KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time in more than 100 years, Tennessee has renewed confidence and optimism as players reported for fall camp Thursday.
Entering coach Derek Dooley's third year, the Volunteers have a potentially potent passing game and a veteran core of starters, but also have big questions about the lack of a running game in recent years and a new defensive system.
Sophomore left tackle Antonio Richardson said the Vols know how much talent they have and he believes the key for success will be their ability to bond as a team, which was emphasized during the offseason.
Dooley said it became apparent last year Tennessee didn't have good team chemistry and that's why it's been important for upperclassmen such as senior linebacker Herman Lathers to become vocal leaders this season.
"I never been around a good football team — a championship team — that didn't always say we just had great team chemistry, we had great leadership, we had tremendous unity," Dooley said.
"I think that, combined with the fact that it was pretty apparent we didn't have what we needed last year from that standpoint, is probably why there's a bigger emphasis on it."
Dooley said on Thursday that the Vols need to keep the same mindset over the next four weeks in camp.
Junior wide receiver Justin Hunter said his left knee is 100 percent healthy after tearing his ACL during the Vols' third game of last season.
"It can happen to anybody," Hunter said. "I can't think about it anymore. It was just a freak accident."
Dooley said Omari Phillips, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound freshman defensive lineman, joined the program. A highly sought prospect, Phillips originally signed with Florida in February, but was denied admission into the university.
Linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton is no longer on the team. Mitchell-Thornton was going to be a fifth-year senior, but decided to forgo his final year of eligibility after graduating. He played a reserve role the past two seasons.
Freshman receiver Alton Howard is at least a month away from practicing after foot surgery in the summer.
Sophomore linebacker Christian Harris had ACL surgery three months ago, and Dooley said he'll know more about Harris' timetable to return next month.
The Vols open fall camp Friday.
Tennessee will practice for a week at Milligan College in Elizabethan, Tenn., about an hour and a half from Knoxville, while the Vols' new football facility is being completed.