Players are taking the lead for Tennessee football – Knoxville News Sentinel

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Butch Jones called an audible on 4th-and-1.

Instead of having the Tennessee football coaches organize UT’s life skills program during the offseason, he made his players take control.

Jack Jones, Micah Abernathy and Kyle Phillips are enrolled in Thornton Center’s VOLeaders Academy, which cultivates student-athlete leaders through sport to create positive social change within their teams, UT’s campus and local and global communities.

Butch Jones was flipping through their textbook a few months ago and decided they should put their leadership skills into action.

UT’s 4th-and-1 program is conducted every Wednesday and provides educational, character-building and leadership lessons to help develop more well-rounded players.

Jack Jones, Abernathy and Phillips designed this year’s curriculum and taught the classes.

“It’s something we have never done before and I thought it was very rewarding in a number of ways,” Butch Jones said. “I think what it really revealed is how hard it is to be a leader because when you are leading 80 to 90 individuals they are going to have their own opinions and have their own thoughts and times when they don’t want to be there. They had to keep them stimulated and interested and make disciplinary decisions as well.”

Having lost every captain from last year’s team to graduation or early entry to the NFL draft, leadership development is a major priority for UT during this year’s spring practice. The Vols completed their third spring practice on Saturday and have 12 practices remaining.

As much as Joshua Dobbs, Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara, Jaylen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton will be missed for their yards, sacks and interceptions, the leadership void they left is nearly as gaping.

Because of the large roster size and positional dynamics, football features more layers of leadership than most sports. Programs have overall team leaders and leaders within each separate unit.

UT senior Jashon Robertson didn’t hesitate in his response when asked who would be filling the leadership role on the offensive line this spring with Dylan Wiesman having graduated. “I am,” Robertson confidently stated.

“Sometimes it is something that you may go after and try to achieve being a leader and sometimes it falls into your lap,” Robertson said. “For me, I am just enjoying the opportunity to have that type of respect from the guys in my room every day. We are just trying to come out and show love for each other, grow closer together and just have a good time. Everything else will fall into place.”

Butch Jones has studied “servant leadership,” a phrase heard more and more from coaches in sports at every level.

Robert K. Greenleaf is credited with coining the term in an essay first published in 1970. Servant leadership is considered a selfless form of leadership.

Rather than using leadership for unrestrained power or personal prestige, a servant leader puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to their fullest potential.

Patricia Falotico, the Chief Executive Officer of the The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, said there is no empirical data on the use of servant leadership in sports, “but we know that servant leadership is a critical component to true teamwork and effectiveness.”

“Among the hundreds of profound thoughts Robert Greenleaf shared through his writings is this: ‘A team builder is a strong person who provides the substance that holds the team together in common purpose toward the right objectives.’ A servant leader of any sports team does just that,” Falotico said. “The substance comes through recognizing each player’s talents, cultivating a commitment to each other and supporting each individual’s growth.”

Developing leadership is an ongoing process at UT. Although the ideal way to learn is through watching veteran teammates set the example, Butch Jones wants leadership entrenched in the program’s entire culture.

“It is one of the most used terms, but I think one of the most misunderstood terms,” he said. “You have to constantly talk about it every day and live it every day to make sure they understand what it really means. Everyone can lead in their own way, shape or form and it can be large or small things.”

Senior defensive back Emmanuel Moseley is trying to increase his leadership responsibilities in the wake of Sutton’s graduation. Moseley said he’s comfortable as a leader after eight years of playing quarterback before coming to UT.

“Cam did a great job of coaching us. He wasn’t there last year a lot, so it pushed me to lead last year,” Moseley said, referring to Sutton’s foot injury. “But this year I am going to play a bigger role. But like I said, I learned from Cam so it’s pretty easy.”

UT’s player-led 4th-and-1 initiative resulted in even more players willing to lead than Butch Jones imagined. Through the first week of spring, he’s listed Robertson, Darrell Taylor, John Kelly, Todd Kelly Jr., Darrin Kirkland Jr., Kahlil McKenzie and Kendal Vickers as players that have caught his attention.

“Through the offseason and first practices, this is the most collective leadership we’ve had,” Butch Jones said. “Our players have done a great job leading the younger players and we’ve had more communication on the practice field than we’ve ever had. As a coach, that has been very, very rewarding to see.”

Although progress has been made in players taking ownership of the 2017 team, Butch Jones knows the full impact can’t be judged until a major test surfaces.

“Leadership is hard because it’s easy to lead when things are going well. When you really find out who the true leaders are is when you have to solve problems and when you are suffering adversity,” he said. “That is when you find out about a leader and their leadership skills.”

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