KNOXVILLE — Butch Jones didn’t need to see his players hitting in their first day in full pads as much as he wanted to study how they handled the mental challenges.
Jones is wisely focusing on the mental and conditioning elements of his program after Tennessee only managed to outscore one of its eight SEC opponents last season in the fourth quarter, South Carolina (3-0).
“We were challenged by the elements, which is a good thing,” Jones said after Saturday’s practice, an afternoon affair that saw the heat index on the field soar to around 100 degrees.
“Test your mental toughness, test your fundaments, we’ve talked about closing games out , and that’s why we did what we did at the end of practice scrimmaging, and a lot of situational football and really thinking strategically when you’re tired, really understanding situational football when you’re tired at the end of the game.”
Tennessee suffered four defeats by a combined 17 points last season, each one of them involving fourth quarter adversity that the Vols could not handle.
In all, Tennessee was outscored in the fourth quarter in 2015 by a 73-72 count, and in SEC games it was 52-34.
That’s why Jones wasn’t celebrating or paying any attention to UT’s No. 10 preseason ranking earlier this week in the Amway Coaches Poll.
“We have a long ways to go; we’re not anywhere where we need to be in terms of playing a game,” Jones said. “Too many pre-snap penalties today, especially at the end of practice when the mental fatigue started to set in a little bit, that’s part of being a mentally tough football team, but that’s part of what training camp is about, as well.”
It’s clear Jones has set the bar high for Team 120, a group that has been projected to snap an 11-game losing steak against Florida and win the SEC East Division.
“Can we execute the fine details and do what it takes to play winning football? We’re not there yet, but that’s why we practice,” Jones said. “All these situations are invaluable.
“I told our staff and I told our team that these two days, Saturday and Sunday, are two of the most critical days we have in the evolution of our football team.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee football for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s SEC Country and lives in Knoxville.