Pennington: Former players have concerns

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.

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Comments » 100

Sheepscape writes:

Darn right it's ok to ask questions. Why can the folks relying on the 'true fan' petard see that?

OldNumber7 writes:

This is exactly what has been said by the folks on this board too. It's obvious to the fan when this team hits the field - lack of intimidation and intensity! Two hellacious articles in one day. Change is here - one way or another. ESPN's Colin Cowherd was right 2 weeks ago - "Tennessee's program is slowly eroding."

volintexas writes:

Now this was a good article. Rather than the stupid UGA game is huge article, this article entailed research and digging. Note to KNS: you seem hard pressed to create decent articles while other papers (Commercial Appeal, etc.) seem capable of doing so. Suggestion: why don't, during game week, you go back to great UGA/UT games of years gone by and re-publish an article or two or paraphrase from some articles on a given game. You could call it the Flashback Special. For instance the 80 Herschel breakout game or the 89 game that marked the first win over the Dogs since 72 (granted they didn't play every year back then). TRY SOMETHING TO MAKE THIS STUFF BETTER. If you can't create anything interesting, dig into the past. Vol fans who love the tradition will embrace that rather than daring to deal with the obvious. Huge game. U Think!

TommyJack writes:

CR just likes the attention. Don't feed his need to see his name in print.

orangebloodgmc writes:

This was a good article with actual specifics about playing the game of football instead of a bunch of program drama phooey. Am looking forward to either a deep Colquit kickoff or a Vol speed burner kick return to start the game.

vjnd3#219886 writes:

Good article John.

cdldoc#211897 writes:

John Adams, beware! This is a writer that deserves your job. Imagine Pennington directing the paper's sports coverage and requiring writers to do background like this. WOW! I would love to read sports articles like this more often.

mikeb3100 writes:

i too was the captain of a sinking ship and i was stuck on an island for a really long time trying to find ways to get off of it, it was a rough time in my life but skipper always cheered me up

orangebloodgmc writes:

Go Vols, Mary Ann or Ginger, Go Vols

DenmarkVol_aka_Mbumburu writes:

Wow, this is SCARY. What bothers me most is how completely different these comments are from all the stuff we've been hearing from Fulmer, Cut, Chavis about practices -- how "tough" or "hard" the practices have been. Acute cognitive dissonance.

Great article, John.

Volunatic writes:

I notice that the supposed "former players" referred to in this article don't give their names. Curious.
As for the florida player's comment "It just seemed like we were going at a different speed than they were, especially at the end"-- could it be that's because we had already put in our 2nd and 3rd stringers and they left their starters in until the last few seconds?
COULD BE!
GO VOLS!!! Feed off the criticism, and beat Georgia!

mikeb3100 writes:

it could be the second or third stringer assumption but our starters didn't fare much better did they? so it's really a mute point, florida was better and i'd say georgia, kentucky, miss. st., vandy, alabama, and that directional school from la. will be better.

Volunatic writes:

You're saying LA Laughayette will be better than the Vols?
Phil's teams may have declined over the past 9 years, but he still OWNS the Sun Belt Conference. (Perhaps he should send his resume off to FIU.)

mikeb3100 writes:

i hope they're not but it isn't looking good for ole phil is it? i'll type his resume up for him if he'll send it off to anywhere that would have him and actually leave

Ironcity writes:

This article is troubling. Its hard to qustion it when you see it on the field. This team is not physical. It shows in our tackling and in the one on one battles at the line of scrimmage.

88volgrad writes:

FairWeatherVols.com

1bigutfan writes:

I think the article is right on. Our players do not seem as focused as in late 90's and early 2000's and this article gives some clues as to why. Lack of intensity, we need Al Wilson back for a few days. Not that Football is a war but believe below rough quote from "The Art of War" says it all.

"Bleed more in training, bleed less in war"

MiserableFloridaVol writes:

Cowardly article. Don't print it if you can't give eme some sources. It doesn't apply any pressure to the coaching staff. I think that it's time for Fulmer to go. I just think that if you aren't willing to give your name, you have no right to speak!

west_tn_volfan writes:

Obviously these former players aren't "real fans". At least thats what we always hear when we point out the obvious. All this criticism of coach Fulmer is obviously just a Memphis(Higgins)Nashville(Biddle)Knoxville(former players)conspiracy to see the UT program crash and burn. It certainly couldn't be the mediocre teams he's fielding.

