VOLS BE­LIEVE they can thrive de­spite ac­claim.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Ten­nessee doesn’t mind adopt­ing an un­der­dog men­tal­ity a year af­ter the Vol­un­teers failed to meet pre­sea­son ex­pec­ta­tions.

The Vol­un­teers have been picked to fin­ish third in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence Eastern Di­vi­sion by the league’s me­dia. They didn’t have any first-team se­lec­tions on the me­dia’s pre­sea­son Al­lSEC team.

One year ago, Ten­nessee was the pre­sea­son East fa­vorite but ended up split­ting its eight con­fer­ence games.

“Right now we’re in the weeds,” se­nior safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. “No­body’s re­ally see­ing us, al­most like a snake in the grass. Our goal is to end up bit­ing some­body at the end of the day and mak­ing them pay.”

Ten­nessee will open pre­sea­son prac­tice July 29 need­ing to find a quar­ter­back to re­place Joshua Dobbs, who started 35 games over the last four sea­sons. It must find a new pass rusher fol­low­ing the loss of Philadelphia Ea­gles first-round draft pick Derek Bar­nett, the school’s all-time ca­reer sack leader.

But the Vols also will be free from the weight of ex­pec­ta­tions that bur­dened last year’s team.

Ten­nessee was ranked ninth at the be­gin­ning of the sea­son and raced to a 5-0 start be­fore split­ting its fi­nal eight games, in­clud­ing stun­ning de­feats at South Carolina and Van­der­bilt . An in­jury-rid­dled de­fense strug­gled to stop any­one down the stretch.

That slug­gish fin­ish and the un­cer­tain quar­ter­back sit­u­a­tion could help ex­plain why SEC me­dia picked Ten­nessee to fin­ish be­hind Ge­or­gia and de­fend­ing di­vi­sion cham­pion Florida in the East. Ten­nessee beat both Ge­or­gia and Florida last year.

Not only did Ten­nessee not have any first-team picks on the me­dia’s pre­sea­son all-SEC team, the Vols’ only sec­ond-team se­lec­tions were of­fen­sive line­man Jashon Robert­son and re­turn spe­cial­ist Evan Berry.

“I just look at it as kind of ir­rel­e­vant and go out and play my game,” tight end Ethan Wolf said. “Of course we don’t like hear­ing neg­a­tive things about our team, but we’re go­ing to come out and play as hard as we pos­si­bly can come Week 1, and the rank­ings, they’ll go from there.”

Other play­ers say they’re us­ing the lack of pre­sea­son ac­claim as in­cen­tive.

“I think it’s def­i­nitely mo­ti­vat­ing,” de­fen­sive end Kyle Phillips said. “We don’t have all the, I guess you would say, the high-pro­file play­ers. But we have heart. I’d say this team is prob­a­bly the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here team-wise, chemistry-wise and [with] people work­ing to­gether and in lead­er­ship roles and things like that. I’m re­ally ex­cited about this sea­son.”

Phillips and of­fen­sive line­man Jack Jones spent part of the summer among a con­tin­gent of Ten­nessee stu­dent-ath­letes vis­it­ing Viet­nam and work­ing with chil­dren in or­phan­ages and vol­un­teer­ing at sports camps as part of the school’s VOLead­ers pro­gram.

Both said they can ap­ply the lessons they learned in Viet­nam to foot­ball.

“Go­ing over there and work­ing with these kids in sport, you re­ally see that sports can bring any­one to­gether,” Jones said. “Step­ping back, we’ve got all these new fresh­men com­ing in, and they might be from all over the coun­try, but foot­ball’s bring­ing us to­gether.”



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