KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s loss at Kentucky last year is a feeling that has stuck with the Vols for the last 361 days.
The team knows it was the first loss in 26 years to the Wildcats, but is ready to start a new win streak Saturday.
Last season, despite a bowl bid on the line, the Vols walked into Commonwealth Stadium thinking they had an easy win on their hands.
This year, they have a new mentality.
“We just can’t take a Saturday off,” senior Zach Rogers said. “We went into Lexington last year thinking we were going to win it and, obviously, that wasn’t the case. We came out flat-footed and they got after it. We won’t let that happen again this Saturday.”
Sophomore quarterback Justin Worley echoed that sentiment.
“We don’t want that outcome again,” Worley said. “That was kind of embarrassing last year, how we played and the way we conducted ourselves. We just can’t look for that again.”
As did senior cornerback Prentiss Waggner.
“I wouldn’t say it eats at the team but it is in the back of our head,” senior Prentiss Waggner said. “We know with the opponents that we face [this year] we talk about last year a little bit so, to face Kentucky knowing that we lost last year, there is sort of a chip on our shoulders to go out and get a victory.”
Kentucky executed its game plan, something the Vols were unable to do, putting up their only points of the game with 12:52 remaining in the fourth quarter on a Rajion Neal touchdown.
The Vols plan on doing much more this season.
“After that game it was crazy,” Waggner said. “I think Kentucky did a good job of making the plays but this year we have to do a good job of winning third downs, getting off the field and keep giving our offense a chance to make plays because this year we have an explosive offense and the more we get them the ball, the better.”
Interim head coach and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney knows it is his job to end the season on a positive note and get a senior class, which he has coached alongside during his four-year tenure at Tennessee, a win.
“That is ultimately our job, to go win a football game,” Chaney said. “You want nothing but the best for your football players. When you quit wanting that more than anything else, it is time to get out of the profession. We want to send these seniors out with a victory and let our younger kids taste that and know what it feels like to win a game here in Neyland Stadium and enjoy that victory and move on from there.”
Sending the seniors out with a win has been the rally cry for the Orange and White at practice this week.
“I think it’s just sending the seniors out right,” senior Ben Bartholomew said. “The seniors have had a hard time here with all the coaching changes. We want to go out with a smile on our faces. So that’s what we are playing for and I think that is a great motivational factor, especially with the senior leadership we have. I think all the guys respect the seniors. So I definitely think they will play for us.
“We are Tennessee. We know who we are and we know we have to come out and play our game to win.”
THE NEW MOTTO
The Vols will go out Saturday, trying to begin a new win streak over Kentucky. But they have also adopted a new motto.
Playing for the seniors.
And the seniors are thankful.
The senior class, one that has been through more than any other Tennessee senior class during its time at Rocky Top, wants to go out with the sweet taste of victory.
“Earlier I was saying no matter how successful of a season you have or how bad of a season you have, if you lose that last game, that is going to be a bad taste in your mouth no matter what your record is,” senior Prentiss Waggner said. “To come out with a win is going to be positive no matter what the record is.”
“Our whole motto this week the whole team is buying into is playing for the seniors, leaving this thing in a bang and not worrying about what happened in the past and all of the distractions that are going on right now,” senior Herman Lathers said. “So, we’re just focused on going out and getting a win for the seniors.”
The Vols’ last week of practice for the 2012 season is currently underway, but the senior class is trying not to think too much about it.
“Words can’t even explain it,” Waggner said. “I still can’t believe it. Me, Willie Bo and [Marsalis] Teague were talking about it today. Willie Bo was like ‘this is my last Tuesday practice ever.’ And I was like ‘hey Willie Bo, don’t say nothing like that, man. I don’t even want to think about it.’ It will be surreal.
“It is hard because when you get a little alone time you start thinking about stuff. Last night I was thinking about the emotions guys are going to have Saturday. My family has been texting me and telling me that they are going to be there to support me. It is going to be tough.”
Ben Bartholomew, whose grandfather and brother both played at Tennessee, is thankful for his time donning the Orange and White.
“There have been a lot of coaching changes, but I love Tennessee and that’s why I came here,” Bartholomew said. “So I wouldn’t change it for a thing. I’m happy. I’ve been so happy with my five years here now, so I’m just very thankful.”
Lathers knows his time at UT didn’t just help improve as a football player, but as a person as well.
“If you look at what all has happened, I think it made us better men,” said Lathers. “We enjoy life and understand what happens because it’s a business. But we enjoy everything that happened these last few years.”
The Vols have kept their spirits high all season, but with it being the last week of practice, there is a fun feeling in the air.
“Guys know that this is the last week, they want to go out strong, they want to go out with a bang and they want to have fun this last week of practice,” Waggner said.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I’m sure it will hit me Saturday after the game,” Lathers said. “My main focus is just to just to go out and play for the seniors and just get a win.”
