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VOL. 38 | NO. 31 | Friday, August 01, 2014

‘Sudden change’ means little job security for veteran Vols

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KNOXVILLE – Don’t look for University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones to play favorites when fall training camp begins Friday (Aug. 1).

Jones is all about open competition. Every practice. Every session. Every minute.

UT’s highly decorated 2014 recruits – a class ranked fifth in the nation by ESPN – knows they must earn their spots on the depth chart.

Much of the focus will be on the six “legacy” recruits, whose fathers, brothers or uncle played for the Vols.

They know what Jones and his staff expect, not just from them but all of the 32 signees in the class.

“We’re just trying to come in and do exactly what the coaches say,” says freshman receiver/kick returner Vic Wharton, whose uncle, Brandon, played basketball for UT (1996-99).

“We know we can’t take time off. We have to pick up on things quickly to be able do whatever Coach Jones and the staff need us to do. That’s what they’re asking of us is early playing time, and if we want to do it, we’re going to have to make sure we work hard.”

Jones, in his second year as UT’s coach, made it clear freshmen would get their chances in last year’s fall camp, and two of them – wide receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cameron Sutton – earned freshman All-America honors.

Of this year’s signing class, 14 were early enrollees in January and took part in spring practices.

They have a jump on the other signees, most of who arrived on campus for summer school and conditioning in June.

Freshman linebacker Neiko Creamer, whose father Andre was a UT defensive back (1984-87), was an early enrollee and has heard plenty about the expectations and pressures on the legacy class.

Creamer heard it again July 18 during a media introduction of the legacy class, which includes Evan and Elliott Berry, Todd Kelly Jr., and Dillon Bates.

“This is not my first time hearing this question about pressure,” Creamer says. “I just feel as though it’s pressure just being a freshman on the football team. You have to get acclimated to a new style of football, especially at Tennessee. It’s a higher level.

Tennessee freshmen Elliot Berry, Evan Berry, Neiko Creamer, Vic Wharton, Dillon Bates and Todd Kelly, Jr., from left, all have relatives who played for the Vols and are are part of a highly touted recruiting class that is expected to have an immediate impact.

-- Ap Photo/Knoxville News Sentinel, Adam Lau

“I really don’t feel pressure from my father’s standpoint,’’ he adds. “I don’t think the other guys do either. We’re just out here playing ball. It’s a new generation. It’s a new type of play style. The game is different, so we’re just out here ballin.’”

You probably won’t find “ballin” on Jones’ list of mantras, which flow like the optimism this time of year.

Jones has moved on from the billing of last year’s “Team 117” (the 117th year of UT football) to the obvious “Team 118.”

At SEC media days, Jones repeatedly talked about “the power of one.”

“You’ll hear me talk about the power of one,” Jones says. “The one is very powerful with this football team because being so young, we have to focus on the moment. We have to win one moment at a time, one play at the same time, one practice at the same time, one day at the same time, have one unity of purpose, one common commitment, and one mindset.”

Creamer has heard another Butchism – “sudden change” – and brought it up when asked about the potential impact of the 2014 class.

“I can see my class of freshmen impacting the team very well during the season,” Creamer says.

“It’s a long season, so you never know what’s going to happen, who’s going to have to be ready, and I feel as though what we’re doing now is going to prepare us for a sudden change.

“Coach (Dave) Lawson (strength coach) calls it a ‘sudden change.’ Coach Jones calls it a ‘sudden change,’ and we’re just going to be out here and be ready for what we have to do.

“If a guy goes down, and it just so happens that Elliott or Evan (Berry) has to go in there and make a play, I have no doubt in my mind they’re going to make a play.”

Nobody would like to make a play more than Kelly Jr., whose father Todd Kelly played defensive end at UT (1989-92) before a four-year NFL career.

Kelly Jr. grew up in Knoxville and became a star safety/wingback at Webb School of Knoxville.

He has seen up close the troubled times of UT football in recent years: the sour end of Phillip Fulmer’s coaching era, Lane Kiffin’s one-year stay as coach, and the program’s demise in Derek Dooley’s three-year coaching reign. Still, Kelly Jr. chose UT over Alabama. He calls it a “special place” and says he is honored to play on the same field as his father.

“It’s a blessing,” Kelly Jr. says. “I couldn’t ask for anything better. I had the decision whether to follow his footsteps or not, and ultimately I did, just because I feel it’s a blessing, and I think I can do it.”

Kelly Jr. and the rest of the 2014 signees will soon find out if they can make an impact at UT, but nothing is a given. Not even if your name carries some UT history with it.

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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