As with any other college football team kicking off their summer workouts, new Tennessee head coach Lane Kiffin has high hopes for the upcoming season. Coming off a 5-7 season doesn't seem to be a valid excuse for failure to the young head man.
"We just thought we were in this thing by ourselves last year, not having anybody on our side. We were 5-7. So when he comes in and says that he has confidence in us, basically, and saying that he has faith in us, I mean, the team went crazy," said Eric Berry, a junior safety that Kiffin and UT's Athletic Department are promoting for the Heisman Trophy.
Over the past several months, there have been many instances where the Vols were in the national spotlight in the media. According to Kiffin, most of those were by design, but some were not.
However, that exposure has given this coaching staff and football team some momentum. The Vols have gotten commitments recently from two highly rated prospects and a visit from the nation's No. 1 wide receiver, Kyle Prater.
The first few practices of every summer begin with an acclamation period where the players don't don full pads and there's not any tackling involved. In the sweltering summer heat of East Tennessee, the adrenaline, excitement and intensity of a new coaching staff has created a practice atmosphere some players are most likely seeing for the first time.
According to various reports, "touch" drills have turned into full-on tackling situations. A couple of coaches have hinted things may have gone a little further than they intended, and were going to try to dial things down a little.
Obviously, one of the biggest questions going into the 2009 season is the UT quarterback situation. Through the first couple practices, there still seems to be some struggles with both Nick Stephens and Jonathan Crompton.
"Yeah, I think we gotta continue to get better there. We have made some decisions we'd like to take back, and we have to continue to get in the same plays and we continue to install and put a lot on them, so, eventually we'll slow down," said Kiffin.
"I like their grasp of the offense, we just gotta make better decisions at times."
Decisions were a big problem in the 2008 season for both Crompton and Stephens, and there's no doubt that it's a huge concern for this team in 2009. If the offense is going to improve, this is an area that is absolutely critical.
Perhaps one of the bigger surprises of the first few practices has been the strong showing of freshman running back David Oku. Oku, the No. 1 all-purpose back in the nation according to Rivals.com, was possibly going to red shirt before fellow freshman Toney Williams tore his ACL.
Williams had a great showing in the spring and losing him hurt, but Oku's showing could soften that blow.
"David Oku continued to come out and have two great practices in a row, which is really great to see because you are always worried about having one practice and not being able to back it up again," said Kiffin.
All in all, Kiffin has lived up to his word. When he was hired at Tennessee, he was very clear and adamant that the freshmen would get the first shots in the summer to earn playing time and that's exactly what's happened.
Among the rookies that have run with the first team are Bryce Brown, Janzen Jackson, Darren Myles, and Jerod Askew, just to name a few. Kiffin is counting on those guys, and more, to contribute early and often.
Coming out of the first few days, it's obvious Kiffin is most confident and excited about his defensive secondary. Led by all everything Eric Berry, the Vols return several players who have started, and bring in several highly rated recruits to the mix.
"I think what you are seeing is a unique depth in the secondary," said Kiffin. "Probably easily our deepest position and so what happens is, a lot of times the twos go in and there's someone you can pick on and go after. But when our twos go in, right now Brent Vinson and Dennis Rogan are in our twos so that's pretty tough guys to go against."
This coming Saturday, practice will move into full pads and full contact. Everyone knows that's when you determine who the real football players are. For Tennessee, it will be a chance to find out if the physical, intense nature of the offseason has brought actual improvement.
It will also be a chance for hyped freshmen like Bryce Brown and David Oku to go out there and show they can perform while being hit by bigger, faster athletes than they've ever competed against.
Summer is an exciting time, everyone starts learning what their team is going to look like, and Lane Kiffin is showing Tennessee fans he intends on this team looking drastically different than the 5-7 squad they watched last season.
*Sources for quotes in this article were taken from GoVolsXtra, Volquest.com and general media appearances.
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