Team 121 unity mirrors unity following Manning's UT departure
When Peyton Manning played at Tennessee it was mostly all about him.
That’s not to be taken in a negative way, but he was the focal point for his Tennessee teams, especially from a media standpoint.
Phillip Fulmer was given quarterback Heath Shuler as a holdover from the end of the Johnny Majors’ era on Rocky Top. Shuler was Fulmer’s signal-caller in his first full season as head coach in 1993.
Then Shuler left for the NFL a year early, selected third overall by Washington in 1994.
Fulmer needed Manning to jump start his program, and that he did as a 3 1/2-year starter. After Manning took over at quarterback, the Vols won seven of eight games to close the 1994 season. Over the next three seasons, UT went 32-5, beating Alabama each year, and won the SEC championship in 1997 as Manning closed out his college career.
Again, without being negative, the attention was centered on Manning from a media standpoint and deflected away, for the most part, from the rest of the team.
So 1994-1997 was much like 2013-2016 for Tennessee football.
Butch Jones needed to build the program from the ground up following Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley’s lack of leadership guiding the program in a four-year period.
Jones needed a core group of players to help bring attention back to the program.
Thus, the spotlight shone on Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara, Cam Sutton, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Josh Malone. Their importance in building the program back up resulted in UT having permanent captains for the first time in five years.
Jones named Dobbs, Kamara, Sutton and Reeves-Maybin captains at halftime of the Orange and White spring game in 2016.
All seven players were great individuals on and off the field.
Now Team 121, on the field, will deal with life after the core seven, and it is already apparent that it is a closer-knit squad and not a star player-led team like Team 120.
Players such as Trey Smith and Quay Picou have been ring leaders from a vocal standpoint since this spring.
Jones has referenced Team 121 as “new energy,” and said there’s “a lot of excitement and fresh perspectives from the five new coaches.”
A lot of times watching Tennessee last year, players did not seem to be on the same page and appeared to have a disconnect from certain other players.
The disconnect was apparent from game one against Appalachian State, which took a Dobbs-to-Malone deep touchdown pass to keep the Vols alive and later a Hurd fumble recovery in the end zone to secure an overtime win.
The continuous downward spiral of what appeared to be a lack of unity and accountability carried over into another close-call victory over Ohio, and then bad starts against Virginia Tech, Florida, Georgia and Texas A&M.
Losses to Alabama and South Carolina were the tipping point to an unusual season that did not show signs of accountability for all players’ actions and even resulted in prized recruits Hurd and wide receiver Preston Williams leaving the team.
A lack of accountability in the strength program also showed as injuries mounted as the season went on. The lack of accountability resulted in a change to Rock Gullickson coming in from the NFL to oversee the strength program.
Jones is ready for a total team effort and accountability in 2017 following a season of dysfunction and all eyes on the core seven.
“We have challenged our players in three areas: details, accountability and toughness,” Jones said. “It is really about zeroing in on the details and turning it up a notch.
“Turning it up in terms of details with everything that we do from a fundamental standpoint, from a communication standpoint … accountability to each other, accountability in terms of the way we communicate … accountability off the field with going to class and accountability to what it means to play at The University of Tennessee. And overall toughness, not just from a physical standpoint, but from a mental standpoint, too.”
The unity of Team 121 can be a gateway to lead the program in taking the next step in winning the SEC East, much like unity helped the 1998 Volunteers win the national championship following Manning’s departure.