Tennessee focuses on player development with “VFlight” program

The program focuses on personal development, community development and professional development.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When players walk into Assistant Athletics Director for Player Relations and Development Ashley Smith’s office, it doesn’t feel like part of the football complex. It’s an escape.

“I think that environment and setting the tone is very important,” Smith said.

She said that her office is meant to set a tone like “a little touch of home.”

From inspirational quotes to a sign that reads, “Home Sweet Home,” the tone is clear.

“(If) a guy’s having a rough day, he can come in here,” she said. “Just kind of have a moment and just maybe read some things around the room and just regroup to go out and tackle whatever hurdles he’s looking to jump over.”

It’s not only in her office that she wants to help the people in the programs she runs.

Smith oversees a new player development program known as “VFlight.” It has a focus on educating and developing the skills of football student-athletes on and off the field. 

“Our top priority as a program is developing our players for a successful life beyond football,” head coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “VFlight will empower our players from the time they enroll to their transition into professional careers after graduation. We are excited about the vision of VFlight, and we feel all VFLs can take tremendous pride in this initiative.” 

The University outlines the VFlight program into three pillars: reVOLve, inVOLve and eVOLve.

ReVOLve focuses on growth and leadership, including programs that focus on diversity and inclusion, financial literacy, mental health, nutrition and wellness, personal brand management, player development and strength and conditioning.

InVOLve is about community outreach, encouraging students to develop lasting roots in their community, leading through words, action and service.

The final pillar, eVOLve, focuses on career development, whether it’s playing football professionally or finding another career path after their time at Tennessee is done.

RELATED | Read more on VFlight and its pillars

“I want them to realize that number one, we care and that and we care about them beyond just football players,” Smith said. “We’re going to do everything that we can to empower them to be successful when they leave this campus.”

Smith added that former Assistant Director of Athletics for Player Relations and Development, Dr. Mikki Allen, and assistant head coach Tee Martin had made progress with player development at UT prior to Dr. Allen’s departure to Tennessee State as Director of Athletics. She, as well as the other members of UT’s administration that work with player development, picked up where they left off.

Smith is an alumna from UT who worked as a student manager for the women’s basketball program under Pat Summitt. Since then, she’s worked closely with the NCAA before joining Tennessee and being promoted to her current position back in July of 2020.

Her younger brother, Trey Smith, is not just a star on the football team but has also slowly developed into a key member of the community, appearing in public health PSAs and helping to organize a march on campus supporting Black lives and fighting systemic racism and inequality across universities and athletics programs.

“I think that it kind of seems like we’re getting in an era in which student-athletes are now finally realizing the power that they possess. And so for us… we want to help them further use their platforms, but use it in a positive manner,” Smith said.

RELATED | Student-Athletes lead hundreds in march on campus

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