KNOXVILLE — Tennessee instantly looked like a different team when it kicked off against LSU six days after the firing of Butch Jones.
Jones’s picture remained displayed on the back of the Neyland Stadium Jumbotron, but that seemed to be the only vestige of his five-year tenure as head coach that remained.
The Vols were energized from the start, with players on the sideline jumping up and down with spirit. That’s something that hadn’t been seen much from Team 121, and seemed to indicate that the coaching change had brought with it a sense of relief.
The spirit on the sideline translated to spirit on the field, too.
Formations looked different from Jones’ standard shotgun sets, and the play-calling seemed more traditional and more typical of an SEC offense.
The same can be said about the play on defense, as UT linebackers were placing their teammates in position and playing a more swarming, cohesive style.
Credit goes to interim head coach Brady Hoke, who had full control of the squad throughout the week as the staff and players collectively turned the page from the Jones era.
“I thought as a team, they did a nice job throughout the week coming to work every day,” Hoke said following Saturday night’s 30-10 loss to LSU. “The focus was good.”
Although the Vols did not come out victorious in a game played in a monsoon-like rain storm, they did begin the work of fixing the program’s problems.
“Coach Hoke definitely came in with a great mindset this week for us,” senior defensive lineman Kendal Vickers said. “I think we all bought in to what he has been preaching to us about, playing for our seniors, and how we had two more opportunities.
“I think that was really important, because we really care about each other as a team. These seniors have been here for four or five years, and we want to end the season on a good note.”
Hoke said the players dealt with the change in a positive way throughout the week and were “locked in” by Friday.
Things were changed up for the staff, too. Hoke had offensive coordinator Larry Scott by his side on the sidelines compared to being upstairs in the booth under Jones’ direction. The move also correlated with quarterbacks coach Mike Canales moving to the coaches’ booth from the sidelines.
“It was good to be able to talk to him face-to-face and him understand what’s going on,” senior tight end Ethan Wolf said. “It was definitely a change, and it was a change that I liked. I don’t think in my four years that my position coach has ever been on the field, so it was definitely a nice change to have.”
In the end, the final result looked much the same. Two dropped punts and too much Derrius Guice — driving at least as hard as the pelting rain — were too much to overcome for an over-matched Team 121.
But some things clearly looked different. And maybe there’s a ray of hope in that.