Thinking positive

He didn't travel 761 miles to play for a 6-6 team his senior year. That wasn't the expectation when he left Oklahoma City in 2007 and that isn't the expectation now that his four-year run at Tennessee is heading toward the home stretch.

Senior receiver Gerald Jones knows that a lot of media experts are saying a break-even season is the best the 2010 Vols can achieve. But he also knows that he and his teammates are aiming a whole lot higher than those 6-6 projections.

"It's opinion," he said. "Everybody has an opinion and not everybody's going to be for you. It's a motivation for this team. I always ask: Would I rather make somebody happy or would I rather prove somebody wrong? Not to be selfish but I like to prove somebody wrong.

"Six and six is not what I'm thinking, so I'm not going to allow that opinion to dictate what happens this year for the team."

Since the bulk of practice is closed to media, the experts who envision a six-win season have not actually seen the Vols under game-type conditions. Gerald Jones has, and he's convinced that Tennessee is better than that. He bases much of this optimism on an offensive line that has no returning starters but tons of determination.

"I want you to see something," Jones said, nodding toward a dozen offensive linemen still performing drills 20 minutes after the other Vols left the practice field. "Every day - EVERY DAY - those guys are the first ones on the field and the last ones to leave the field.

"Those guys are determined to be better. They're young and they may not know as many tricks but that doesn't mean they're not talented enough to block older guys. The biggest thing about offensive linemen is between the ears. They have the physical ability to get it done, so as long as they know what they're doing, I'm happy. I think they can get the job done, so I'm not worried about it."

Tennessee wasn't exactly loaded with offensive linemen last fall. In fact, the 2009 Vols started two walk-ons along the blocking front - a fact the experts have forgotten but Jones has not.

"The guys are way bigger than last year's linemen," Jones noted. "They're NFL size. We've got two 6-7s on there. Those are babies but they're BIG babies."

Experts also downgrade Tennessee's quarterback situation, noting that junior college transfer Matt Simms is unproven. Apparently, these experts have forgotten that Jonathan Crompton was viewed by many as a liability at QB heading into 2009.

"Jonathan had a terrible junior year and he started off his senior year ... you know ... but he was determined to be better," Jones recalled. "He had a coach (offensive coordinator Jim Chaney) who was smart, who knew what Jonathan could and couldn't do well, knew what plays to run.

"Coach Chaney spends a lot of time with the quarterbacks and he knows their strengths and weaknesses. I know Matt wants to be the best he can be because he's only got two years here."

Montario Hardesty rushed for 1,345 yards as a Vol senior last fall, leaving a gaping hole in his wake. Still, Jones is convinced that junior Tauren Poole will fill that void in grand style this fall.

"Oh, man! If people could see the real Tauren Poole," Jones said. "He's a great, great guy ... the Nick Reveiz of the offense. They're the hardest-working people I know. Nobody outworks them ... NOBODY. I try but I can't do it.

"Tauren is very talented, very smart and very determined to show everybody what he's capable of because he should've played last year. We all know that. He's going to prove to everybody why he should've played last year, I guarantee that."

Even Tennessee's harshest critics must admit that the Vols have more quality pass catchers in 2010 than they did in 2009. Jones is back after posting a team-best 46 catches last fall. Denarius Moore (40 catches) and tight end Luke Stocker (29), who finished 2-3 on the '09 receptions chart, are still around, as well.

"I think we're stronger than last year," Jones said. "Thank God Luke came back with us. I thought he was going to leave but he came back, and that helps us. Now he can mentor Mike (No. 2 tight end Mychal Rivera). Me and Denarius have a chance to mentor these young guys, who have all the talent in the world."

Those "young guys" are Da' Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Matt Milton - arguably the finest trio of rookie receivers in all of college football.

"They're going to have their freshman moments this year," Jones said, "but they're going to be great helping us out when we're tired."

Gerald Jones expects to be tired a lot this season - from recording clutch catches, breaking tackles and making big plays. He didn't travel 761 miles to go 6-6.

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