Nov. 20, 2012
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Tennessee's loss at Kentucky last year is a feeling that has stuck with the Vols for the last 361 days.
The team knows it was the first loss in 26 years to the Wildcats, but is ready to start a new win streak Saturday.
Last season, despite a bowl bid on the line, the Vols walked into Commonwealth Stadium thinking they had an easy win on their hands.
This year, they have a new mentality.
"We just can't take a Saturday off," senior Zach Rogers said. "We went into Lexington last year thinking we were going to win it and, obviously, that wasn't the case. We came out flat-footed and they got after it. We won't let that happen again this Saturday."
Sophomore quarterback Justin Worley echoed that sentiment.
"We don't want that outcome again," Worley said. "That was kind of embarrassing last year, how we played and the way we conducted ourselves. We just can't look for that again."
As did senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner.
"I wouldn't say it eats at the team but it is in the back of our head," senior Prentiss Waggner said. "We know with the opponents that we face [this year] we talk about last year a little bit so, to face Kentucky knowing that we lost last year, there is sort of a chip on our shoulders to go out and get a victory."
Kentucky executed its game plan, something the Vols were unable to do, putting up their only points of the game with 12:52 remaining in the fourth quarter on a Rajion Neal touchdown.
The Vols plan on doing much more this season.
"After that game it was crazy," Waggner said. "I think Kentucky did a good job of making the plays but this year we have to do a good job of winning third downs, getting off the field and keep giving our offense a chance to make plays because this year we have an explosive offense and the more we get them the ball, the better."
Interim head coach and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows it is his job to end the season on a positive note and get a senior class, which he has coached alongside during his four-year tenure at Tennessee, a win.
"That is ultimately our job, to go win a football game," Chaney said. "You want nothing but the best for your football players. When you quit wanting that more than anything else, it is time to get out of the profession. We want to send these seniors out with a victory and let our younger kids taste that and know what it feels like to win a game here in Neyland Stadium and enjoy that victory and move on from there."
Sending the seniors out with a win has been the rally cry for the Orange and White at practice this week.
"I think it's just sending the seniors out right," senior Ben Bartholomew said. "The seniors have had a hard time here with all the coaching changes. We want to go out with a smile on our faces. So that's what we are playing for and I think that is a great motivational factor, especially with the senior leadership we have. I think all the guys respect the seniors. So I definitely think they will play for us.
"We are Tennessee. We know who we are and we know we have to come out and play our game to win."
THE NEW MOTTOThe Vols will go out Saturday, trying to begin a new win streak over Kentucky. But they have also adopted a new motto.
Playing for the seniors.
And the seniors are thankful.
The senior class, one that has been through more than any other Tennessee senior class during its time at Rocky Top, wants to go out with the sweet taste of victory.
"Earlier I was saying no matter how successful of a season you have or how bad of a season you have, if you lose that last game, that is going to be a bad taste in your mouth no matter what your record is," senior Prentiss Waggner said. "To come out with a win is going to be positive no matter what the record is."
"Our whole motto this week the whole team is buying into is playing for the seniors, leaving this thing in a bang and not worrying about what happened in the past and all of the distractions that are going on right now," senior Herman Lathers said. "So, we're just focused on going out and getting a win for the seniors."
The Vols' last week of practice for the 2012 season is currently underway, but the senior class is trying not to think too much about it.
"Words can't even explain it," Waggner said. "I still can't believe it. Me, Willie Bo and [Marsalis] Teague were talking about it today. Willie Bo was like `this is my last Tuesday practice ever.' And I was like `hey Willie Bo, don't say nothing like that, man. I don't even want to think about it.' It will be surreal.
"It is hard because when you get a little alone time you start thinking about stuff. Last night I was thinking about the emotions guys are going to have Saturday. My family has been texting me and telling me that they are going to be there to support me. It is going to be tough."
