July 16, 2009

Vols using last year's pain for motivation

The marketing blitz, media attention and program overhaul all point to the fresh-start, rock-star Lane Kiffin era of University of Tennessee football.

As part of its ongoing, five-phase renovation, Neyland Stadium even will embody a much different look when Tennessee opens its 2009 season Sept. 5 at home against Western Kentucky.

Senior center Josh McNeil can't forget though. Not the seven losses in 2008 that tied for the most in the program's long and storied history. Not the four month journey through college football's wilderness that it prompted this new era in Tennessee football.

Sure McNeil's focusing on the Vols' future, but their past is a painfully fresh memory.

"I still feel the same way I felt whenever I walked off the field against Kentucky, just really disappointed," said McNeil, who has more career starts than any returning player. "Obviously just disgusted with how the season went. We all had a lot of high hopes going into the season and obviously it just did not go the way we expected it to.

"But we fully expect it to be turned around this season. I still feel the same way about last season. I haven't lost any bitterness toward that at all. I won't lose any of it until we get a 'W' in the first game."

McNeil easily sees how those outside the walls of Tennessee's football program move quickly to forget last year's woes. But the Vols' 6-foot-4-inch, 283-pound anchor along the offensive line can't help turning corners and seeing empty seats in Neyland Stadium, a coach's last game and bountiful motivation for better days.

"A lot of people, it's like a new coaching staff and a lot of new things going on, it's like a brand-new program. It's like last year is completely forgotten, but you've got to think every player in this complex every time we go to the film room or anywhere else, we keep reminded of a 5-7 season," the Collins, Miss., native said. "That's all we keep thinking about. We never forget, even though new coaches and new everything is going on, it's something that never goes far from our minds. Because we know we have to keep that up front. It's not something we need to dwell on, because I really think it could create negative feelings around here, but I think it is something you need to focus on because it will give you motivation towards winning this year."

The season likewise offers the opportunity for something even more elementary, says senior tight end Jeff Cottam.

"Five and seven (last year)? Revenge. Revenge for who beat us last year," the 6-8, 260-pounder said. "Going to go out and beat a bunch of people this year and get a good taste in our mouth."

Cottam knows doubts are aplenty; he routinely hears as much from mainstream national media.

"We've got a lot to prove. Everyone's doubting us, doubting us on ESPN. All the analysts and everything, saying Florida's going to kill us," Cottam said. "We've just got to go out and prove to everybody that we're a lot better than everybody thinks.

"You can use that (doubt) a lot to (our) advantage. Going in as an underdog means we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. We'll just play our hearts out and give it our best. They (the Gators) have everything to lose because everyone expects them to win."

Though on the job just three weeks, new UT strength and conditioning coordinator Aaron Ausmus notices a sense of urgency emanating from the football program.

"You know, I can just tell with this new staff there's a lot of energy in the program. I can tell they're wanting to do some new things. And I can tell I think last year really humbled the program," said Ausmus. "I can definitely detect any time there's an opportunity to step up in my program they really are gritting their teeth and trying hard."

Plus, to a man the Vols are showing up for "voluntary" summer workouts.

"Hardly anybody's missed anything. If they've missed, they've come back and made sure they made it up," punter Chad Cunningham said. "Everybody's bought into this program and wants to succeed next year."

The resident face of Tennessee's program, all-everything candidate Eric Berry, wants success for his teammates. He grows tired of hearing chatter that Tennessee is a one-man team.

"I like being the leader of the team. But people have to realize that we've got a lot of talent on this team," said Berry, an All-America pick last year and Heisman Trophy candidate entering this season. "Yeah, we had a 5-6 season, or whatever it was, last year, and a lot of people are dwelling on it. But we have a lot of talent on this team, and that's what people don't understand.

"It really makes me mad when people just say I'm the only one on the field, or I'm the only one doing this. I just feel like we're going to have to shock the world this year and just prove everyone wrong."

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