JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was finally football time … in Jacksonville for the Vols on Monday afternoon. After arriving in the Sunshine State on Sunday, Team 118 went to work under sunny skies and 80-degree temperatures at Hodges Stadium at the University of North Florida.
“It’s great to be down here at a first-class bowl like the TaxSlayer Bowl.” said head coach Butch Jones in anticipation of the Vols’ Friday game against Iowa. “Everything is new for our players but it’s also been an eye-opening experience in a positive way, the team chemistry with the bowl functions and being together as a football team. But, again, the number one deal is coming down here to win the bowl game and it’s all about your preparation. To get out here, the biggest things is going to be adapting and adjusting to humidity. It’s supposed to be 86 percent humidity, so the hotter the better today.”
Junior defensive back Brian Randolph entered the field a smile on his face.
“As you can see, it’s sunny, nice and warm,” said Randolph. “It’s a great atmosphere here. It’s great football weather, so we feel very blessed to be here.”
Monday was the first of four practice days for the Vols, who have had Iowa in their sights since the announcement was made on Dec. 7.
“Most of the work was done back in Knoxville, but coming down here now is dine-tuning, becoming a better football team, it’s all execution,” said Jones. “We had a theme and if you look at the bowl season so far it’s marred with missed tackles, big plays, explosive plays, special teams are at a premium. You almost have to have a first-game approach with anything and everything. You take so much time studying the other team’s tendencies that you’re going to have plays off of those tendencies. It goes back to the overall discipline that it takes to play winning football, our eye discipline and execution. It’s going to be a physical football game and we understand that.”
The bowl is about business for Jones and his team, but he understands their are various functions for the players to attend as part of the reward for reaching a bowl. With the entertainment aspects in play, Jones knows his staff will take of keeping the players focused on the goal of winning on Friday.
“We’re going to rely on our coaches, we’re going to rely on our older players, the overall leadership of our football team,” said Jones. “They’ve done a great job as of right now of really understanding the purpose of why we’re down here and that’s to enjoy each other, but it’s also to win a football game. It’s all about your preparation and taking care of your body. You have to get your body prepared to play in this type of humidity, this type of heat right now this time of the year. It’s your hydration, it’s your rest, your recovery. It’s all of those things the great players understand, it’s all about your performance and everyone taking great pride in your performance and great pride in your preparation for your performance.”
HENDERSON VISITS VOLS
When you think of the Vols and Jacksonville, one man comes to mind: Big John Henderson. The All-American at Tennessee was a first-round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and went on to play eight years for the NFL team, making two Pro Bowls.
Prior to practice on Monday, Henderson spoke to the current addition of the Vols and them watched Team 118 in action.
“There was a great message for us earlier today with John Henderson, a Vol For Life, Tennessee great came back and requested to speak with the team and he was outstanding,” said Jones. “I know our players appreciated his message.”
Henderson’s appearance was especially meaningful for Vols freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett, who like Henderson is a Nashville native.
“It was cool, we saw the video of the trainer slapping him and getting him ready and hyped for the games,” said Barnett. “He was getting hyped in the meeting talking about this game and practice today. He’s a legend, he’s from Nashville too, so I look up to him and can follow in his footsteps.”
Henderson’s presence and involvement in the program is of paramount importance to Jones.
“It’s another great illustration, a 10-year [NFL] vet, a Pro Bowl player, loves Tennessee,” said Jones. “To have him be able to come back and be from here in Jacksonville. The message was from being a freshman and all the things that goes into it to being a Pro Bowl player and all the things that going into it how you take care of your body. You could see the excitement, you could see the energy, you could see the passion. Great players have an energy level about themselves, so it was a great illustration for our players of the excellence that we have here at Tennessee.”
Veteran Brian Randolph spoke about how Henderson’s talk woke the Vols up in the morning.
“It’s great to have that intensity especially in the morning,” said Randolph. “We came in a little sleepy and he woke us right up. He reminded us what we’re here for. We’re not here to party or nothing like that. We’re here to have fun, but the main goal is to beat Iowa.”
A LIFE-CHANGER FOR ELLIS
The big story over Christmas break coming out of Knoxville was the ‘presentation’ of a scholarship to junior walk-on tight end Alex Ellis. In the Vols’ last team meeting prior to the break, Jones called up Ellis and gave him a present, which he opened to see scholarship papers.
For the Del Mar, Delaware, the scholarship was `a life changer’ as Jones relayed to the media.
“That is one of the rewarding things of coaching,” said Jones. “Alex Ellis has meant so much for our football team, not only on the field and his productively but off the field. He has the respect of every one of his peers. So to watch his facial expression, for him to come down there and to see the emotion.”
After Jones presented the gift to Ellis, the tight end happily re-gifted the present for his mother.
“When he came back from break,” said Jones, “he walked into my office and hugged me and said, `Coach, I rewrapped the present and I gave it to my mom.’ He says, `you don’t know coach, this changed our lives, this is a life changer.’ That is why you get into coaching, to create that positive change. Alex Ellis is a tremendous example of that. Like I told Alex, we didn’t do anything, he earned it, he deserved it, very fitting that he received that scholarship. It was great, I think that is a great illustration of the family environment that we have here. But also the standard and the expectation and when players play tot hat standard and expectation in our program, they are going to be rewarded.”