December 1, 2008

Players embrace fresh start

Every seat was taken, and people stood all around the Wolf-Kaplan Center inside Neyland Stadium. Players were sprinkled throughout the couple of hundred media members and donors. And almost 10 minutes after Mike Hamilton introduced Lane Kiffin as Tennessee's 21st head football coach, Kiffin made his promise to every Vol fan across the globe.

"I'm rolling my sleeves up and going to work," Kiffin said. "I'm not promising you how many wins we are going to have or how many championships. I can't do that. I can tell you this. No one is going to outwork us. No one is going to outwork me as a head coach. No one is going to outwork our staff. That's the promise I'm giving you."

He made that same promise to his new players in a team meeting on Sunday evening. During the 41-minute meeting, Kiffin introduced his plans for a new look Volunteer program.

"He said the past is over with," soon to be senior offensive lineman Chris Scott said. "It's going to be a competition and the players have to come in and compete. Everyone is equal and this offense is going to be physical."

Physical play is something that Kiffin also addressed during his introduction Monday afternoon. In the back of the room stood 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker/defensive end Gerald Williams, who can't wait to start popping the pads.

"I love the physicalness," Williams said. "Not going soft and hard work. Hard-nosed football, it don't get better than that."

A new regime also allows for new chances amongst the team. Players who haven't been able to set foot on the field will have a fresh start and chance to make an early impression on their new head coach. One of those players is Maryville native Tyler Maples, who is excited about the possibilities.

"That's the first thing that coach Kiffin said," Maples said. "It's always good to be on a level playing field.

"It starts now. You have to hit the weight room and start learning. You can't wait until spring ball gets here and then start. You have to hit the ground running and try to prove yourself the best way you can."

Williams echoed Maples and said that it's time to put up or shut up.

"Everyone feels great about the clean slate," Williams said. "Whether you did good or bad, everybody gets to start off brand new. The guys that think they should have started have that chance to prove it and stop talking about it."

With a clean slate, there will be plenty of competition this spring. And that means there will be plenty of urgency and pressure on each and every player. As a senior and a veteran, Scott knows that he must compete, but also find time to lead.

"Of course there is a sense of urgency," Scott said. "He came in and said it's an open competition. We have to prove ourselves again. If you want to play then you have to go out and prove it and earn it. I like that. I think competition is good and will make us better. Nobody has a job and everyone has to go out and get better or you could lose out.

"I do have to compete and I have to lead. Being a senior, the younger guys know know what I've done, but this is a chance for me to set an example and prove myself to the younger guys."

The fresh start accompanied by healthy competition is something that Kiffin believes in. A change in the culture is necessary to success.

"I want to win games," Kiffin said. "I'm not concerned about anything else but winning games when it comes to our players and who is playing. I've got to find the best 22 guys to play. I don't care where they are from. I don't care how many stars they had. I don't care what they've done. That's not arrogance. That's competitiveness.

"I can't stand in front of our team and say we are doing everything we can to win if I'm playing someone who isn't as good as the guy behind him. There is open competition and that's what they were told last night. Everything counts, on the field and off. They understand that and I don't think that's earth shattering. I just think that's how you win."

Following Phillip Fulmer's firing last month, players were rebellious, but after meeting with Kiffin they mingled and spoke with a sense of control.

"I think everyone has calmed down from a few weeks ago," Scott said. "Knowing what is going on and him coming in and laying the ground rules, I think everyone liked that. He's the head coach and he has to lay the law down and let him know that this is his team. If you are behind him then get in line and if you aren't then you can leave."

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