VOLS KEEP ON KEEPING ON
This week’s news has certainly been a distraction for the Vols, but that doesn’t change the fact they there is a game on Saturday and they have continued to prepare for Kentucky just like every other opponent this season.
Tuesday’s practice wasn’t perfect but it was better than the day before and interim head coach Jim Chaney hopes the team continues that upswing all the way until kickoff at 12:21 p.m. on Saturday.
“In the meetings they were a little more alert,” Chaney said. “I can’t say their execution on the field today was the way you like it, they were real sluggish at times, but for the most part from the beginning to the end was a little bit better than it was yesterday and we anticipate it being better the following day. Hopefully, we will continue to build on that as we crescendo into the ball game.”
Managing the team’s emotions has been a challenge for Chaney, but his feeling is that the players are handling it professionally.
“It is hard to judge that,” Chaney said. “I gather they are, but we are all human beings. They could be bottling it all up, you never really know. You talk, I think that is the easiest way to ease emotions is just through conversation. We are trying to do that with some of the kids that tend to be more emotional than others and continue to work towards the game on Saturday.”
The Vols want to close out the season on a positive note and Chaney knows that any opponent in this conference presents a challenge.
“They are an SEC football team so they have SEC talent,” Chaney said. “They fly around, they hit you on defense. Offensively there are enough players there to score enough points to beat you. Once again, our focus is completely on Tennessee and getting our mind right to execute and play the way we are capable of playing. That is 100% of our concern now.”
WORLEY WORKING ON HIS GAME
After being thrust into the spotlight and making three starts as a true freshman, Justin Worley’s sophomore campaign has been a little more low key with Tyler Bray setting records as the Tennessee starter.
That doesn’t mean he is just sitting idly by, however. In fact, he is working as hard as ever to turn his weaknesses into strengths.
“[I have been working on my] foot speed, my throwing motion a little bit and just development within the offensive system,” Worley said. “I think I addressed foot speed and arm motion throughout the offseason throwing with the guys in 7-on-7 and player-led things. It is hard to improve. I think Tim Tebow’s been working on it for four or five years, so it is hard to work on. The mental side is always developing and I think that started from day one when we lost at Kentucky last year.”
In his constant quest for improvement, Worley has a number of current NFL quarterbacks that he watches film on to dissect their abilities and find ways to apply what makes them successful to his own game.
“[I watch Philip Rivers] and I think Tom Brady is a great example,” Worley said. “He brings the whole package. He has great feet, a great arm, the arm motion too. Peyton Manning as well. All three of those guys and Drew Brees as well. I watch a lot of Drew Brees.”
Worley got a chance to put his improvement on display last Saturday, completing 8-of-11 passes for 51 yards while leading the Vols on three offensive drives against Vanderbilt.
He knows his work is far from complete though and is looking forward to continuing his development in the coming months.
“You just have to go in day-in and day-out and work and compete,” Worley said. “This will be a big offseason for us considering we bring in a bunch of new freshmen. We are going to miss some of the seniors on the team, so this will be a big offseason for us.”
INTERIM HEAD COACH JIM CHANEY
(On putting together a perfect game)
“It crosses my mind about the team putting together a perfect game every time I go coach. That is why we coach, to strive for perfection. That is all I am in to, just trying to play good on Saturday.”
(On a more relaxed environment today)
“I didn’t notice that. I didn’t notice anything different as far as that. I really didn’t.”
(On participating in senior day activities)
“I will be on the field. Concerning the senior day aspect, we haven’t put a nail in that yet. Whatever Mr. Hart wants us to do I will be glad to do. I have known these kids a long time and they are good young men. I will gladly respect them in any way I can.”
(On Tyler playing for his spot)
“I don’t feel that way. I feel like Tyler knows he is the starting quarterback and he is looking forward to playing better than he did this previous week. I think he will play well.”
JUNIOR QB TYLER BRAY
(On Coach Chaney during practice)
“There are a few periods where he is not there and a few periods where we are off and working on our footwork and stuff but other than that it is the same.”
(On Coach Chaney)
“He is always himself. Coach Chaney is going to be the same whether he is a manager or head coach. It doesn’t matter.”
(On Coach Chaney being on the sidelines)
“It is going to be different. Normally he just calls and I already know what is coming, but he is on the sideline so we will see. It is going to be fun.”
(On playing for the seniors)
“I wouldn’t say that is all that is left. We always want to beat Kentucky, that is a big rivalry. We didn’t do it last year so we want to do it this year. This senior group has been a big help, not only to me but to the young guys that just got here. They showed us the ropes. Everyone that comes here knows how to play football but how it works, how to do things, how UT does it.”
(On Coach Dooley’s firing)
“I don’t want to say I expected it. Everyone knew it was going to come at some point with all of the media attention. We don’t care who is our coach. Coach Dooley did a great job, I would like to thank him for the three years and Coach Chaney needs to step in and we are going to get this win.”
