KNOXVILLE — Jacques Smith received an unexpected phone call on his 22nd birthday.
The Tennessee defensive end got an early sign of what the Volunteers' new football coach would be like, too.
When Butch Jones called Smith less than month after he was hired in December, the former Ooltewah High School standout took notice.
"That just speaks wonders," Smith said after the Vols scrimmaged Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium, "of how this coaching staff is wanting to be in these players' lives on and off the field."
Tennessee's family day Saturday resonated with Smith, too. Players' families were invited to watch the scrimmage, and when the Vols were done, their relatives joined them on the field and met with their respective position coaches. The team and their family members then posed for a photo at midfield.
Smith's mother and grandmother were present.
"I haven't experienced anything like this, and this is my fourth year here at the university," he said. "It just brings the fun back. This is how high school football was and this is how football's supposed to be: It's a family sport.
"You have to be unified to play it, especially all 11 guys that are on the field, and that's exactly what he's doing."
A 6-foot-2, 244-pound rising senior, Smith said the sense of togetherness is one of the first things he's noticed about the new staff. After playing linebacker in Tennessee's 3-4 defense last season, Smith is moving back to defensive end. In coordinator John Jancek's 4-3 scheme, Smith is working at the Leo spot, which is a hybrid of a defensive end and an outside linebacker.
"It's a great learning step for me going back," he said. "You see the differences of the defense and how the gaps fit and the responsibilities. It's all a similar concept.
"It's nothing new for me, and I'm really excited to get it down and get the playbook in and ready to hit the road running."
The position change had little impact on Smith's production. As a linebacker, he made two sacks last year after registering half a sack as a sophomore in 2011. He finished with two more tackles and only half a tackle for loss more during his first season as a starting defensive end.
In Saturday's scrimmage with the first-team defense, Smith came off the edge to make a tackle for loss and was credited with a sack on the ensuing play.
Jancek said after a practice last week that Smith and Corey Miller were showing something at defensive end, and defensive line coach Steve Stripling said the unit still has improvement to make.
"I've been encouraged," he said. "I think we have numbers. We've got some older guys and some younger guys, and I think going to the 4-3, I'm not sure they quite know the expectations that we expect them to control the edge of the defense and apply pressure to the quarterback.
"It's a learning process."
Smith believes it's an easier transition back to the defensive line for him since he played there his first two seasons, and he said Stripling is doing more teaching than scolding.
"He's a technician," Smith said, "and he's going to get us right."
After so much went wrong during a 2012 season that couldn't have been fun for any Tennessee player, Smith is embracing one final season with the Vols and working with a sense of urgency during his final spring practice.
"It's my last one," he said. "I'm giving it my all. I'm going to be a true Vol this year and represent my state well.
"We just lost the spirit [last season], and that's why I'm excited about this year. This Team 117, I love everything Coach Jones has been embracing this year. This is a new start for the Vols, and we're going to nail it this year."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...