KNOXVILLE – The Tennessee football team's annual visit to Gatlinburg during December bowl preparation will include a different itinerary this time.
Instead of fun, the focus for the Volunteers today will be community outreach in an area recently decimated by wildfires.The team will sign autographs for elementary school students at Rocky Top Sports World at 4 p.m. during an invitation-only event coordinated by Sevier County Schools.
"Tomorrow's going to be a very, very special day," coach Butch Jones said after Tuesday's practice. "We're going to Rocky Top Sports Complex in Gatlinburg (to) sign autographs for elementary-aged kids. They've done some things with some invitations, and that's the least that we can do.
"Once that's done, we'll go into Gatlinburg and we'll have our annual team dinner and spend about an hour out on the streets and let our kids enjoy that. That community means so much to us. We're looking forward to that time and spending time with everybody in Gatlinburg."
Nearly 2,500 buildings were damaged and 14 lives were lost when high winds rapidly spread fires originating in the Smoky Mountains and threatened to engulf the popular tourist town.
Multiple players already have visited the area to interact with victims and lend a helping hand, and the Vols will wear their alternate Smokey Grey jerseys in the Music City Bowl in Nashville to honor and support the victims of the wildfires.
The past two seasons during bowl prep the team visited Gatlinburg and visited haunted houses and other tourist attractions in the mountain town, but this visit will have a different tone.
"If we can brighten a day, if we can put a smile on a youngster's face," Jones said, "that's what life is all about."
Jones said Tennessee's young quarterbacks have been rejuvenated by increased workloads during the first couple of bowl practices as the Vols look to get a head start on finding a successor to Josh Dobbs.
"I see the excitement because they're gaining more repetitions," he said. "It's one thing to take the mental reps, but you've really got to go do it. You can't learn how to swim if you don't get in the deep end of the pool. That's what they're going through right now. They're just excited about the amount and the volume of repetitions."
Youth development is an emphasis for Tennessee before the attention is turned toward installing the game plan for Nebraska, and Quinten Dormady, Jarrett Guarantano and Sheriron Jones are starting the quarterback competition that will heat up in spring practice.
"We're looking for consistency," Jones said. "Who manages the line of scrimmage? Who makes plays? It's not just in team settings. Everybody's being evaluated in individual drills, routes on air, everything that goes into it. All of our quarterbacks are very competitive and very driven."
Aside from injuries forcing him into the starting lineup against Alabama, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Venzell Boulware played sparingly until starting the last two games of the season at right guard.
Tennessee loses only one contributor (center/guard Dylan Wiesman) from its offensive line after the season, and Boulware certainly took advantage of the opportunity he earned late in the season.
"I haven't been in that position before, but I can imagine how tough it would be," left guard Jashon Robertson said. "You're working your butt off every day for those opportunities, maybe wondering when or if they're coming. He just stayed the course, worked his tail off and just handled the situation the way it should be handled, as a teammate and a team player."
Micah Abernathy's sophomore season and first as a starting safety got off to an excellent start as he led the Vols in tackles against Appalachian State and recovered three fumbles against Virginia Tech.
His momentum stalled when injuries began to slow him in October, but Abernathy still finished with 66 tackles, the second-most on the team behind fellow safety Todd Kelly Jr.
"It was a little bit of an adjustment moving to safety, but I'm my biggest critic," he said. "I'm harder on myself than anybody else. I felt like I did a pretty good job this year, but there's always things you want to do better and I'm trying to work on that in bowl practices."
This article is written by Patrick Brown from Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.