KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee coach Butch Jones promised a special announcement during halftime of the Orange and White Game on Saturday. Rumors of a Peyton Manning appearance or a possible Blue Angels flyover from a nearby air show circulated throughout Knoxville before the game. In the end, the announcement wasn’t quite as exciting, but still unprecedented.
For the first time in his Tennessee tenure, Jones named permanent team captains for the entire season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton were chosen by a vote among Tennessee’s players.
It would have been hard to predict the four would have ascended to such heights when they first came to Tennessee. Dobbs was bound for Arizona State until he suddenly changed his mind on National Signing Day in 2013. Kamara was a former Alabama player who transferred to a junior college before joining the Vols last year. Reeves-Maybin was a mostly overlooked prospect from Clarksville, Tenn., with limited scholarship offers. Sutton was a Georgia transplant without a scholarship offer from the in-state Bulldogs. Now, the four are all captains on one of the hottest teams in the nation.
“We motivate each other,” Reeves-Maybin said. “We hold each other to a high standard in the weight room, on the field, or wherever it is. Us four guys, if we continue to hold each other accountable and our teammates accountable, we’ll be able to police ourselves.”
The ascension to captains has coincided with Tennessee’s ascension as one of the most talked about college football programs in the nation.
“It’s been fun to see it all grow,” Reeves-Maybin said. “I came in as soon as Coach Jones got here (before the 2013 season). I was an early enrollee. Just to see us take that climb from the bottom of the SEC to where we are now and have the expectations placed on us now, it’s been a fun process to be a part of. I want to take it as high as we can go.”
The Vols are fortunate to have three of the four captains on the roster. Kamara, Reeves-Maybin and Sutton all chose to remain in school after considering an early departure to enter the NFL Draft. Jones is understandably appreciative. He showed his appreciation, in part, by introducing Sutton as the best cornerback in the nation when he named him a captain.
“It’s an honor,” Sutton said of the compliment. “It’s obviously a blessing as well. It’s true. I just do what I can on and off the field to lead this team and lead this program, kind of put that stuff to the side and let my game speak for itself.”
A simple glance at Tennessee’s roster will show anyone interested that Kamara isn’t a typical season-long captain. As the only non-senior among the captain group, Kamara had to play one season in junior college after transferring from Alabama to even get back to the SEC. Still, the junior is a captain for the 2016 season.
“He’s earned it,” Jones said. “Alvin, from Day 1 coming in here, just worked and he earned the respect immediately of his peers, from his work ethic. He’s invested into the program. He’s invested into everything by his work ethic. He’s invested in everything. From a recruiting standpoint, he always wants to host recruits. He wants to be involved. He understands playing at Tennessee. He also understands what we have here is pretty significant and pretty special.
“I like the fact that he’s been great for the locker room because he’s been in a couple of programs. He can give guidance. These players just think one way because they’ve only been in one program. A lot of times he’s the voice that says ‘Hey, you have it pretty special here. You better understand that.’ Our players, they respect him. When you look at the voting, his votes were pretty high.”
Kamara, who enrolled in January 2015 at Tennessee, admitted he was a bit surprised by the captain designation.
“It means a lot,” the Georgia native said. “Being here for the shortest amount of time, just being voted by my teammates to be captain, it means a lot. It means I’ve earned the respect of my teammates and my coaches. It speaks volumes to the program. We look forward to being captains this season. I think we all take it as a challenge. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to hold ourselves to an even more high standard. This is the first time Coach Jones has done this, naming permanent team captains, so it’s a lot of pressure but good pressure.”
Admittedly, Kamara has changed significantly since his freshman season for the Crimson Tide.
“Freshman at Alabama to now?” Kamara said with a smile. “I’m already a character right now, but then it was more immature I would think, just to sum it up. Wasn’t really focused on details, wasn’t really focused on what it takes to be great. From then to now, I’m focused on small things, focused on details, wanting to be better, outwardly focused, focused on my teammates, making people around me better. That’s what it really takes to be great. You’ve got to make the people around you better.”
The players around Tennessee’s captains have gotten better. That means more expectations. That means Tennessee captains must keep their teammates on task.
“We have our own expectations and how we expect to play every time we step on the field,” Dobbs said. “We understand we have a lot of talent on this team. The goal for us is to take it day by day and focus on the process.”
Tennessee’s captains faced their first public relations challenge on Saturday when Reeves-Maybin was asked if he and running back Jalen Hurd were the best “Jalens” in the SEC. It was clearly a question directed at Florida defensive back Jalen Tabor’s tweet last week that Florida would continue its 11-game winning streak over the Vols.
“We’re not going to feed into that,” Kamara said. “We’re not too thirsty for attention.”
Reeves-Maybin added that he’s not one for trash talk.
“Play the game. Play the game. Let us be,” he said. “You don’t see great players out there saying stuff like that. Just play.”
That’s what the Vols intend to do. If they play as well as they believe they can, 2016 will be a special season.
“We understand every time we step on the field, we’re looking to win,” Dobbs said. “That’s our mindset.”
Spoken like a true captain.