KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee doesn’t mind adopting an underdog mentality a year after the Volunteers failed to meet preseason expectations.
The Volunteers have been picked to finish third in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division by the league’s media. They didn’t have any first-team selections on the media’s preseason all-SEC team.
One year ago, Tennessee was the preseason East favorite but ended up splitting its eight conference games.
“Right now we’re in the weeds,” senior safety Todd Kelly Jr. said. “Nobody’s really seeing us, almost like a snake in the grass. Our goal is to end up biting somebody at the end of the day and making them pay.”
Tennessee will open preseason practice on July 29 needing to find a quarterback to replace Joshua Dobbs, who started 35 games over the last four seasons. It must find a new pass rusher following the loss of Philadelphia Eagles first-round draft pick Derek Barnett , the school’s all-time career sack leader.
But the Vols also will be free from the weight of expectations that burdened last year’s team.
Tennessee was ranked ninth at the beginning of the season and raced to a 5-0 start before splitting its final eight games, including stunning defeats at South Carolina and Vanderbilt. An injury-riddled defense struggled to stop anyone down the stretch.
That sluggish finish and the uncertain quarterback situation could help explain why SEC media picked Tennessee to finish behind Georgia and defending division champion Florida in the East. Tennessee beat both Georgia and Florida last year.
Not only did Tennessee not have any first-team picks on the media’s preseason all-SEC team, the Vols’ only second-team selections were offensive lineman Jashon Robertson and return specialist Evan Berry.
“I just look at it as kind of irrelevant and go out and play my game,” tight end Ethan Wolf said. “Of course we don’t like hearing negative things about our team, but we’re going to come out and play as hard as we possibly can come Week 1, and the rankings, they’ll go from there.”
Other players say they’re using the lack of preseason acclaim as incentive.
“I think it’s definitely motivating,” defensive end Kyle Phillips said. “We don’t have all the, I guess you would say, the high-profile players. But we have heart. I’d say this team is probably the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here team-wise, chemistry-wise and (with) people working together and in leadership roles and things like that. I’m really excited about this season.”
Phillips and offensive lineman Jack Jones spent part of the summer among a contingent of Tennessee student-athletes visiting Vietnam and working with children in orphanages and volunteering at sports camps as part of the school’s VOLeaders program.
Both said they can apply the lessons they learned in Vietnam to football.
“Going over there and working with these kids in sport, you really see that sports can bring anyone together,” Jones said. “Stepping back, we’ve got all these new freshmen coming in, and they might be from all over the country, but football’s bringing us together.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.