Tennessee football: Vols seniors want a winning finish to 'great journey'
When Cameron Sutton stepped onto Tennessee's campus in 2013, he was joining a program mired in a stretch of three consecutive losing seasons and starved for a return to success.
The Volunteers are nearly there, and the cornerback would love nothing more than to complete the rebuilding job in his senior season with the program.
Asked Tuesday at SEC media days if the ascent had been rewarding, Sutton said, "It has. That class and the guys that came in with me have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. Adversity hit us hard our first year, going 5-7 and watching all the bowl games and really being down.
"Now having back-to-back bowl wins, we're not satisfied with that. We obviously want to accomplish bigger things than just winning bowl games. It's definitely been a great journey we've been on."
The two Tennessee seniors accompanying Sutton at Hoover, Ala., feel the same way.
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In the two seasons prior to the trio joining the program, the Vols won just two SEC games. On Thursday they were picked in the SEC's preseason poll to win the East Division.
"Everyone wants to get into the recruiting process of three-stars, four-stars, five-stars -- we want five-stars in character," Jones said. "We have a recruiting profile, and I think we trust our assessment of their skills. We'll never compromise in five-star character, and all three of those individuals have that.
"They had options to go elsewhere. We had 31 days to put together a recruiting class, and they've stayed the course. They have really laid the hard work and the foundation for what we're experiencing right now."
Jones's first recruiting visit as Tennessee's coach in December 2012 was to see Reeves-Maybin of Clarksville, who had committed to the Vols over Ole Miss in August, and the four-star athlete stuck with his home-state program.
Sutton, an under-the-radar three-star prospect out of Georgia, also committed to Tennessee in August, but he took an official visit to Auburn in January before electing to sign with the Vols.
Dobbs was a signing-day flip from Arizona State.
All three played as freshmen in 2013, when Tennessee went 5-7.
Reeves-Maybin memorably blocked a punt to set up a touchdown when the Vols took Georgia to overtime, and he led the team in special-teams tackles.
Sutton started every game of his debut season, and in his second game against Western Kentucky he became the first Tennessee freshman since Eric Berry in 2007 to return an interception for a touchdown. He landed on the All-SEC freshman team.
Injuries to Tennessee's three other quarterbacks forced Dobbs into action for the season's final five games when it had been clear he was going to redshirt. He debuted in the second half at No. 1 Alabama and made his first start on the road against 10th-ranked Missouri. His first home start was against No. 7 Auburn.
"I still remember -- we were talking about it on the plane ride here -- his freshman year we played the University of Florida, and he didn't even make the travel squad," Jones said.
Tennessee took its lumps in 2013, losing four games by 28 points or more, and narrow defeats to Georgia and Vanderbilt kept the Vols out of a bowl game.
"I think that was the most games I've ever lost in a football season in my life," Dobbs said. "Obviously it was tough, and we're definitely strong competitors, so we hate losing. It was tough, but we learned a lot from that season.
"Getting the early playing time helped us all out, and it's made us the players we are today."
Even the past two seasons of Tennessee's ascent haven't been smooth.
Four losses in five games midway through the 2014 season included near-misses against Florida and Georgia and comfortable defeats to Ole Miss and Alabama, and in 2015 the Vols lost four games by a total of 17 points and blew three fourth-quarter leads.
Yet the Vols were able to navigate those bumps and now stand on the verge of what could be a special season.
"It starts with the coaching staff," Reeves-Maybin said. "They painted visions for us. They held us to a standard. From a player standpoint, I think we started to get a lot of accountability on each other. We started not wanting to let our teammates down instead of playing for ourselves.
"Once we started bonding like that, even when we hit those low points, y'all have never seen us give up in four years. Y'all have never seen us quit. There's plenty of times we could have gave up. There's plenty of times where we had some bad press on us.
"Internally in our meeting room and our locker room, we never faltered and we were never fazed by it. We just kept working. That's how we had a successful end of the year last year and all this hype now."
No players want to help the Vols to deliver on that hype more than the three cornerstone seniors.
"Me and Cam were roommates freshman year, and I remember times we'd just be sitting there talking about the season or something," Dobbs said. "We were talking about the goals that we wanted to accomplish while we were here at Tennessee. The fact that every single goal that we want to accomplish is right in front of us is great.
"We talked about our class bringing Tennessee back to its spot where it should be. Obviously Tennessee has a great program of tradition, so that was our mindset when we stepped on campus. We've done that, and now we have to take care of business."
This article was written by Patrick Brown from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.