KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones pressed play, and the video screen in his office sprang to life. On that screen, three Cincinnati players in black jerseys clashed with three in white jerseys. Their teammates surrounded them. When the offensive group (two linemen and a back) bested the defensive group (two linemen and a linebacker) the rest of the offense swarmed the victors in celebration.
Jones had run the same drill with his Tennessee players recently, and he saw few signs of life. Teammates didn’t race to the middle of the circle to celebrate pancake blocks or gap-shooting tackles. Jones asked himself why. Because, he realized, the young Volunteers don’t know that’s what they’re supposed to do. The video, which Jones requested this week from his former team, came from Jones’ third year in Cincinnati. He had already established a culture. His players understood. These mere babes at Tennessee? It might take a while. “People have no idea,” Jones said on Wednesday. “None. It’s like an expansion team with 17-year-olds.”
When Jones says “expansion team,” he isn’t referring to his program's talent level. Tennessee’s freshman class is as talented or more talented than just about every freshman class in America. But few of those classes are being relied upon the way the freshmen at Tennessee are. So far, 22 true freshmen have played in victories over Utah State (38-7) and Arkansas State (34-19). Jones hadn’t finalized his travel roster on Wednesday for Saturday’s visit to Oklahoma, but depending on his last few choices, between 47 and 50 percent of the travel squad would be making its first collegiate road trip. Jones estimated that about a third of the group would travel on a plane for the first time. “We’re raising a football team,” Jones said.
Upon its arrival in Norman, a Tennessee team with 13 freshmen or redshirt freshmen position players on its two-deep depth chart will face an Oklahoma team with 12 fifth-year seniors, seniors or redshirt juniors on its two-deep. Certain denizens of Las Vegas are not confident in the Volunteers’ chances. They have been installed as three-touchdown underdogs. Tennessee coaches say they’re going to Oklahoma to win a football game, but they understand the reality. The lessons learned on Saturday will serve their team for years regardless of the result.
In the meantime, Vols coaches must remember that almost everything is new to a large chunk of their players. “You cannot assume,” Jones said, “that they know one thing.” That means coaches must deliver some rudimentary lessons. Jones showed his team a graphic this week pointing out that injury risk is inversely proportional to the amount of sleep a player gets. Meanwhile, receivers coach Zach Azzanni must remind his group to remember the playbook and to accessorize. "It's everything," Azzanni said. "The tip sheets aren’t ‘I need a 12-yard dig on this play.’ It’s ‘bring your tie’ and ‘bring your socks.’”
It's a safe bet that Bob Stoops and his Oklahoma assistants won't have to load up on reminders for their veteran-laden group. However, Tennessee coaches accept the situation, and they're excited about the possibilities if they do their jobs correctly during the learning process. "We’re building a program. We’re building a culture. We’re building an identity. It takes time," Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. "We’ve got good, young players in our program. But when you look at Oklahoma, those guys have been redshirted. They’re juniors and seniors. They’re 22-year-old men. That’s what I want here.”
On Tennessee's roster, a few of former coach Derek Dooley's signees have emerged as leaders and thrived. Quarterback Justin Worley and linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt provide veteran stability at their positions. But Dooley hit on so few of his recruits -- he signed zero offensive line prospects in 2012, which is absolute coaching malpractice -- that Jones and company have had to plug in players signed in ‘13 or ‘14 at many positions.
The case of offensive guard Jashon Robertson exemplifies Tennessee's situation quite well. Robertson came to Knoxville this summer from Nashville's Montgomery Bell Academy as a defensive tackle. He had played offensive line in high school, but he figured his future was on defense. From the moment he arrived on campus, Robertson worked with the defensive linemen and hoped to learn enough of the scheme to crack the depth chart once preseason camp began. During the first week of camp, coaches moved the 304-pound Robertson to guard. By the week of the Utah State game, he was atop the depth chart at right guard. On Saturday, Robertson must block Jordan Phillips, a 334-pounder in his fourth season in Oklahoma's program. When Robertson is uncovered, he could wind up blocking fifth-year senior linebacker Geneo Grissom.
Those are troubling matchups. But the lessons that Robertson learns this Saturday could help him during his entire Tennessee career. The last Volunteers player to start on the offensive line in his first college game was Ja’Wuan James, who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Miami Dolphins in May.
Still, before most of these Vols can worry about draft slots, they must worry about packing their ties and socks. With a game at Oklahoma this week and a trip to Georgia on Sept. 27, they'll learn exactly how good they must be if they hope to bring Tennessee back to college football's upper echelon as sophomores, juniors and seniors. “The exciting thing is that this football team is going to be around for a very, very long period of time," Jones said. "That’s why we can’t take any shortcuts. There will be no shortcuts taken because you’ll pay the price of those shortcuts two years from now."
With visits to Norman and Athens in consecutive weeks, Jones' team is taking the most difficult road available.