Ben Bartholomew, whose grandfather and brother both played at Tennessee, is thankful for his time donning the Orange and White.
"There have been a lot of coaching changes, but I love Tennessee and that's why I came here," Bartholomew said. "So I wouldn't change it for a thing. I'm happy. I've been so happy with my five years here now, so I'm just very thankful."
Lathers knows his time at UT didn't just help improve as a football player, but as a person as well.
"If you look at what all has happened, I think it made us better men," said Lathers. "We enjoy life and understand what happens because it's a business. But we enjoy everything that happened these last few years."
The Vols have kept their spirits high all season, but with it being the last week of practice, there is a fun feeling in the air.
"Guys know that this is the last week, they want to go out strong, they want to go out with a bang and they want to have fun this last week of practice," Waggner said.
"It hasn't really hit me yet, but I'm sure it will hit me Saturday after the game," Lathers said. "My main focus is just to just to go out and play for the seniors and just get a win."
VOLS KEEP ON KEEPING ONThis week's news has certainly been a distraction for the Vols, but that doesn't change the fact they there is a game on Saturday and they have continued to prepare for Kentucky just like every other opponent this season.
Tuesday's practice wasn't perfect but it was better than the day before and interim head coach Jim Chaney hopes the team continues that upswing all the way until kickoff at 12:21 p.m. on Saturday.
"In the meetings they were a little more alert," Chaney said. "I can't say their execution on the field today was the way you like it, they were real sluggish at times, but for the most part from the beginning to the end was a little bit better than it was yesterday and we anticipate it being better the following day. Hopefully, we will continue to build on that as we crescendo into the ball game."
Managing the team's emotions has been a challenge for Chaney, but his feeling is that the players are handling it professionally.
"It is hard to judge that," Chaney said. "I gather they are, but we are all human beings. They could be bottling it all up, you never really know. You talk, I think that is the easiest way to ease emotions is just through conversation. We are trying to do that with some of the kids that tend to be more emotional than others and continue to work towards the game on Saturday."
The Vols want to close out the season on a positive note and Chaney knows that any opponent in this conference presents a challenge.
"They are an SEC football team so they have SEC talent," Chaney said. "They fly around, they hit you on defense. Offensively there are enough players there to score enough points to beat you. Once again, our focus is completely on Tennessee and getting our mind right to execute and play the way we are capable of playing. That is 100% of our concern now."
WORLEY WORKING ON HIS GAMEAfter being thrust into the spotlight and making three starts as a true freshman, Justin Worley's sophomore campaign has been a little more low key with Tyler Bray setting records as the Tennessee starter.
That doesn't mean he is just sitting idly by, however. In fact, he is working as hard as ever to turn his weaknesses into strengths.
"[I have been working on my] foot speed, my throwing motion a little bit and just development within the offensive system," Worley said. "I think I addressed foot speed and arm motion throughout the offseason throwing with the guys in 7-on-7 and player-led things. It is hard to improve. I think Tim Tebow's been working on it for four or five years, so it is hard to work on. The mental side is always developing and I think that started from day one when we lost at Kentucky last year."
In his constant quest for improvement, Worley has a number of current NFL quarterbacks that he watches film on to dissect their abilities and find ways to apply what makes them successful to his own game.
"[I watch Philip Rivers] and I think Tom Brady is a great example," Worley said. "He brings the whole package. He has great feet, a great arm, the arm motion too. Peyton Manning as well. All three of those guys and Drew Brees as well. I watch a lot of Drew Brees."
Worley got a chance to put his improvement on display last Saturday, completing 8-of-11 passes for 51 yards while leading the Vols on three offensive drives against Vanderbilt.
He knows his work is far from complete though and is looking forward to continuing his development in the coming months.
"You just have to go in day-in and day-out and work and compete," Worley said. "This will be a big offseason for us considering we bring in a bunch of new freshmen. We are going to miss some of the seniors on the team, so this will be a big offseason for us."