Despite youth, Jones optimistic at Tennessee
Is this the year Tennessee turns it around?
Vol Nation is certainly confident, as is head coach Butch Jones who used a business-like approach at SEC Media Days to get his message across on Tuesday. His team’s extremely young with the fewest returning starters in the SEC, but that didn’t stop Jones from promoting his program as one that will have its nose to the grindstone in a competitive Eastern Division.
“Everyone is extremely optimistic,” Jones said coming off a 5-7 record in his inaugural campaign. “Everyone starts at 0‑0. No two teams are ever the same. That’s why we’ve moved on from team 117 to team 118 at Tennessee.”
Putting an end to four consecutive losing seasons and bringing the Vols back to national relevancy is the mindset in 2014 at one of the league’s most storied programs. Dealing with reality and a lack of depth in the trenches and secondary, Jones assured Tennessee’s fanbase that the Vols are taking the necessary steps toward getting back to bowl eligibility and keeping games competitive this fall.
“We are still going through the realities of building a college football program,” Jones said. “We’re the only school in the country that has to replace both starting interior lines, both offensively and defensively. We have to replace our entire kicking game.
“So for us the challenge is going to be to maintain our focus, having consistency in performance, and really understanding what it takes to play winning football week in and week out.”
His players, especially the veterans, are buying in despite the influx of inexperience.
“The expectation that coach Jones has set is consistent, day in and day out,” said junior defensive lineman Curtis Maggitt. “Coach Jones is guy that works 365 (days a year). He lives it and he loves it. I know some of the older guys like me and A.J. (Johnson) haven’t seen that kind of passion (around here).”
Maggitt’s back to full strength after missing all of last season with an ACL injury and says he plans on sharing his knowledge of in-game experience with some of Tennessee’s first-year players on his side of the football. Paired with A.J. Johnson, the Vols own one of the division’s strongest personnel groups at linebacker but will have to rely on many unknowns elsewhere.
“It’s all about our players understanding they have to earn the right to win,” Jones said. “There’s a difference between earning the right to win and hoping to win. Our players are doing that just right now. Our veteran players have done a great job of really mentoring our younger players.”
Midway through his time at the podium, Jones called Tennessee the ‘original Wide Receiver University’ and gave high praise to several wideouts including Marquez North who he expects to have a breakout season as a sophomore.
With nearly half of the team’s roster never having played a down with the Vols, second-year guys like North are forced to assume leadership roles.
“I’m excited about our wide receiver position and it’s going to be exceptionally strong,” Jones said. “We’re going to have great competition there. I’m a former wide receiver coach, so I’m excited where we’re going. Zach Azzanni does a great job with that position group with an overall mentality and a pride in the position.
“I believe that’s going to be one of our strengths in moving forward.”