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Tennessee players savor fresh start under new coaching staff

August 5, 2018
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Tennessee line backer Quart'e Sapp smiles while talking to media during the school's NCAA college football media day Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018, in Knoxville, Tenn. (Caitie McMekin/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Offensive tackle Drew Richmond gave a two-word analysis of Tennessee’s dreadful 2017 season, and that was twice as long as defensive tackle Shy Tuttle’s synopsis.

Their comments exemplify how the Volunteers are trying to put last year behind them while savoring a fresh start under a new staff.

“It’s over,” Richmond said.

When Tuttle was asked to describe the 2017 season, he replied with a one-word expletive.

Yet no matter how hard they try to put it in the past, the Vols realize they’ll never completely forget what happened last year as they staggered through one of the most disappointing seasons in this program’s proud history.

Ranked in the Top 25 to start the season, Tennessee finished 4-8 and failed to win a Southeastern Conference game for the first time since the league started football competition in 1933. The collapse led to the firing of Butch Jones and the hiring of former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt .

“It’s in the rear-view mirror, but shoot, me myself, I’ve got it in the back of my head,” Tuttle said. “I’m not trying to be that again.”

Tennessee players spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since starting training camp two days earlier, as seven Vols were made available to the media before gathering for a team photo.

“The past is the past,” linebacker Daniel Bituli said. “I feel like every guy on this team has rally embraced a new staff, a new scheme. We’re just excited for this season.”

Tennessee’s busy day also featured an open practice that was followed by an autograph session. Fans started lining up outside Neyland Stadium as early as 7 a.m., and about 100 people had gathered by 10 a.m. to attend a practice session that didn’t begin until 2:30 p.m.

That shows this fan base remains hopeful, even though preseason projections for Tennessee are much different than they’ve been in the recent past.

Tennessee entered 2016 as the SEC East favorite and was picked to finish third out of seven teams in the division last year. This year, the Vols are picked to finish sixth in the division ahead of only Vanderbilt, an in-state rival that has beaten Tennessee each of the last two years.

The Vols generally brushed aside any questions about their own expectations for the season and spouted clichés about taking things game by game, though receiver Brandon Johnson did strike an optimistic tone. Tennessee opens the season Sept. 1 against West Virginia at Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I feel we’re really headed in the right direction,” Johnson said. ”(We’re) really just working every day, working hard and putting in the work. I feel like you guys will be pleased with the outcome come this fall.”

Their businesslike approach thus far has impressed Pruitt, who was part of five national championship staffs at Alabama and Florida State.

“I really like the guys on our team,” Pruitt said. “They’re fun to be around. They’re willing to do whatever we ask. They’re hungry. They have not questioned anything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve just done it. As long as they continue to do that, we’ll be OK.”

Pruitt’s blunt nature and no-nonsense approach refreshed a fan base tired of Jones’ use of catchphrases and slogans , but it represents a major shift for a team that had grown accustomed to a different style.

Tuttle was asked if the difference in the personalities of these two coaching staff required an adjustment period.

“Yeah, a little bit,” Tuttle said. “But like I said, I embrace change.”

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