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VOL. 131 | NO. 140 | Thursday, July 14, 2016

Does Tennessee Have its Swagger Back? Vols Say it Never Left

By Don Wade

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HOOVER, Ala. – This spring, senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin walked into the office of Tennessee head coach Butch Jones and asked permission to show the team a video he put together.

Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs rushed for two touchdowns and threw three TD passes in the Vols’ 38-31 victory over Georgia last year. UT is ranked 10th in ESPN’s preseason poll.

(Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

Jones didn’t even ask to preview the video, just gave Reeves-Maybin the go-ahead to run his 25-point presentation. Reeves-Maybin easily could have made this a highlight reel of himself. After all, he led the team with 105 tackles and 14 tackles for loss, plus had six sacks and forced and recovered two fumbles.

“The thing about leadership is, leaders eat last,” Jones said telling the story at SEC Media Days. “The first thing he did is show clips from different games of himself, whether it was a missed tackle or a missed communication, a missed fundamental in coverage, it started with him.

“Then he proceeded to go through all the critical plays – offense, defense and special teams. And a football game can come down to two or three plays that mean the difference between winning and losing, and you never which play it’s going to be. That play could be in the first quarter. You just never know.”

Certainty is elusive for any college football team, but last year the Tennessee had several near-wins become defeats. Now as the Vols – ranked No. 10 in the ESPN pre-season poll – prepare for their fourth season under Jones there is more anticipation and heightened expectations.

In 2013, Jones inherited a program coming off consecutive 5-7 seasons. His first team also went 5-7. But then came a 7-6 mark in 2014 and last season the Vols stepped up to 9-4, finishing on a six-game winning streak and with a 45-6 victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

The Vols beat a ranked Georgia team last season, but again couldn’t stop losing streaks to Florida (11 games, after blowing a 27-14 lead last season) and Alabama (9 games, after letting go of a 1-point lead with less than six minutes to play).

A big part of the plot line this season: For the Vols to take the next jump, they must beat Florida in their first SEC game of the season on Sept. 24 at Neyland Stadium. Reeves-Maybin doesn’t deny this, exactly, but he won’t go all-in on the Gators game.

“Every game is important,” he said. “You can’t slip up in college football. It’s not like basketball where you can lose a few games and get by. From outside there’s dissecting the schedule, but we just come in to work and know everything will handle itself.”

Reeves-Maybin, quarterback Joshua Dobbs and cornerback/punt returner Cameron Sutton were all members of Jones’ first UT team that lost more than it won.

“We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” Sutton said.

Jones has called them the program’s “catalysts.” All are seniors and were eligible to enter the NFL Draft after last season. Sutton gave the matter a lot of consideration, but ultimately decided returning for another year was best for all concerned.

“It is bigger than me; it impacts everyone around me,” Sutton said. “My teammates, the coaches, the university and the community. I realized it was another opportunity to do what I love with people I love.”

Sutton says his decision would have been the same even if the Vols were not on the rise. But they clearly are and many observers have them favored to win the SEC East title over a Florida team that might take a step back and difficult-to-evaluate Georgia team that will be under the direction of first-year head coach Kirby Smart, the former defensive coordinator at Alabama.

If nothing else, opportunity seems to have found Tennessee’s door. And the seniors know better than anyone else how difficult it was to reach this point.

“You look back at it,” Dobbs said, “and Cameron was my roommate freshman year. Jalen, Cam and I are all close. I look back on the times in the dorm room where we talked about where we wanted to get at this time in our careers.

“It really is great to look up and see what we have done and what is yet to be done.”

The field ahead is also clearer with the recent settlement of a $2.48 million lawsuit brought by several women over sexual assault allegations involving football players, among others, and the university’s response – or lack of response – to those allegations.

The low point came when a legal filing connected to the lawsuit included the accusation that Jones told a former UT receiver he had “betrayed the team” by helping a woman who said she was raped by other football players. Former Vols A.J. Johnson and Michael Williams are out on bond while awaiting trial on rape charges.

Asked how such issues will be handled going forward, Jones said at SEC Media Days, “We don’t look at it as something of the past or something that’s been settled. Everything is a teaching unit.”

The same holds true for what happens on the field this season with so much success expected.

“Over the last 18 games, we’re 13-5,” Jones said. “And the amazing thing is those five losses have come by a combined total of 25 points.”

Which is why Reeves-Maybin’s video was potentially so instructive. A play here, a play there … and who knows?

“The swagger never left,” Reeves-Maybin said. “We might have lost a couple of games (had a losing season), but as long as I’ve been here I’ve never seen guys fold and shy away from anything.

“We always bounce back. That’s what Tennessee is, the way we bounce back and keep pushing.”

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