SENIOR WR ZACH ROGERS
(On the team’s goals)
“We just want to go out on Saturday and get a win for this program. It’s been a disappointing season, to say the least, but the seniors definitely want to go out with a win.”
(On having Coach Chaney’s positive energy during this difficult time)
“It helps a lot during this tough time, obviously. He’s kind of keeping it light-hearted among us. But at the same time, we realize that we have a lot of work left to do and we’ve got this last game for the seniors.”
(On if last year’s loss at Kentucky still bothers the team)
“Absolutely. Any loss will eat away at you, but that one especially. We want to go out and avenge that one.”
RS SENIOR LB HERMAN LATHERS
(On if there has been any “let’s get this over with” moments with the team)
“I think everybody has those moments, especially when you go through a lot of injuries and you go through a lot of situations like I have. But as a leader on this team, as the strong person that I’ve always been, I’ve learned to fight through stuff and I’ve learned to put those thoughts in the back of my head and just move on. Things happen and you’ve just got to be a better man and rise from it.”
(On what’s been tougher for him, all of his injuries or the coaching changes)
“I’ll say all of my injuries – they limited what I wanted to do here. But I fought through it and overcame, so I’m grateful about that.”
(On what makes it so there’s still fight in this team)
“There’s definitely fight. The whole offseason we stuck together and throughout everything that’s happened this year. It wasn’t what we expected and what we thought was going to happen, but we fought all year. I think we’ve got a lot of fight still in us. We’ll see Saturday and hopefully we’ll come out with the result that we want.”
(On having Chaney as the head coach, if that changes things for the defense)
“It’s not a big difference. We go about practices the same. He’s always on the offensive field. We’re on the defensive field. Practice runs smooth, just like it would if Coach Dooley was here, but he’s not here. It still runs the same. The mood of the team and the way practice goes is the same. So, it’s all the same for us.”
RS SENIOR DB PRENTISS WAGGNER
(On if he wanted Coach Dooley on the sidelines for the Kentucky game)
“It really doesn’t matter. Coach Dooley made the best decision for the team, he always does. Like I said, Coach Dooley did a good job of molding young guys into men, he started the Vol for Life program and I think that is big for us. Throughout all the years he made all the right choices and made us into men.”
(On the motivation for Saturday)
“It can motivate guys a lot. With this last game, and guys wanting to win for the seniors, that is going to have guys give that much more effort with the amount of negativity going around here and the type of changes. That is a big plus.”
RS SENIOR FB/TE BEN BARTHOLOMEW
“Obviously, it is a little different with everything that’s happened. Other than that, practice is practice. We just went out there and worked hard today. I think it’s a testament to the team the way we have come out and practiced well.”
(On if there is more leadership this year than last)
“It is hard to measure leadership in that way. But I do think the leadership this year has done a good job of keeping the team together.”
(On the season)
“It is hard to believe. We had high expectations and I think we had a lot of potential, but we didn’t capitalize on it. That’s alright. That’s how things play out sometimes. I think we have a great team and our bond is really good. I think we are going to come together this last game.”
SOPHOMORE QB JUSTIN WORLEY
(On playing at Vanderbilt)
“It was exciting to get in. The outcome wasn’t great, but it is exciting to get in a game and lead the team down the field. I thought I did pretty well going in there. The second drive I got in after the interception we went down the field and kicked a field goal before the half. Losing 41-18, that hurts, especially to Vandy.”
(On Coach Dooley not returning)
“It hurts. It hurts to see that happen. He is a great guy and he led us well. I think Coach Chaney is doing a good job stepping in and kind of being Coach Dooley for this last game. There are a lot of mixed emotions, but it is part of the business sometimes.”
(On the team’s mood)
“We are excited to play against Kentucky. It is a rivalry game, we are playing for our seniors, everybody understands that. We’ve had a good attitude so far.”
(On when the coaches told him he might get an opportunity to play more)
“I think it was the South Carolina game where they told me to get ready and I might have a chance to play and from that week on I have taken a little bit better aspect mentally going into weeks of practice and tried to work on my game and work on the mental side of things.”
(On Coach Dooley being gone)
“It is weird not having that voice around, the head guy, but I think Coach Chaney has done a good job. We had a team meeting yesterday morning and he fired us up a little bit. I think he is going to do a good job stepping in.”
(On the senior class)
“I have a ton of respect for the seniors. They have been through it all. Anything you can imagine, they have been through it. I know a lot of the guys are looking at as we have to go play for these guys and not necessarily for the next season. This is for the seniors and to beat a rivalry team.”
(On why the season went the way it did)
“We lose 38-35 to South Carolina, we lose in four overtimes to Missouri, that hurts. I think if any one of these games, if the Florida game had gone differently, I think we would be sitting here definitely going to a bowl, at least. It is a little frustrating to reflect back on that.”
(On if there was a point in the season where he thought ‘time is running out’)
“I think the Missouri game kind of capped it off, losing in four overtimes after we were up 21-7 at half.”
(E-mail Stan Crawley at email@example.com)