Above all else, Tennessee fans want the team to be better. Better than 2013. They want senior QB Justin Worley cooler, calmer, and more consistent. They want his arm stronger, and his receivers’ routes smoother. They don’t care if the offensive line is younger, or the defensive line is smaller.
On a positive note, through the first few practices, one word seems to describe Team118: faster. That is certainly a welcome change. However, in my opinion, there is a word more important than faster or deeper. There is one word that makes those team labels possible.
That word is smarter. Butch Jones places just as much, perhaps more, emphasis on mental conditioning as he does physical conditioning. While commenting on the team’s strength improvements, he reiterates, “This is a thinking man’s game. You can’t let the mind tie the feet up.” Translated: It does not matter that we are in great shape if we do not win the mental game. The famed legacy class is popular for three reasons: recognizable names, standout talent, and proper rearing as football players. The head coach’s emphasis on film study and winning all mental aspects of the game blends perfectly with the pedigree of Team118 members, young and old. Feedback from players themselves and from coaches on the smarts of the 2014 Volunteers and the collective football IQ of the 2014 recruiting class has been exclusively positive. The emergence of this feedback lines up with all of the hype and hope Tennessee fans have for the 2014 recruiting class. Instincts and mental discipline, two things that lead to playing with speed and confidence, are fixed commodities on the 2014 Volunteers.
Discussion of “football IQ,” like almost everything else regarding Tennessee’s 2014 season, seems to begin and end with the 2014 recruiting class. Former Tennessee and NFL stars passed on their athletic genes and their appreciation for guaranteeing that the mind allows the feet to flow freely. If Tennessee is going to be successful, championship habits and mental discipline must become second-nature. Football IQ, a term that sounds all-natural, actually comes from hard work and strict mental discipline. It is earned in the film room, and those recruits who I will affectionately label “film-rats” have an advantage. Football nerd and all-too-obvious film-rat Dillon Bates credits his father for being the stone on which he sharpens his football IQ. Bill shows Dillon the value of studying football 24/7/365, learning every day about different assignments, and knowing not only one’s job on a play, but why that job is important.
Elliott Berry, in a July “legacy” media session, shyly and begrudgingly admits to carrying around notebooks of offensive and defensive plays since he was a child. He explains that he always loved watching football and began to imagine different things on paper. Thank goodness, a film rat was born. Elliott has been thinking in terms of Xs and Os for as long as he can remember, and when asked what he needs to do to be ready for camp and the season, Elliott, without hesitation, replied, “Make sure I know exactly what to do on every play.” Elliott and Evan should give plenty of credit to their natural athleticism for putting them in the position to be on an SEC roster. Impacting the SEC as freshmen, however, will stem direction from being smarter than those with similar skillsets. If a football player, no matter the talent level, has to slow down and think about what he is doing, he cannot reach his full potential. He can’t be as hard to block, he can’t close as quickly he should, and he can’t recognize a route tree and make an interception. Every team’s shifts, cadences, and formations should incite an almost unnerving, deja vu reaction in the minds of Tennessee’s defensive players.
Championing the mental game is not lost on non-legacy recruits. Jalen Hurd, in an early-fall media session, explained that the mental game is the biggest difference while trying to adjust from high school to college football. He realized this shortcoming soon after enrolling in January and immediately hit the books. He knew the label of “good runner” was not quite good enough to be successful at the college level. Spring practice afforded Jalen the real-time reps needed to mentally prepare for the 2014 season. He got into the playbook, ran through schemes, and critiqued Madden football pass-protection philosophies as his friends played in the dorm, because he knows good isn’t good enough. And he isn’t alone. Ethan Wolf, another physically-imposing freshman at an offensive skill position, recalls his realization of the mental game’s importance. “You have to know where to line up,” Ethan said. “It is a very fast game, and you have to know what to do when seeing different defenses,” He continued. Jalen and Ethan were wide-eyed with enthusiasm about how much progress was made from January 1 to July 31. They made the most of their apartment subleases, one might say. Twelve feet, eight inches, and 467 pounds of film rat.
There is a welcome outbreak, a cordially-invited epidemic, of obsessive preparation for the 2014 season. Dillon Bates saw his brothers play college football at Arkansas State and Northwestern, and his Dad give all he had for Tennessee. Vic Wharton saw his Uncle, Brandon, put in the work to be a successful SEC basketball player. Todd Kelly, Jr. learned about Tennessee football and camp preparation from his namesake. The Berry twins know about the star potential on the horizon after seeing their older brother become a living Tennessee legend. Jalen Hurd and Ethan Wolf are young, physical specimens who came in and immediately benefited from realizing the importance of the mental game. All of this energy, whether it stems from Vic Wharton, Butch Jones, or the plurality of newcomers on the roster, makes the 2014 Volunteers smarter, and, before long, more instinctual than versions in the recent past.
Coaches are taking notice, too. The atmosphere in position-group meetings seems vastly different. In my opinion, one of the reasons for harsh evaluation from Butch Jones so far in fall camp is that he knows these young players can handle the mental grind. He knows they will respond, because they know they have to respond. They have the physical gifts necessary to flourish, and he knows the team is ready to be held to a higher standard. Coach Thigpen is excited when he mentions Dillon Bates’ tendency to show up in every meeting with a long list of questions. Coach Mahoney acknowledges the mental advantage of being an early enrollee, explaining Blair and Thomas’ benefitting from experience in the offense. This head start will allow us to play at the proper pace in game one. Coach Martinez excitedly discussed the “extremely high football IQ” on the 2014 Tennessee Volunteers. Perhaps due to the pedigree and enthusiasm of 32 newcomers, the team is displaying championship habits. More than the usual number of recruits were encouraged, by their families and by Tennessee’s coaching staff, to think in terms of finding immediate success on the football field. Fortunately, that field will be Shields-Watkins.
It’s a thinking man’s (and a thinking fan’s) game, and I think we are going to like what we see.