Rajion Neal talks about the tradition of backs at UT
A couple of things you never hear this time of year from college football players:
1. "We're not a bad team, but I wouldn't say we're particularly close. Once we get away from football, we pretty much go our separate ways."
2. "Hopefully, all our talent will overcome our lack of leadership. Our seniors just want to lead themselves to the NFL."
Instead, college football's preseason is all about camaraderie and leadership. Every team is one big happy family.
That's all talk, of course. Validation requires a season, not a preseason.
It's not unheard of to be told how close a team is in preseason; then, a year later, have the same players blame the failure of the previous season on a lack of leadership and poor team chemistry.
The difference in the before-and-after assessments can be stunning.
You can't be sure about leadership and camaraderie at this juncture. You can be sure that they matter.
Why else would Tennessee coach Derek Dooley have broached the topic in his first preseason media conference Monday?
He talked about the transformation from a coach-led team to a player-led team. He also talked about the significance of losing so many vocal senior leaders from last year's team.
"I think in some ways (all the seniors last year) hamstrung the ability of the young guys to really take ownership from a vocal standpoint," he said. "And that's OK, but it means that you now have to start working toward that."
You can work toward it in preseason. But you won't know how it will work out until deep into the regular season.
Leaders don't just distinguish themselves by being louder than everybody else. They do so by raising their level of play when it matters most.
Did Al Wilson and Tee Martin come to mind?
They were two of the prominent leaders on UT's 1998 national championship team. They also were outstanding players.
It helps when your best players are your best leaders. It also helps when your quarterback is a leader.
The current team's leadership pool already has shrunk through attrition. And only two members of Tennessee's small senior class — preseason All-SEC defensive tackle Malik Jackson and last year's leading rusher, Tauren Poole — rank among its best players.
You might further question UT's leadership capabilities after fifth-senior senior linebacker Austin Johnson, a reputed team leader, was booked for public intoxication and disorderly conduct two weeks ago. He also was seen hitting cars, according to the police report.
Unless Johnson was hitting his teammates' cars, I doubt his actions will restrict his ability to lead. As embarrassing as it might have been for him and the program, he has a four-year track record as a solid guy, hard worker — and, as evidenced by his willingness to switch positions, the consummate team player.
Missing tackles would do more to undermine his role as a leader.
In a best-case scenario, hard-hitting junior safety Janzen Jackson would bolster the leadership of a team light on seniors. Yet his career has been marked as much by big problems off the field as big hits on it. The Vols just need for Jackson to lead himself out of trouble.
It's hard to envision sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray as a leader. He has been a starter for only five games and doesn't exactly have a Peyton Manning-like presence. But if he can thread a touchdown pass between two Florida defenders in The Swamp with the game hanging in the balance, the perception of Bray as a leader might change before UT has time to kick the extra point.
A team needs leaders in the weight room and in summer workouts. It also needs them at 3 a.m. on Cumberland Avenue.
But the best leaders emerge on game day.
And they don't just tell their teammates what to do. They show them how it's done.