KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones had a holiday version of “Sudden Change” for Team 118 on Sunday afternoon.The Volunteers held practice in Neyland Stadium, providing a big-time atmosphere for the final full day of on-campus preparation for the TaxSlayer Bowl before breaking for Christmas.
“Obviously it’s very special any time you can come in and play in Neyland Stadium,” Jones said. “It was kid of a change in scenery, but we’re going to be playing in a big NFL stadium, so to be able to come in and get those sight lines. Also, for our seniors, this is their last visit in Neyland Stadium in a practice, so it was very fitting that we end bowl preparation with coming in here.”
One more practice in Neyland Stadium was a great gift for redshirt senior and Knoxville native Jacob Gilliam.
“It was a great feeling,” said Gilliam. “It was really good to get to come back here and end on a good note. I left a good mark here for my last practice in Neyland.”
Gilliam was one of 17 players that took part in one of the great Tennessee traditions, the last tackle. The seniors ran through a gauntlet of teammates before laying out a tackling dummy set up on padding. The takedowns ranged from the standard to the unique, from perfect form to dropkicks and pro wrestling moves.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Gilliam, who took the tackling dummy clear off the padding with a huge hit. “It was something that I saw a lot of other guys get to do and I knew my time was coming. I had to plan something and I decided I was going to go straight through it like a freight train.”
WHARTON’S TIME IS NOW
Any given day could present the opportunity to make an impact. For Team 118 and its inordinate number of true freshman this season, the phrase has been a motto since Day One. Some have received their opportunity sooner than others but for wide receiver Vic Wharton, his time is now.
“This is what happens when you come, day after day, with the same mentality,” Wide Receivers Coach Zach Azzanni said. “All of a sudden your time comes and you get better and better and his time is here.”
With four season-ending injuries having plagued the wide receivers core this year, most-recently claiming Jason Croom, Wharton is now called upon to hold down a wide-out spot for the Vols facing Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
“I’ve always just tried to work hard and listen to everything that Coach Z says,” Wharton said. “Yeah, now there’s an opportunity, but Jason Croom and Marquez North have both helped me with learning the offense so that it hasn’t really been a challenge to step in.”
Learning the offense has only been part of the learning curve. One of the notable differences between Wharton and Croom or North is size. As one of the smaller receivers in the unit, Wharton has also taken advice from veterans such as Pig Howard on how to use his smaller stature and physical nature as his strength.
“That’s why I know I have to play physical,” Wharton said. “I’m a smaller receiver and that’s my advantage, I think, is being more physical than the others. Pig [Howard] has always been a mentor to me. With how hard he works in practice, I always try to work harder than him. It’s always a competition and he tries to give me hints on how to be a better player and how to block better on the perimeter.”
While the coaches have praised Wharton’s development and performance in practice, Wharton also sees improvement in himself, striving to become an all-around, impactful playmaker for Tennessee.
“It’s about just being a full, all-around receiver,” Wharton said. “Not just worried about catching the ball but making sure we own the perimeter and making sure we block on the outside for every one of our teammates. Before we ever catch the ball, we have to block and make sure we can get open on our route.”
Most importantly, Head Coach Butch Jones has been pleased with Wharton, as well as fellow wide receiver Ryan Jenkins, who is looking to split time with Wharton in place of the injured Croom.
“I think they continue to get better and better,” Jones said. “I think their confidence has continued to grow. We talk about pride in performance but consistency in performance, as well. I see that really generating in those two individuals. But you can just see by their body language, by the way they play the game, they are playing very confident right now.”
Labeled as a four-star recruit out of Spring Hill, Tennessee, Wharton will now have his long-awaited chance to make an impact in a historical game for the Vols, as well as demonstrate in a game the skills he has showcased in practice all year.
“It’s awesome. Growing up in Knoxville, for me especially, I’ve always dreamed of playing in Neyland Stadium,” Wharton added. “I just want to get the Tennessee program back to where it was and that’s the track we’re on right now. We’re going to Jacksonville and we’re looking to get that win.”
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Tennessee will have a short workout Monday morning before breaking for the holiday. Players will reconvene to continue practice on the 27th and will head to Jacksonville, Florida as a team on the 28th for on-site bowl preparation.
But just because Team 118 will be away from each other and the coaching staff for the holiday, does not mean the Volunteers will not have their eyes o the prize while at home.
“They will get constant reminders,” Jones said. “They have done a great job and it leads me to believe that they will be mature when they go home as well. But they will have some constant reminders.”
Freshman defensive lineman Derek Barnett is looking forward to the time with family, but knows the preparation for the TaxSlayer Bowl never stops, regardless of the location.
“Coach said everything we do, we need to think about how we are going to play in the ball game,” he said. “When you eat, just eat right. He said, `go home and have some family time,’ but also, he said go home and think about football while you are there.”
Fellow freshman Vic Wharton said family time would be a welcome time, but Iowa would never be far from his mind.
“Going home, everyone is going to try to enjoy themselves,” said Wharton. “We haven’t been home in a while but we just have to make sure that we’re eating right, getting the right amount of sleep so that when we get back, we get back to business. All of us have the same mindset and we’re all looking forward to winning the bowl game.”
Jones is also looking forward to family time, something that has been rare since the start of training camp in August.
“I am looking forward to being a dad, being a husband and stepping back to enjoy Christmas a little bit and just being thankful and grateful for many things,” Jones said. “We’re at a great institution surrounded by great people and it’s time to give thanks, so I’m looking forward to it.”