A summer of Tennessee team building gave way to house building Saturday morning.
UT's football seniors put the finishing touches on the Habitat for Humanity project, which their freshman teammates started. Sophomores and juniors also took their turns at carpentry during the last few weeks.
You can check out their handiwork on Geyland Heights Drive. The house will be formally dedicated next Saturday.
"I think this means a lot to all the guys," UT senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner said. "To come out here and give back to the community is big to us."
Now that the building is done, the Vols can concentrate on rebuilding. No one is more vested in the project than the seniors who have experienced back-to-back losing seasons. Fifth-year seniors like Waggner and linebacker Herman Lathers were even around in 2008 when the Vols went 5-7.
As they attempt to distance themselves from past failures, players have pulled closer together, according to its veteran leaders.
They have built a house, hiked up a mountain, and had a cookout every other weekend. You can't put any of that on the scoreboard against Alabama, but it reflects the team's determination to present a united front.
"Last year, I felt everybody was together in their position groups," senior offensive guard Dallas Thomas said. "All the linemen hung out together. All the linebackers hung out together. But now, it's everybody together."
Did anyone just flash back to that fragmented locker room after a season-ending loss to Kentucky? The postgame player comments suggested a team divided and revealed a frustration that had been building since the first troublesome Saturday in a season gone wrong.
That game and that season seemingly have been locked safely away for now. Senior cornerback Marsalis Teague even refers to "the new Tennessee." Then, he explains that the new Tennessee is really the old Tennessee.
"When I say 'new,' it's just getting back to the tradition of Tennessee," he said.
The players on this team have yet to experience all that tradition firsthand. They were recruited to it. They have heard and read about it. But they haven't lived it fully.
Maybe that's why I don't think all this preseason talk of team unity and team building eventually will be filed under "Summer Rhetoric." Motivation alone won't revive so much as a glimmer of UT's glory days. But there's evidence of enough talent and leadership to at least forge a different course than the one the program has been stumbling along.
"Last year, once some guys got hurt, a lot of guys didn't trust the guys that were next to them," said Lathers, who missed the season himself with a fractured ankle. "If you don't trust the guy next to you, then you're not going to do your job. Once you build trust, things click."
You couldn't have heard a click Saturday for all the other building going on. But maybe the players gained more trust while hammering side by side.
Their confidence is growing, too.
"I think the whole team realizes we've got something special going on," Lathers said. "We've got some guys that can make some special things happen."