The Vols ran so many 110-yard dashes one evening in early July that, as the total crept into the 30s, they lost count. Conditioning coach Dave Lawson didn't, though. Upon finally calling a halt, he informed the players they had covered the length of the field (including one end zone) 52 times. That represented a personal best for Lawson, who squeezed 51 of the 110s out of the Cincinnati Bearcats last summer.
Several Tennessee players will never forget that remarkable evening.
"It was quite an experience," senior defensive end Jacques Smith recalled with a laugh. "It was like a party. We were out there jamming. We had ‘80s and ‘90s music playing the whole time. It was like a marathon almost. We just kept going."
Had the Vols known how many sprints they were running some probably would have collapsed. But, ignorance being bliss, they kept going until their conditioning coach mercifully summoned the team into a gigantic huddle.
As Smith recalls: "When Coach Lawson brought us up, he was like ‘Guys, you have no clue how proud of you I am.' He said that was the most (110s) any team had run in his training job."
Tennessee's players knew Lawson's taxing offseason regimen was whipping them into great shape. Still, junior offensive tackle Antonio Richardson was amazed that his 6-foot-6, 318-pound frame could withstand so much stress.
"A couple of weeks ago we ran fifty-two 110s," he said. "I could never imagine myself doing that, so it's paying dividends."
|Vols like Jacques Smith (pictured) are making a believer out of strength coach Dave Lawson.|
"It honestly is," senior offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James said. "We worked hard with Coach (Ron) McKeefery (last summer) but with Coach Lawson it's a different type of work, a different type of grind."
For one thing, Lawson uses the element of surprise to his advantage.
"He's big on not letting us know what's going to happen," James said. "He might flip a workout on us. We might expect to do something, and he might add 10 more reps or 10 more sets, something like that."
Lawson's system appears to be working. The Vols — offensive linemen, in particular — have lost a lot of weight since first-year head coach Butch Jones brought Lawson with him from the University of Cincinnati.
"Physically, you can tell that bodies are changing," James said. "I feel the guys have responded well as a team, and it's going to be beneficial to the season."
Richardson, who played at close to 340 pounds in 2012, remains a far cry from his nickname — Tiny — but he's not nearly as hefty as he was last fall.
"Right now I'm a good 318," he said. "I haven't been that light since I've been in college, so the conditioning is definitely working out."
Tennessee's players routinely ran out of gas in the fourth quarter of games last fall. It appears they may be the fresher team in the fourth quarter this fall. That's a huge advantage — emotionally, as well as physically.
"Of course," Richardson said. "Half of the game is mental. In order to be mentally tough you have to be in shape."
The value of conditioning was dramatically illustrated three years ago. Tennessee played an uptempo Oregon team to a 13-13 halftime tie in Neyland Stadium, only to be outscored 35-0 over the final 30 minutes. The Vols expect to give the Ducks a better game in this September's rematch at Eugene, based on the fact Tennessee now runs an uptempo attack itself. The quicker practice pace is helping all of the Vols improve their conditioning, not just the offensive players.
"They're able to go longer and we're able to go longer practicing against it every day," Smith said. "That's just going to increase our stamina as a unit."
With a smug grin, Smith added: "I don't think we'll have any problems with fast-paced offenses this year … not to name anyone (Oregon) in particular."