Tennessee: Best Quotes and Key Takeaways from SEC Media Days
The annual circus of quotes and craziness known as SEC media days is over, and it came and went without much earth-shattering news from the Tennessee Volunteers.
But that doesn't mean the appearance in Hoover, Alabama, for coach Butch Jones and three of his players—A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Mack Crowder—was devoid of newsworthy nuggets and sound bites.
It's likely going to be yet another rebuilding season for UT, but the message conveyed by the four Vols on hand in Hoover was one of guarded optimism.
Unlike recent years, the evidence that accompanies the hopeful words about the program's direction makes them stand out like Maggitt's orange-and-white-striped bow tie.
UT's upset victory over South Carolina in Jones' inaugural season, a top-10 recruiting class in the 247Sports Composite ranking and the continuity of holdover from an entire coaching staff are reasons to believe things are getting better on Rocky Top.
That was the prevailing feeling perpetuated by the orange contingent.
So, let's take a look at the most important topics discussed and what we can take away from UT's appearance at media days.
Head Coach Butch Jones
Receiving Corps Can Be Special
One of the things UT coach Butch Jones sounded most excited about is the makeup of his wide receiver corps.
After a difficult 2013 season, the Vols' stable of pass-catchers could be special; so much so, that Jones told the SEC world he has high expectations.
"Tennessee is the original 'Wide Receiver U,'" Jones said, according to UTSports.com. "That's one of the biggest changes in our football team, is the wide receiver position."
Given the news Jones shared on Tuesday that Alton "Pig" Howard, UT receptions leader from 2013, is back on the team after a hiatus, the Vols have everybody back. That includes physical freaks Marquez North and Jason Croom.
Add in Josh Malone and Von Pearson, and UT could shine.
Freshman Family Ties are Crucial
It's no secret that plenty of UT's 32 signees are going to play significant roles this year, but Jones said the group has changed the mentality on Rocky Top.
The number of youngsters who will play in 2014 is yet to be determined, but defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt said it'll be "more than 10."
Also, having six legacy players whose fathers or family members were Vols elevates the team's desire to get the program heading back in the right direction.
I think the thing where we've been aided and benefited from is we have six legacy players whose fathers played at the University of Tennessee and were great players. We want individuals that have grown up understanding the rivalry with Alabama, with Florida, understanding the traditions that we have at the University of Tennessee. So the legacy players have helped.
But this is a class that wanted to be at the University of Tennessee, and they take great pride and onus in having that upon their shoulders of getting Tennessee football back to its rightful place among the elite of college football.
There is always excitement surrounding recruiting classes, but because of the six players with family ties and nine instate commits from the incoming freshmen class, there are personal ties to the program that Jones believes are important.
Keeping Bama Rivalry Critical
Jones didn't shy away when asked about UT's stance on keeping the 6-1-1 format in the league that protects the Tennessee-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia rivalries, two of the most storied games in all of college football.
"It's in our DNA at the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama," he said. "They're very special to us. I think that's what kind of makes up the pageantry of college football."
Though, Jones did note that UT has a burden to make the rivalry "relevant" again.
The Vols aren't on a competitive plane with Alabama currently, but Jones doesn't think his program is too far away. Given the team's recent scheduling of Oregon and Oklahoma, the Vols aren't afraid to play anybody.
They want the opportunity to return Bama's current run of dominance when the time comes.
Junior Center Mack Crowder
Goal is a Bowl
Throughout its dominant run in the 1990s and 2000s, the expectations for Tennessee were through the roof.
But a recent lull, which has seen the Vols fail to make a bowl game since 2010 and limp to a 33-41 record since the beginning of the 2008 season, has led to modesty.
"Our goal is to get to a bowl game," junior center Mack Crowder said at SEC media days, according to The Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff. "I believe that's where we need to be."
Stunningly, there isn't a single football player on UT's current roster who has participated in a bowl game. The mighty have fallen far.
"We talk about [no bowl appearances] quite a lot," Curt Maggitt told Volquest.com's John Brice, Paul Fortenberry and Brent Hubbs (subscription required). "It's crazy. We've got some of our guys going into their last year and still haven't gone to a bowl game yet. But that's got to change."
There is hope that those tempered expectations can be met. If the Vols can take that logical step forward this season, it will be a big boost to Butch Jones' Tennessee tenure.
Offensive Line Sees an Opportunity
One of the biggest storylines for the Vols will be replacing both entire lines of scrimmage. Jones said at media days that UT is the only team in the nation that will have to do so.
That's a scary scenario for a team looking to make a bowl game for the first time in four years.
But while many see a concern, Crowder told reporters (per UTSports.com) that UT's offensive linemen see a chance to seize their time.
That is an opportunity for us to go out there and prove that we can play. We've obviously been in the background the past couple years and we are all really looking forward to going out there and showing what we have. What I'm hoping to accomplish is going out there and getting the job done, helping my team any way I can.
There's no sugarcoating the concern facing UT or the very real possibility that there will be major changes to speed up post-snap decisions if the line struggles. But Crowder showed no concern that the Vols' new group of linemen will be up to the challenge.
