KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee's football players are getting extra homework this spring that doesn't involve studying the playbook or adapting to the Volunteers' new 4-3 defense.
New Tennessee coach Butch Jones is making sure every Volunteer learns something about the greatest players who previously wore their respective jersey numbers.
It's all part of Jones' plan to make sure his players understand the proud history of a program that is trying to bounce back from three consecutive losing seasons. Although Jones had no previous ties to Tennessee when he took this job, he never hesitates to discuss the Vols' winning tradition.
This is one of the most storied programs in the country, Jones said, and our players have to take ownership.
Vol for Life coordinator Antone Davis, a former first-round draft pick and All-American in his own right, provides players information about each former Vol who visits campus. Jones' first spring practice session Saturday attracted close to 50 ex-Vols, including former Pro Bowl selections Jamal Lewis and Leonard Little.
Their presence made an impact.
Honestly, I was speechless, defensive back Eric Gordon said.
The reminders of Tennessee's winning history may be necessary for some current players.
Many of Tennessee's incoming freshmen weren't even born when Peyton Manning enrolled at Tennessee in 1994. They hadn't begun grade school when Tennessee won its 1998 national title. Many of them weren't even teenagers when Tennessee reached the SEC championship game in 2007, the last time the Vols won more than seven games in a season.
A lot of people don't understand the tradition here like someone from East Tennessee does, and how die-hard it is around here, said tight end Brendan Downs, who grew up about 100 miles northeast of campus in Bristol, Tenn. I've really appreciated all the coaches are doing with that.
Touting the winning history of a program that has fallen upon hard times has obvious recruiting benefits.
In the last few days, Tennessee received verbal commitments from three 2014 prospects, including two who visited last week and saw the dozens of former Vols on the sidelines. One of those commitments came from defensive back Todd Kelly Jr., a consensus four-star recruit from Knoxville and the son of former Vols defensive end Todd Kelly.
Jones believes the focus on Tennessee's tradition also can produce better results on the field from players already on campus because it reminds them what's expected.
There's a standard of excellence that comes when you come to the University of Tennessee, and I think it's (about) those players understanding that, Jones said. We talk about the deeper our tradition, the deeper our standards, the deeper our pride is in everything that we do. It's the standard expectation in this football program, and we will not compromise.
The players don't mind the history lessons, even if it means more work.
It's about tradition, Gordon said. You don't want to be out here just playing for nothing. You don't want to be out here not knowing who played in that jersey (before) you. You want to know the history.
Jones said he started calling former Tennessee letter winners as soon as he took the job and continues to talk to ex-Vols every day. Jayson Swain, a Tennessee wide receiver from 2003-06 who now hosts a local radio show, says that represents a major change from former coach Derek Dooley's staff.
It's night and day, like the darkest night and the clearest day, Swain said. It's that big a difference. It all comes from the top. There's a big difference between Dooley and Butch Jones. It's night and day. Former players, they're talking to each other. They're excited. They're calling other people who are playing in the NFL, other players that you see on the walls (of the practice facility) as All-Americans. They're excited about coming back because this is their program.
Jones hopes their presence inspires current players. For instance, safety LaDarrell McNeil said he appreciated the advice he received Saturday from Dwayne Goodrich, a former Tennessee and Dallas Cowboys defensive back who attended Jones' first practice.
The message was simple, but it resonated because of the messenger.
He was just (telling me to) make sure you run to run to the ball every play, McNeil said. That just keeps ringing in my head. Every time I'm on the field, I make sure to run to the ball.
Jones is hoping for more of those types of conversations. He knows how famous alumni at other schools often return to campus and mentor the next generation of players. He wants the same thing to happen at Tennessee.
Our current players are starting to develop relationships with our former players, Jones said. I think that's big. Our football program right now has a lot of momentum in all aspects. People around the country understand what we have here at the University of Tennessee, and they're waiting for Tennessee to wake up. We're waking up.