Aug. 26, 2014
By Brian Rice
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - The journey from spring practice to off-season workouts to training camp has been long, even uncertain at times, but the next step, game day, is the most uncertain.
Butch Jones described Sunday night's opener against Utah State as a journey into the unknown with his young football team. A situation where they will face an experienced football team in Utah State, with a high-powered offense fueled by quarterback Chuckie Keeton.
"The first games are the games of the unknowns," Jones said at his first weekly press briefing of the 2014 season. "We probably have more unknowns than anyone else in the country. How will your players respond?"
The depth chart released Monday listed 28 freshmen and sophomores and just six seniors. Three true freshmen, right guard Jashon Robertson, defensive end Derek Barnett and tight end Ethan Wolf, are slated to start their first collegiate game.
"We have to be disciplined, assignment sound and handle turnovers," said Jones. "The winner of the first game usually manages the turnovers. They don't beat themselves. They play well on special teams, and they tackle. Being a good tackling team is going to be very critical for us throughout the entire year. We also need leadership. How will we respond to the adversities brought by game situations?"
The newcomers had the opportunity to get accustomed to a game situation at Tennessee's open practice on Aug. 16 and have had crowd noise blasted at them from the speakers that line Haslam Field during practice each day. The preparation helps, but a couple of returning Volunteers said the freshman had to be ready for their own journey into the unknown.
"I tell the guys to be mentally locked-in 24/7," sophomore wide out Marquez North said. "It's going to be a loud crowd roar, but with the preparation we do, we should be able to handle that."
Senior quarterback Justin Worley had similar advice for his younger teammates.
"Keep your head on straight, try to block out the noise," Worley said of his conversations with the Vol newcomers. "It's going to be loud, different than the piped-in crowd noise that we have in practice. Handle the situation, handle the elements and you're going to be alright."
North understands the adjustment the freshmen will face. He was one of three freshmen that started the opener against Austin Peay in 2013 and grew into his role as the season went on.
"There's always going to be nerves," North said. "Just coming in from high school, it's a big step from playing in front of a crowd of 1,000 to playing in front of 102,455."
That's exactly the crowd that Jones expects to see on Saturday night, with only limited tickets left for the game and the remaining passes being sold "briskly." The head coach wants to give those fans the show they expect, but also wants to see the team use it as a launching point for the rest of the season.
"One bad day takes you away from all your dreams, goals and aspirations," Jones said. "You put so much training into the start of a season, but for this football team we've talked about that power of one. We have to continue to get better and better game in and game out. We have to have that focus each and every day."