DenmarkVol_aka_Mbumburu writes:

Why isn't Kenny O'Neal in the field? The guy started for Florida State as a freshman and he's a world-class track guy.

Whazzamatter? Not good enough for us? Even to return punts/kickoffs? Or should we stick with Hefney's -18 yard results?

Colliervol writes:

If the comments by these players are accurate, it boils down to one word: complacency. The program has rested on its laurels since the late '90's and that's why it is in the shape that it's in. And once that sets in, it is hard to get it back without changes being made. Hard to swallow but that's the way it goes sometimes. Harsh medicine is tough to take.

SavDawg writes:

Guys, I hope for a great competition on Sat. I can't wait...it's one of the games I truly look forward to every year, very unpredictable. However, seeing these posts, one would think the Vols are the worse team in the history of football. You guys are not that bad...I don't know why this is the general consenses, and notice I said general, because some of you believe the Vols will win, whereas others are only concered with the dismissal of the coach. You lost to two pretty damn good football teams, hell, If Ga. had already played Fl and Cal we might be sitting with two loses...point is, get over it right now, wait until Sat. evening when you know the outcome of the game and determine where to go from there. Which ever team loses is pretty much done, that's a given, but stop acting like Tenn. has already lost, you never know, no one knows with these teams. Go Dawgs!

k0605#241765 writes:

This all rings pretty true to me based on what I've seen the last several years on the field. UT gets these highly rated high school kids but very few turn out to be playmakers. Player development doesn't happen in games, it takes place in practice and preparation. The observations from these ex-players makes it sound like that's just not happening. The coaching staff has gotten too complacent, something that can happen when you've been at the top for awhile. UT needs some younger, hungrier, more creative coaching.

TommyJack writes:

You really got me there, CR. Good one.

Colliervol writes:

SavDawg, it's not that we lost. It's the fact we were beaten like a red-headed stepchild's rented mule. Evidently, you didn't see the games.

bUTchVFL writes:

Spurrier said it best. "Ten years at one program is enough". Move on Phil, for the betterment of the program. Go out with class, unlike Johnny.

bUTchVFL writes:

SavDog, this is not about Cal and UF. Read the article. The decline has been going on since the 01 season.

SavDawg writes:

Colliervol and mtoms1272, you are right. I understand your frustrations, believe me when I say I do, we went throught the Golf and Donnon eras and is wasn't pretty...you guys pretty much owned us through that period, I'm sure you remember. If what the players say is true, then indeed, maybe some things should be ajusted. Forgive my dismissal of the real reason the article was written, I'm just acustomed to seeing Ga. and Tenn. play incredible games...as of late, games are normally pretty intense excluding the beat downs last year and in 03 and that's why I love when we play. i must admit, its' a little disappointing reading about how things need to change other than seeing fired up Vol fans talking trash, that's one of the great things about our rivalry, however, I understand and I was just trying to give a little pep talk in my previous comment...for God sakes I don't know why, I hate the Vols, but then again I'm susposed to. I hope your toubles pass. Go Dawgs.

firefulmer (Inactive) writes:

Does one have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that something has been wrong for years?? Until they clean house, be able to handle 6-6 and 7-5 seasons.

SATURDAY, TN WILL BE NO MORE IMPROVED OR MOTIVATED THAN THE FIRST GAME. I CAN'T WAIT TO HEAR THE EXCUSES! I HOPE I AM WRONG, BUT TN IS NOT A GOOD FOOTBALL TEAM.

nmvol writes:

I will not call Fulmer names nor root against UT but it is time for a change! Resign Fulmer!

jdcvols#230433 writes:

Ok, I was a practice dummy for the team in 1977-1979 and active member of the scout team. Major's practices were hard and very upbeat. Part of the reason was due to the fact that we really didn't have the talent in those days. Battle really left us dry. When the freshmen would arrive in the fall, we would dog them badly on the field. After about 10 days of practice, their talent would surface. The spring period was really hard and we would close with an actual O & W game with all players. Many guys played hurt in that game and nobody sat out unless your knee or shoulder was gone. We were not talented then but we had passion and fire. As stated on numerous posts, the O & W game last spring was a JOKE and I could see that we did nothing to prepare us for this season. Great article JP.

civilianvol_formerly_marinevol writes:

