UT practice from Thursday night
The whistles and thuds from practice on Haslam Field echoed into the indoor facility Thursday.
Inside, a couple dozen volunteers from the student body showed up for a walk-on tryout.
The last time Tennessee was preparing for a football season under a new coach, one or two of those guys might have actually gotten in the opening game.
This week three years ago, the Vols were getting ready to open what the new coach, Derek Dooley, would call Year Zero.
A walk-on freshman, Joseph Ayres, started in an SEC game at defensive tackle. Darrin Gooch, an unheralded summer find, took over at center in the second game against Oregon after the starter was knocked out for the year.
By October, three true freshmen were starting in the offensive line.
A freshman who had spent the past four years playing minor-league baseball was the starting safety by mid-season.
“Back then, it wasn’t a lot of security,’’ Brent Brewer, that former minor-leaguer, said Thursday. “We really didn’t know much. We were just going day by day.’’
Brewer and several of the other survivors of Year Zero are seniors. To a man, they praise this new coach, Butch Jones, for making this transition less anxious than the previous one.
“It seems a lot more steady right now than it’s ever been since I’ve been here,’’ defensive end Corey Miller said.
Miller was recruited by Kiffin — remember the Orange Pride episode? — but found Dooley when he arrived. He started his second game, so depleted by attrition was the roster.
“I was nervous as all get-out,’’ Miller said. “I feel the freshmen we have now are gonna be prepared for that by the situations we’re put in each and every day at practice.’’
Dan Hood had signed with Kiffin and redshirted in 2009. He sees a stark comparison in the coaching staffs. Unlike Dooley, Jones has a history with nearly all his assistants.
“That bond, that connection, we can feed off that,’’ Hood said. “If (strength) coach (Dave) Lawson doesn’t do a workout the right way, he feels like he’s let Coach Strip (Steve Stripling) down. He feels like he’s let Coach (John) Jancek down.’’
Every senior I talked to stressed the family atmosphere Jones has fostered from his first day. Hood has a favorite story:
“Every coach brought their family in front of (the team) and introduced their family. He (Jones), is like, ‘This is who you guys represent, too. If you don’t go out and play, they don’t eat.’
“It was one of those moments you really put a face on those people.’’
When Rajion Neal remembers the weeks before the 2010 opener — the Vols beat UT Martin 50-0 — it’s the loneliness that comes back. He was the only tailback in the freshman class.
Neal said the veterans are making certain the 2013 freshmen feel as if they never have to walk alone.
“Coach Jones preaches nothing but family,’’ Neal said. “We do a great job of spending time, making these guys feel welcome and confident and prepared when it’s time to go play.’’
It’s almost time to go play. And Hood notes another contrast between 2010 and 2013. There won’t be any rookie walk-ons starting at defensive tackle and there won’t be three freshmen starting on the offensive line.
“Anytime your offensive line and defensive line are your most solid units,’’ he said, “it always feels more stable. Because that’s where the bulk of the game is played.’’
It might not be 1998, but it’s not Year Zero either.