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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "Practice with a purpose!" Volunteers defensive coordinator John Chavis shouted Wednesday, his white sun hat bouncing up and down as he went back and forth in front of his players during the Vols' 13th day of preseason practice.
Of course, the purpose for a Tennessee team that went from a No. 3 preseason ranking to their first postseason without a bowl since 1988 is clear: show that last season's 5-6 embarrassment was simply an aberration.
"Last year, it's been on everybody's mind," All-America offensive lineman Aaron Sears said. "I think everybody's using that [as] fuel to the fire."
No one more so than head coach Phillip Fulmer, who has risen with a new vigor from the ashes of last year, his first losing season since taking over the program before the 1993 season.
"I think in the great years that you have you learn things, and certainly in the years that don't go like you want to you learn a lot," Fulmer said. "I think I learned a lot about myself and I think we assumed too many things last year. We're not assuming anything this year.... We're not going to talk about championships, we're going to work [toward] championships."
The new approach also translates to off-the-field infractions. Fulmer has dismissed three players from the team this summer (redshirt freshman Raymond Henderson and freshmen Blake Garreston and Lee Smith) and says that if players step out of line, they'll "be dealt with quickly and firmly."
After a national championship and four SEC division titles in nine years, did this program have to go through a down season to take a step forward? Fulmer says that may be, and while it has given him a new outlook, that doesn't mean he wants to repeat it.
"I don't ever want to go through anything like that again," he said. "My wife said, 'To really enjoy the peaks, you have to have a valley somewhere.' I know this -- the next time we hold that trophy up, I'll appreciate it a whole lot more because of what we just went through."
During a passing drill, Fulmer picked up a ball that was dropped by wide receiver Robert Meachem and floated a pass that was just out of Meachem's reach. Like a replay of '05, something else seemed out of reach, but unlike last season, Fulmer was at least smiling.
1. The Volunteers' savior won't be a player but a coach -- offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe. The former Volunteers assistant and Ole Miss head man is back in Knoxville, and his main objective is to replace the person who posed as quarterback Erik Ainge a year ago with the freshman who looked like a star in the making in '04.
"He makes you focus on everything," Ainge said of Cutcliffe. "His attention to detail is unbelievable. He sees more on the practice field than some coaches will see when they're watching the film."
Cutcliffe's dedication to perfection was on full display during agility drills, when junior Bo Hardegree was going through a pass of the four pads with less-than-desired precision. It didn't get past Cutcliffe, who in his thick drawl said, "Don't let the heat get to you. Don't let the heat get to you." And of course, he told Hardegree to do it again.
2. Britton Colquitt boomed a near-50-yard punt during drills, and the scary part is he missed it. "I feel like a totally different person this year," the sophomore said. "I think I've had more confidence and a better attitude and everything. I just feel like my leg feels a lot stronger, it feels more flexible. Hopefully if I catch a good one, it's going to go farther, and if I catch a bad one, hopefully it will still go far enough for our cover men to get down there."
Colquitt, who had a 54-yard punt last year, says he can now boot one 60-65 yards. He credits the difference this preseason to a weight program that has added 5-10 pounds to his frame and a new approach that included some summer tutelage from his father, Craig, who punted for seven years in the NFL after playing for UT.
3. By far the most entertaining portion of any Vols practice is new wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor. Here's just a sample of Taylor's antics from Wednesday: "Look at that movement. Look at that movement," he screamed during a passing drill, jumping up and down and waving his arms as he leapt toward offensive lineman Anthony Parker for a mid-air chest bump. During a receivers vs. defensive backs drill, he instructed one of his players to "not sleep on it. Get at him with that Barry Bonds elbow pad."
While Taylor is amusing, his real job is to help the wide receiving corps live up to its billing. The group of Meachem, Jayson Swain and Bret Smith are stunningly fast and athletic, but they're also the prime returners from a passing game that was ranked 85th in the nation last year.
"He's just like one of the guys until we get in between the lines," Swain said of Taylor. "That's the type of coach a player wants to play for."