It bothers me that the most positive post has to come from a Georgia fan. SavDawg is right. Everybody lift your heads up and get ready for some football. Like he says, it's time for some trash talking. You know SavDawg, there's a reason they set the movie "Deliverance" in Georgia. We're taking it to the dawgs tomorrow.
Thanks buddy.

takebkknox writes:

Now Pennington. Why would you go off looking for stuff like this right before the GA game? Someone said earlier that you should have Adams' job. Little did they know you are one in the same. A few clever disguises blended in, Stupid beard, FAT, etc. What everyone reading your plugs for your show should ask is "What did Fulmer do to you"? Decline an interview? Told you to shave? You're part of the problem not the solution. Wake up all you brainwashed idiots or watch LSU win another NC. Better than USC though, huh? Go to the game and make some noise!

bigorangesob writes:

SavDawg I completely agree with you I'm a true blue BIG ORANGE fan even in 05 I was just about the only one at work that was stil wearing my ORANGE everyday whether we won or lost, we lost alot that year but I was still a fan and was still optimistic on gameday that we were gonna win, no I'm not happy with the way things are going at the moment but I'm not gonna get on here and run down the team, and I know that people are going to say they aren't running down the team just the coaching staff, but hey the coaches are part of the team as well, hey support the team let's wait till the end of the season and see how this works out, as for now let's go kick some Bullpuppy ass!!!!!!!!!!! Thanks for the positive input, but we're gonna take back Neyland starting tommorrow, that Deliverence jab is funny as hell...GO VOLS

SewaneeVolFan writes:

Not sure what a "Fulmeron" is, but if it's a Vol fan who supports Phil Fulmer and values him highly, then I'm one. That doesn't mean I'm blind or stupid; I just look at the whole body of work and the situation in college football today and say we're lucky to have him. As Florida and Cal show they are extremely good teams, the losses make more sense. And in each one the Vols had their chances. I predict the Vols win a close, high-scoring game Saturday. They still won't be satisfactory covering kicks, but they will have enough offense, especially with Ainge's passing, and Ga's being not so good against the run, and just barely enough on defense to get the win. Dawgs will gash some running yards, but UT will get enough stops, even if not enough to satisfy the supposed fans who can accept only a 12-win season. If someone major for the Vols gets hurt, this prediction goes out the window. Otherwise, it'll be something like 35-31 UT. I'll crow if I'm right, and I'll step up and 'fess up if I'm wrong. But regardless of the score, I know the Vols will fight hard, and I will continue to support them, Fulmer, the coaching staff, and Mike Hamilton.

murrayvol writes:

The lobster analogy is a pretty good fit. I don't always enjoy reading Pennington but I always appreciate how well constructed his columns are. Good info - well presented. Actually the decline began in 99' mtoms1272. Who could forget the 60 minute smackdown (with not one coaching adjustment real or implied) administered by Alex Brown on that warm September night in Gainesville. Or the 94 yard "I'm going to kick your ass into next week" drive by Nebraska without any pretense of throwing. Not even once. I can't.

coop123 writes:

I've read a couple of "great and insightful" articles the past couple of days about the doom and gloom of the Tennessee football program (the commercial appeal and now this one). I can't believe the hometown paper has published these articles the day before a huge game against a big rival. Way to get everyone pumped up about saturday. If we lose tomorrow, fine, run all the articles you want. But by reading these I might as well not even show up. It's always debatable if Fulmer is the right coach for UT right now, but the season has a chance, give our players a chance and support. If you want to read a good article go to rivals and read about how the fans haven't helped our home field advantage b/c we're not helping the program either. I'll be there tomorrow screaming "Go Vols"

SmokeDog72 writes:

I still believe............

In Orange Pants We Trust

BigUn writes:

“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.”

BINGO!!!! The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

Look for UGA to roll UT big time tomorrow, however all will not be lost Fulmerites, for Phil will review the tape and declare that "it's not an effort problem".

OldNumber7 writes:

If you haven't gone to YouTube and watched "Gator Fan Cries" you must. I'm still busting a gut. That is hillarious - I love watching Florida lose. That's right up there with witnessing my first born. Classic. You Florida fans are so shallow. I'm still laughing.

civilianvol_formerly_marinevol writes:

I agree, RocketVol, great video. Can you believe the Florida fan wanting to fire Urban Myers after he took them to a national championship? Oh, ah... never mind.

