In their words: What it's like to step inside Tennessee's Circle of Life drill
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Circle of Life drill has became a staple in Butch Jones’ program. And it carries over to the locker room.
It’s the ultimate form of one on one. One winner. One loser. Big guys love it. Little guys tolerate it. Everybody understands the purpose: Separating dogs from pups.
The team forms a circle around the two players going head-to-head as they try to drive-block to the whistle — or, ideally, the ground. Jones calls Circle of Life a drill that “gets the energy going in practice.”
What is it like to step inside that circle and plant your hand in the dirt? The Vols explained the passion, the ferocity, the pride, the purpose to Saturday Down South.
“Everything you have worked for your whole life, all comes down to this one moment,” defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo said as a smile spread across his face.
“It’s you and the man in front of you, you have all of your teammates, and if you win you’re the hero, if you lose no one knows you anymore. That’s kind of how it is in the Circle of Life.”
Added Darrin Kirkland Jr.: “It’s fun, it’s a dog-eat-dog drill. If you’re not a dog, it’s not really fun.”
Sometimes a player knows if it is his time to be called on, but a lot of times hearing Jones call your name is unexpected. Nobody is safe or protected.
Quarterback Quinten Dormady said he “kind of knew it was coming” his freshman year going against Jauan Jennings when the receiver was still a quarterback.
“I knew Coach (Jones) was going to call us out, it was just waiting for when,” Dormady said.
Running back Carlin Fils-aime said that Jones will sometimes “write down people that he wants to go in the circle to see if they are tough or not.” But the “majority of the time it’s just right off the top of his head” calling out players’ names and is a “random pick.”
Tight end Ethan Wolf knows the drill well and has some advice: Be ready. “There really isn’t enough time for anticipation,” Wolf said. “Obviously we know that the first day in pads we’re going to do it, or the spring game we’re going to do it.
“Other times it’s just a spontaneous kind of thing. You don’t know if you’re going to go or not. Just call your name and you better be strapped up and mouthpiece in.”
Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano wasn’t exactly ready when Jones shouted his name. Guarantano went against fellow quarterback Zac Jancek.
“I had no clue what was going on,” Guarantano said. “I was just thrown in there. I heard ‘Guarantano’ and my chin strap wasn’t even on. So I get in my position and he blows the whistle, then me and Jancek had some fun going back and forth.”
Defensive lineman Kyle Phillips called the drill “a pride thing” and with “all of your teammates surrounding you, you just don’t want to lose.”
Linebacker Cortez McDowell described it as “intense,” adding “it’s really to see if you have that fight in you.”
“You have to go in there and try and deliver the blow before someone gives it to you,” said.
Some guys relish hearing their name called.
For defensive lineman Kahlil McKenzie, the drill “is the ultimate test of manhood.”
“You get in that circle and there’s nobody to save you, there’s no coach to tell you any pointers, there’s no nothing. It’s you versus the man in front of you. You’re either the man today or he is.”
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) August 7, 2015
Wide receiver Jauan Jennings brings extreme confidence into the drill, so much so that he renamed it: “the Jauan Jennings drill.”
“That’s my drill. I love it, it’s Circle of Life,” he said. “There’s nothing more competitive, you against another guy, and who’s going to win.”
Defensive lineman Darrell Taylor says “it’s where you earn your toughness stripe” and is ideal for guys entering Jones’ program to experience it immediately. “Freshmen, new guys coming in, from JUCO and all that, that’s where you earn your toughness spot on the team. Everybody knows who you are from Circle of Life.”
Tight end Jakob Johnson agrees that it is a good thing to experience Circle of Life as a newcomer in the program and grow from the “transformative experience.” You “come in as freshman and not knowing quite what to expect,” Johnson said. “You might lose a couple your first couple of go-a-rounds, but as the years go by in getting stronger, you start putting people on their back.”
Circle of Life Takes
Todd Kelly Jr.: “It’s intense and shows your physicality. That’s what Coach Jones is all about. When you see that man across from you, you know it’s your teammate, but he wants to make you better and you want to make him better at the end of the day.”
Brandon Johnson: “I’ve been in it so many times. You better be ready when you’re name is called.”
Carlin Fils-aime: “Circle of Life is taking a battle to whoever your defender is. It’s the lord of the ring and you want to give it everything you’ve got.”
Micah Abernathy: “It’s exciting to show off your skills and how strong you are and your mentality to the whole team.”
Trevor Daniel: “I did it my freshman year against Matt Darr, a senior punter. It was just like high school football, beat the guy in front of you and put him on his back. It was fun, I enjoyed it.”
Justin Martin: “It’s fun because you have your teammates circled around you, hyping you up, it’s just a good environment.”
Drew Richmond: “Circle of Life is strictly about toughness. It’s going to test your toughness and see if you’re able to hang in there. It’s who is going to be a man and gets you acclimated.”
Marcus Tatum: “It’s an adrenaline rush. It gets tiresome eventually, but it’s to see who’s the bigger man.”
Marquez Callaway: “The Circle of Life is a great way to get fun energy. I’m big, but I’m not that big. The big guys are the only people that like the Circle of Life drill. The little guys don’t like the Circle of Life drill, but it’s a good way to compete and a good way to show the dog in you and it’s everybody out there having fun.”