For Tennessee's sake, he'd better be right.
Junior Defensive End/Linebacker Curt Maggitt
Maggitt's Role Will Be Multiple
Considering he hasn't played since November of 2012, UT junior defensive end/linebacker Curt Maggitt probably doesn't mind where he lines up as long as he lines up.
But the Vols have decided to move the 6'3", 245-pound pass-rushing specialist to defensive end for much of the time. Maggitt has the athleticism to go back to his old outside linebacker position sometimes, too.
It's a versatile role that suits him, according to GoVols247's Wes Rucker (subscription required):
It's whatever we need. If it's third-and-long and we need to get a pass rush, I'll probably stand up. If they want me to have my hand down, I'll probably have my hand down a lot. If I need to stand up and play some linebacker—either Mike, Will or Sam —that's fine. Wherever I’m needed is fine. I'm wanting to learn the whole defense and be versatile.
The Vols need him to be.
With so much youth expected to be relied upon on that side of the ball, Maggitt's leadership and versatility are imperative.
UT has been terrible on defense the past two seasons, but there are a number of players who are going to be able to play various positions throughout all three levels. Matching up and putting more speed and athleticism on the field is going to help the Vols compete.
A healthy Maggitt is the glue that will hold everything together.
2013 Lessons Learned Will Help Vols
Few Tennessee football players probably want to recall much from last year's 5-7 football season. But beating South Carolina and coming close against Georgia are instances that do have redeeming qualities.
When asked about whether or not UT's 34-31 loss sticks with him, Maggitt said:
"Last season is behind us and we learn from it, peek at it, but we don't stare into the past. We're moving forward."
After fighting back from a deficit, UT receiver Pig Howard raced for the goal line for what would have been the go-ahead score in the extra session. Instead, he fumbled out of the end zone for a touchback. The Vols made the play to win in overtime, but the ball and the game slipped away.
UGA kicked the game-winning field goal on its possession.
While that game wound up a loss, UT made its own opportunity on the field to win. Then, the Vols went out two weeks later and beat South Carolina in Neyland Stadium. Those games count for confidence moving forward.
Senior Middle Linebacker A.J. Johnson
Johnson's Return to School Huge for UT
Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek received a major boost in rebuilding the Vols' defense when A.J. Johnson elected to return for his senior season at middle linebacker.
Though Wes Rucker of GoVols247 (subscription required) noted that "most analysts seemed to suggest [Johnson would] be drafted in the fourth, fifth or sixth round" had he come out after last season, Johnson didn't mention his draft grade being a factor.
Instead, he cited helping to build UT back up and getting a degree as main components, according to UTSports.
It was one of the toughest decisions I've had to make so far. The two things that really sold me on coming back were that when I came to Tennessee, I came here to build the program up and help to come back to a winning program. This is my senior year, so I'll have one more year to do that, and get some wins and leave a winner. The other big decision is I get to graduate in December and leave with a degree. That's going to help me throughout life.
Regardless of why he came back, Johnson will anchor UT's defense in 2014. His return is crucial to Tennessee's success. If he can improve his coverage skills and lateral quickness, it's going to really help him go higher in this year's draft and excel at the next level.
But just being able to write his name in ink in the middle of that lineup is pivotal for the Vols, especially considering they plan to surround him with much better athletes than they did a season ago.
Johnson told FOX Sports Tennessee's Greg Pogue: "I came [to Tennessee] to be a winner and win. I want to leave a winner."
'Legacy' Not Important
Johnson could move way up UT's career tackles list and finish as one of the most decorated linebackers in school history with a big season, but that really doesn't matter to him, he said.
He just wants to win.
"I'm not worried about a legacy," Johnson told VolQuest's Paul Fortenberry (subscription required). "I just want my legacy to be that I left Tennessee as a winner and a guy who played hard. I don't want any big legacy or anything like that. I just want to play football."
Jones already knows what he can expect from his senior and one of the leaders of the team.
"A.J. Johnson doesn't have bad practices. All you do is roll the footballs out there, and he's really to play football."
Bottom Line for the Vols
Sprinkled throughout Butch Jones' media day quotes are phrases like "down the road," "jumping the learning curve" and "a matter of time" which suggest that, no matter what hope this season holds, UT's best days are in the future.
It's not impossible for UT to shock the world. Auburn won just three games in 2012 before breaking out and making it to the national championship game a season ago.
But a lot would have to go perfectly for the Vols to make a monumental jump. Tempering expectations doesn't mean those expectations on Rocky Top will be lowered. Jones understand that, but he also realizes what's facing this year's Vols.
They "are still going through the realities of building a college football program," Jones noted.
"So for us the challenge is going to be to maintain our focus, having consistency in performance and really understanding what it takes to play winning football week in and week out."
That's not always easy to do when you employ a bunch of freshmen.
Tennessee's representatives in Hoover discussed getting the program aimed back toward respectability, developing the young players and taking important steps in 2014. None of those players mentioned a championship.
Jones believes Tennessee is going to get back to the top of the SEC. But it's clear by the media day comments it's realistically not going to happen this season.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here: @Brad_Shepard.
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