After a busy offseason, which included the addition of seven new assistant coaches, the Tennessee football team is back into action as spring football practice kicked off on Monday morning.
While coach Derek Dooley and his staff will be emphasizing and teaching many new things to their players this spring, such as the 3-4 defense they will use under new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri, the Volunteers’ third-year coach believes the top goal will be a renewed commitment of the team’s core values.
“Besides the obvious one of getting bigger, faster and stronger and improving our football-specific skills, it was important to me that we accomplished or made progress in two areas,” Dooley said. “One is just demonstrating winning edge values which was a big emphasis for us, kind of redefining our core values — what they stand for, things like discipline, toughness, effort and teamwork. Also secondly, demonstrating individual investment in being the best player and best team we can be. I was really proud of this football team over the last eight weeks. Everybody on the team showed significant opportunity in all those areas.”
Sophomore linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led all SEC freshman last season with 80 tackles, understands the meaning of core values.
“It’s about doing the little things right,” Johnson said. “Running on and off the field, touching the line when you’re supposed to touch the line, and just believing in each other and building as a family.”
The Gainesville, Ga. native is focused on working hard this spring and becoming a leader.
“I’m going to go out and work hard every day and do what I’m supposed to do and push other people to do the right thing,” Johnson said.
Another player that the Vols will be looking to and expecting to understand their leadership roles this spring will be junior quarterback Tyler Bray.
“He’s taken some good steps already this offseason,” Dooley said. “I’d like to see him have a greater command of the offense and understanding the leadership component of being quarterback.”
Bray, who has compiled 3,832 passing yards and 35 touchdowns in his career at UT, feels confident he can step up as a leader on the team.
“I try to be a leader as much as possible,” Bray said. “I kind of struggle with it, but I have been working on it. This year I am trying to get my act together and get this team where it needs to be.”
Senior linebacker Herman Lathers will also be making his comeback this season after fracturing his left ankle last summer, which kept him from playing in any games last season. He is expected to play in the middle linebacker role this year, closer to the ball.
“It feels good to be back into action and knowing I’ll be able to hit soon again,” Lathers said. “It’s not exactly normal, but it’s about 85-90 percent. Hopefully it’ll be 100 percent by the beginning of the season.”
Lathers is confident in Sunseri, who coached outside linebackers at Alabama the past three seasons.
“Coach Sal is a good guy and I’m glad to have him here,” Lathers said. “I played in a 3-4 in high school and I like to move around and show different fronts and schemes and show who’s coming and who’s not coming. Everybody is going to have to fight for a position this spring with the new coaches.”
Depth looks to be improved this season for the Vols as well, with all but three starters returning. However, following and working hard on the team’s core values will be the biggest determining factor of success this season.
“The core values that we play with are more important than any play we can put in,” Dooley said. “If we commit to it every day and we perform like that on Saturday, it will mean a lot more to winning and losing than the other stuff.
“I think that when you define what your program stands for, it doesn’t mean anything if you’re not reinforcing it every day.”