Tennessee fans aren’t used to the kind of beating that Florida put on their Vols back in September. The Big Orange Nation is frustrated after a 2-2 start. For the past few weeks they’ve been asking questions as to why their program has won just 16 of its past 28 games.
In speaking with a number of former UT players over the past several weeks, it’s become apparent to me that the men who used to wear the orange are also asking questions.
Normally, when a player tells me “things are easier now than they used to be,” I shrug it off as “I used to walk to school uphill both ways” kind of stuff. Folks always think they had it tougher than anybody else.
But when I had a couple of ex-Vols tell me of specific areas of concern within the current program, I began to track down more former players to see if they agreed.
Indeed, certain things were brought up again and again by player after player: practice intensity, competitive spirit in the weight room, and player development.
For the record, I’ve spoken with nine different former offensive and defensive players. I’ve dined with former starters and former back-ups. I’ve phoned players from the early 1990s, mid 1990s, late 1990s and early 2000s.
The players I spoke with have all maintained some connection to UT since their playing days. Whether they’ve taken in Vol practices or spent time in the Vol weight room, they have all seen, they say, changes in the program first-hand.
These men also, let me be very clear, love Tennessee football. To a man they told me that Phillip Fulmer is a good football coach.
But they also believe that small changes over the course of time have created a larger overall shift in the program’s success, not unlike a lobster slowly being brought to boil. At least that’s the belief that these men shared with me.
And that’s what I want to share with you … the opinions of former Vols who can still observe practice and drop into the weight room. Are they correct? All I can go on is the large, diverse number of ex-Vols who agreed with these observations.
(None of the players quoted in this column are or have been regulars on my Sports Source television show, by the way.)
Issue No. 1: Player Development
One of the common thoughts stated to me was “why aren’t our players getting better?” For example, why can’t a speedster like Kenny O’Neal find his way to the field in the first month of the season? Why have some players not progressed from last year to this year? Or even from one week to the next?
“Fundamentals are not getting corrected,” said a player from the Peyton Manning Era. “It was clear in the Cal game what the problems were. And you’re supposed to correct those things in practice. But in Game Three against Florida, you saw the exact same problems.”
Indeed, tackling, wrapping up and shooting through gaps, all appeared just as worrisome versus the Gators (and at times Arkansas State) as they did versus the Golden Bears.
According to another former Vol, continued concerns exist in the secondary as well.
“These guys aren’t squaring up against their man. They’re opening up as they run down the field. That gives a receiver more options. Is that going to get fixed?”
Another ex-Vol added, “if they’re not actually practicing to get better, then all the talk of correcting mistakes is moot.”
“As a fan and as an alumnus, I know that we used to have a talent gap on everybody. Now that the talent level is equal to a lot of other teams, it’s time to start developing the talent we do get.”
Issue No. 2: Strength, Conditioning and Speed
Florida tight end Derek Baldry had this to say following the Gators’ 59-20 win over UT: “In the locker room, that’s all everybody was talking about. It just seemed like we were going at a different speed than they were, especially at the end.”
That comment (and sentiment) was voiced by more than half of the ex-Vols that spoke with me.
“Tennessee’s workouts are just not as competitive and intense as they used to be,” said a player from UT’s national championship team. “We used to enter the weight room and it was like gameday in there.”
Another player chimed in with stories of one-on-one competitions during workouts, yells of encouragement, even trash talk. Three of the players who say they’ve seen recent workouts tell me that that kind of attitude no longer exists.
“It’s like walking on eggshells when you go in the weight room.”
“Now they do their workouts, but there’s not the intensity. I’ve seen guys drop by the weight room with their bookbags between classes. That didn’t happen when I played. You didn’t go in there to talk and break the focus of guys who were working out. If you’re not working out, you’re not in there. And if you walked in there with nothing to do, they’d find something for you to do.”
Tennessee has lost some very respected strength coaches that have moved on since the 1990s. They lost John Stuckey to health issues. Tommy Moffitt is now the strength and conditioning coach at LSU. Chris Carlisle is now the head strength coach as Southern Cal.
In case you haven’t noticed, LSU and USC are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation right now.
“Everything used to be about competition. From practice to gameday to the weightroom. We’d work out before practice, then we’d practice, then we’d run sleds, then some of us would go back to the weight room to lift some extra weights on our own. Just to always be better than the other guy.”
Tennessee continues to set weight-lifting records, but from what the ex-Vols told me, players now spend less time “maxing out” (lifting a single rep to build power) and spend more time building endurance (lifting a lighter weight several times to equal a heavier, more powerful lift).
For example, by most formulas, seven lifts of 285 pounds equals a single lift of 350 pounds. But on third and goal from the one, does it? The former players I spoke with have their doubts.
Issue No. 3: Practice Intensity
Where has the attitude gone in Tennessee’s practice sessions? That was a common question stated by men who still have the ability to view practice.
“The intensity level is nowhere near where it was,” said a former player who’s seen Tennessee practice (and who was backed up by several others). “You don’t want to see a fight everyday, but that’s where the attitude comes from.”
According to the players, there have also been major changes in the way the scout team is run.
“I started out on scout team and I watched the transition,” said a former player who played in the late 1990s and the 2000s. “We used to really get after it on scout team, then they started telling us to ‘stand here, don’t move, you might get someone hurt.’”
“We don’t want to get someone hurt?” another player piped up.
If this is true, scholarship limitations might have finally forced the UT staff to pull back a bit in practice, in order to conserve bodies. Twenty years ago, teams had twenty more players to bang around. Now they do not.
That’s no excuse for scripting the scout teams’ duties as much as is now the case, at least not according to a player from the late 90s.
“Raynoch Thompson and Shaun Ellis used to totally shake it up on defense when they were going against Peyton, and Peyton used to get mad, but it made his offensive line better. It made him better.”
“How good does it make the starter when the scout team doesn’t push him?”
“We used to love practice. Practice was like a game. You think Al Wilson and Peyton Manning didn’t view practice as competition? It was all about winning those little battles in practice. And when you’re used to doing it in practice, it carries over in games.”
Looking for Answers
Fans and former players alike have a lot of questions. Still, most continue to believe that the current coaching staff can get things back to a championship level.
“Coach Fulmer is a good coach,” said a Vol from the 2000s. “But in the real world people are held accountable for their work. So it’s fair for people to ask questions.”
“Check out the names in that new Neyland Stadium club section of all the folks who are giving a whole lot of money. They deserve to have the right questions asked.”
Are the issues stated above simply the complaints of old-timers who believe things were tougher in their day (when Tennessee sat near the top of national polls so often)?
Has practice really become less game-like? Have scholarship limitations forced coaches to take an easier approach? Has the attitude in workouts changed? Are the Vols as strong as they used to be?
Have those issues made a real difference in the program’s level of success?
Starting with today’s Georgia’s game and during the entire month of October, fans will start to get more answers.
With a win this afternoon (coupled with a Florida loss at LSU), Tennessee can be right back in control of their own SEC destiny as early as tomorrow morning.
That’s a reason for optimism… in a time of many questions.