Tennessee says it's unfazed by high preseason expectations
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee believes it won't be distracted by its unfamiliar status as a preseason division favorite.
The Volunteers opened preseason practice Monday, returning the nucleus of a team that went 9-4 last year and ended the season on a six-game winning streak. Southeastern Conference media have picked Tennessee to win its first Eastern Division title since 2007.
''When your internal expectations are very high, it doesn't matter what the external expectations are,'' coach Butch Jones said.
This marks the first time since 2005 that SEC media have picked Tennessee to win a division, but that distinction comes with a caveat. Tennessee finished only 5-6 in 2005 despite being picked to win the entire SEC that year.
It wants to avoid a similar fate this season.
''We always have high expectations,'' Jones said. ''We expect to compete for championships. That's why you compete. But you have to follow the process, and it's a journey. The more time you spend talking about winning championships and expectations, you're wasting time. That's taking you away from the task at hand - and that's being a better football player and a better football team.''
Jones enters his fourth season as the Vols' coach with the most experienced team he's had at Tennessee. That has allowed him to lean on his upperclassmen to help teach the newcomers what's expected.
''If somebody's doing something they're not supposed to do, we can (correct) it,'' junior defensive end Derek Barnett said. ''He trusts us because we're older.
''It's different because since I've been here, we've always been a young team. It's the first year since I've been here we've been a veteran team.''
The only starters from last season's Outback Bowl blowout of Northwestern missing from this season's roster are offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, wide receiver Von Pearson, defensive tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil.
On offense, the Vols must find a left tackle to replace Kerbyson, a two-year starter. They also are seeking reliable targets for quarterback Joshua Dobbs, as the Vols haven't had anyone accumulate more than 618 yards receiving in each of Jones' first three seasons.
''We have to stay healthy on the perimeter of our offense,'' Jones said. ''When you look at it, we've been decimated with injuries (at receiver) the last two years. Everything in the throw game is about rhythm and timing and trust and consistency. It's kind of been a revolving door there.''
Tennessee's defense must replace the Randolph-McNeill duo at safety. Jones called it an ''extremely, extremely, extremely competitive'' situation. Candidates include Todd Kelly Jr., Rashaan Gaulden, Evan Berry, Micah Abernathy and freshman Nigel Warrior.
The Vols also must determine who will line up at cornerback alongside senior Cam Sutton, entering his fourth year as a starter. Justin Martin, Emmanuel Moseley, Malik Foreman and freshman Marquill Osborne are among the contenders for that spot.
But with much of the lineup relatively set, the biggest concern for Tennessee may be how it handles its status as the team to beat in the SEC East. Jones likes the mindset his team has shown throughout the offseason.
''As we all know, it's a long journey,'' he said. ''It's not a sprint. It's a marathon and every day is critical. We put a lot of work into this, a lot of work that really started since we walked off the field in Tampa (after the Outback Bowl).''
NOTES: Jones said defensive tackle Shy Tuttle will be ''very, very limited'' at the start of preseason practice. Tuttle is recovering from a broken fibula and torn ankle ligament that caused him to miss the final seven games last season. Jones said wide receiver Jauan Jennings also will be limited at the start of practice but is expected ''to be full-go here real shortly.''... Kelly is switching his jersey number from No. 6 to No. 24 this season to honor Zaevion Dobson, a Knoxville high school football player who was shot to death at the age of 15 last year while shielding two girls from gunfire. ... Offensive coordinator Mike DeBord will earn $580,000, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen will make $505,000 and running backs coach Robert Gillespie will make $480,000 this year according to contract information obtained Monday through a public records request. DeBord had made $505,000, Thigpen had made $405,000 and Gillespie had received $355,000 last season. Jones announced last month that Thigpen had added the title of defensive run game coordinator.
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