- Associated Press - Friday, September 19, 2014

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Tennessee believes the painful aftermath of its first defeat can lead to brighter moments later in the season.

Volunteers coach Butch Jones said he made a point after last week’s 34-10 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma to see how each of his players was reacting to it. This was one instance in which he appreciated all the looks of disappointment.

“I wanted to see the look in their eyes,” Jones said. “I wanted to see if there was pain. I wanted to see if they hurt. And this football team hurt. That’s a direct correlation to their investment.”

That represents a major step forward for a team attempting to end a string of four straight losing seasons. The Vols hope the hard lessons learned against Oklahoma can help them as they enter Southeastern Conference competition.

“You can see a big change in our locker room,” sophomore cornerback Cam Sutton said. “The mentality that we have, we’re just a very hungry team. We want it all. Losses hurt. (For) last year’s team losses hurt, and a few minutes after the game or so you’d (be) down, and the next thing you’d know, they’re laughing and ‘hurrah-ing’ like we won. This year you can see a big difference.”



The Vols will attempt to show how much they’ve grown up in their next game Sept. 27 at No. 13 Georgia, where they’ll attempt to avenge one of their toughest losses from last season. Tennessee fell 34-31 to Georgia last year after giving up a game-tying touchdown with five seconds left in regulation and having an overtime touchdown overturned via replay.

Three games into the season, it’s already apparent this year’s Tennessee team is much different from last year’s version.

The Vols are tougher on defense, particularly on third down. Tennessee has allowed opponents to convert just 10 of 43 third-down situations. The Vols are tied for third among all Football Bowl Subdivision teams in third-down conversion percentage defense.

But they’re weaker in other areas. Tennessee has allowed the most sacks of any SEC team and is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry. Tennessee ranks last in the SEC in punting average.

The most obvious difference is that the Vols are much younger. Tennessee already has given starts to seven different true freshmen (defensive end Derek Barnett, tight end Daniel Helm, safety Todd Kelly Jr., kicker Aaron Medley, offensive guard Jashon Robertson, offensive tackle Coleman Thomas and tight end Ethan Wolf).

“I think there were times I looked out there (against Oklahoma) and the whole right side of our offense was true freshmen,” Jones said. “Jashon, Coleman Thomas, Daniel Helm, (wide receiver) Josh Malone and (running back) Jalen Hurd. It is what it is. We have to be careful that we don’t put so much stress and expectations on these 17- and 18-year-olds. They’re still freshmen.”

Many of those freshmen came from winning high school programs and aren’t accustomed to losing. That’s one reason why Jones wanted to discover how the Vols would respond after the Oklahoma game. He found a team upset about the loss but confident about the future.

“We were hurting after the game,” sophomore linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “Everyone felt like we let them off the hook. We feel we should have come out with the win, but no one got down. We came to work at the beginning of this week, so we’ll keep grinding.”

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