MrBamSeydu writes:

I love how the UT coaches downplay the "star system" for recruits. They have their own board and apparently don't pay attention to the ratings systems from Rivals, ESPN, Scout, etc. Maybe this is why the majority of this years coup so far are 3 stars (and looks like there will be more where that came from) and, with the exception of last year, have been the majority of our recruiting hauls since '01. The coaching staff shouldn't have offered the majority of those prospects. Just because you have 25 scholarships to use, doesn't mean you have to use them. I'd get the very best players I could get and not even offer a 2 or 3 star player who's "got potential". That's how USC does it. It's quality over quantity. The UT coaches are like drunk guys at a bar.... they get on a roll and before you know it they're all stumbling home with a 1-legged Taiwanese prostitute with cold sores on her mouth. 5 STAR OR BUST!!!

MrBamSeydu writes:

Oh, and marinevol.... nice sarcasm there, but the point behind it isn't relevant. Noone wanted to fire Fulmer in '99... or '00..... or even '04. I guarantee you that if Urban Meyer goes 8-4, 5-6, 9-4, then starts out the following season 2-2 with a 59-20 blowout to UT....... he WOULD be fired. I doubt he'd even make it that far. Pay me $2 million for 1 year as heach coach at Tennessee and I guarantee I would do better than 5-6. I could basically pull a JoePa and stand on the sidelines not knowing where I'm at or what my name is, allowing my assistants to coach for me, and go 5-6..... take my $2 mil and run.

chucker6 writes:

I really don't understand these " I support Fulmer because he is a nice guy and cares". That's good as far as it goes but it doesn't mean diddly squat when it comes down to whether he can inspire young men to become better players. If you can't see that is missing then you are truly blind. Blind allegiance is stupid in any arena. If Fulmer was a combat leader his unit would have been overrun and wiped out. Would supporting his continuing to command make sense? College football isn't combat but it isn't a damn impassive chess game either. My gripe with Fulmer and his staff are that they are so damned selfish that they care more about their salaries than the damage they are doing to the team and school they supposedly love. That is not loyalty in my book but desperate clinging to the last $$ is paid out. I find his continued coaching to be a disgusting display of self over team, and it shows every Saturday. It was a lot more satisfying as a real Tennessee fan to watch those relatively low talent but high spirit teams of the early 60's than what we have now. For the talent we have and resources invested in this team, our coaching leadership is tantamount to criminal negligence. Watch Mike Lucci or Mallon Faircloth from those teams leaving their last ounce of energy on the field and then watch what passes for dedication and desire today. What a joke Tennessee football has become. Yeah, I still pull for them every game day and get depressed when they lose but Saturday motorcycle rides are looking better by the week.

Disgusted in New Mexico
UT Class of '74

tigervol9802 writes:

I'd just like to have seen a practice with Manning and Wilson going toe to toe!

yemmus - Not saying I don't agree, but you left out 2 10 wins teasm in there. Don't change the facts.

tigervol9802 writes:

I'd just like to have seen a practice with Manning and Wilson going toe to toe!

yemmus - Not saying I don't agree, but you left out 2 10 wins teasm in there. Don't change the facts.

Volnut writes:

Mr Pennington drives the point home in this article. Thanks!

dlravol2 writes:

If you listen and read the quotes from the coach it has always been receivers not running the correct routes,not punting the ball out of bounds,an errant pooch kick(2001),young players not knowing our complex system............I get so tired of seeing our team play like we did in the loss to North Texas State and the coach not take the responsibility.It's time for change!

imnotwithphil writes:

To sum up the article, our program has become arrogant, undisciplined and sloppy. That’s what you get when a back woods coach receives a $2M a year salary and retires on the job.

jweaver3#395614 writes:

The common theme in this article is that all these players say Fulmer is a good coach!!!
Ignorance is bliss that is correct, but bashing a coach 4 games into a season is ignorance, also.
I hate being 2-2, especially the way we lost those 2 games BUT if we can support this team and they can get on a roll starting with GA., this could be a good year, no Great but a good year. Then it's up to Hamilton to make the decision on the coach.
But to just bash the coach accomplishes NOTHING.
They will not make a change during the season, we all know that.
GO VOLS, Beat the Dawgs!!!
Support the BIG ORANGE!!!!
TXVOLSFAN

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