that that orange T on the helmet is worth something."

Coaches tend to avoid the dreaded R word - revenge - but Tennessee's players openly admit they're looking for some in 2009.

"Five and seven ... revenge ... revenge for who beat us last year," senior tight end Jeff Cottam said. "We want to go out and beat a bunch of people this year, get a good taste back in our mouths.

"We've got a lot to prove. Everyone's doubting us. It's showing up on ESPN ... all the analysts and everything (saying) Florida's going to kill us. We've just got to go out and prove we're a lot better than everybody thinks."

Historically, Tennessee plays best with a chip on its shoulder. Cottam believes that will be the case again this fall.

"We can use this a lot to our advantage," he said. "Going in as the underdog, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so we'll just play our hearts out and give it our best."

Senior linebacker Rico McCoy avoided the term "revenge" but used another popular R word.

"This team's hungry ... out for redemption," he said. "You want to get that black mask off your face. That's the way the guys have been treating the workouts because we have a lot to prove."

Junior defensive end Chris Walker believes the Vols can turn the negatives of 2008 into positives for 2009.

"We've been kind of anxious to get back to the practice field," he said. "We're looking forward to fall camp and getting ready for the season."

Of the players questioned, only junior kicker Daniel Lincoln seems intent on putting 2008 in the rear-view mirror.

"Five and seven ... we're just ready to get back on the field," he said. "We're not worried about what happened last year. It's a new season, a new attitude and a new mentality that we've obviously bought into since January."

Still, he admits that the darkness of 2008 has not completely lifted.

"It seems like it was a long time ago but the memory of that 5-7 season is still fresh in our minds," he said. "We're working to get away from that."


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