KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Butch Jones enters spring practice at the University of Tennessee with a leg up on much of his roster.
Jones will lead his second spring practice, while nearly half the roster will go though its first. The reality of the youth movement is no secret to anyone familiar with the program, but it can be a challenge to set the tone for the practices leading up to the Dish Orange & White game on April 12.
Like the student-athletes, Jones is excited to hit the field for the first time since the Vols left Lexington with a 27-14 win over Kentucky on the final Saturday of November. But the excitement of opening practice is a temporary condition for the mentality of a football team. It's also an area where the youth and inexperience can show itself the most.
"We can have no bad days," Jones said. "Everyone is excited right now for practice one, but what happens when we get to practice nine, practice 10, just like going into training camp and that's where you rely on your leadership. The building of our leadership will be big."
The leadership could be the defining component of Team 118. Its development is tied directly to the team's development, which Jones would like to be player-led.
"I always say its better to be a player-coached team than a coach-coached team because it's the accountability in that locker room, that standard and expectation that they bring to the table," Jones added on the leadership. "Those are the marks of great football teams, they have that peer pressure, that inner drive to be the best in everything they do."
Another mark of a great football team is a great quarterback under center. The Volunteers used three different starters at the position, Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Joshua Dobbs, a season ago and had a fourth, Riley Ferguson, redshirt after an injury. All four return to do battle for the job as spring practice begins and Jones was blunt about what he wanted to see from the competition.
"I would like to have someone step up and emerge and be our quarterback." he said.
How that emergence happens is another topic. Jones isn't particular about when it happens, saying that he had no timetable for it, whether it's next week or two weeks before the Volunteers open against Utah State in August. He is, however, particular on how his quarterbacks compete for it.
"You don't know how many reps you're going to get, so you had better make sure you make the most of every single rep," Jones said. "Every rep is for a championship, every single rep is to be the starting quarterback."
The mental game isn't unique to the quarterback position, but it is a vital part to playing the position in Jones' offense. Jones said he is looking for leadership and decision making above all else in his signal callers.
"The quarterback position is a very cerebral position," said Jones. "It's all about making good decisions, good choices and managing a football game. There's so much that goes into it, everything is about the functional intelligence and split-second decisions. There are leadership intangibles, when everything else is going wrong, everyone is going to look to that quarterback and look into their eyes to see the confidence they have, not only in themselves, but in the players around them. We're looking for a model of consistency."
Complete transcript of coach Jones’ press conference:
"Good afternoon. It's great to see everyone. I've missed everyone. It's football time in Tennessee, so we're excited. I want to start off and talk about the positive energy that is surrounding the University of Tennessee. That was never more evident than yesterday. I'd like to say congratulations to Coach [Cuonzo] Martin and our basketball team. We're looking forward to a great Saturday- practice No. 2, a great opportunity for recruiting, a great basketball game. Looking forward to that and then Coach [Dave] Serrano and our baseball team undefeated right now. As you guys know, I'm a big softball and baseball fan. Our softball team as well, Rainey [Gaffin] and her no-hitter- the start that they've really been on and playing the standards of excellence that we talk about in our program. I think that's important for our football players to see the excellence that's going on in all the other programs and again, that really benefits us. We talk about being "One Tennessee," so I just want to say congratulations.
"Obviously looking forward to getting started with spring football. We have to take monumental steps in the development of our football program and our football team. The first step is really building our identity in Team 118. We really started building our identity the Monday in the conclusion of the Kentucky game. That's when we started our off-season strength and conditioning program. We wanted to get going immediately. Our players have done a great job. Dave Lawson, Mike Szerszen, our entire strength and conditioning staff has really done an outstanding job.
"One of the goals of going into the off-season is we, make no mistake about it, we must become a much stronger football team and football program, not just physically but mentally. Right now, when I talk about great strides- last year at this time, we had zero individuals in our football program that could squat over 600 pounds. Right now we have nine. Again, it's continuing to improve our strength level, relative to competing at a high level, especially in this conference. The conclusion of last year and going into this year- that foundation has been made. The standard, the expectation is in place. However, we cannot assume anything. I don't think I've ever been a part of a football program where just about 50 percent of the current roster is going through their first spring practice, so we cannot assume anything. We have to teach them everything. It's not starting from ground zero, because of the foundation that's been laid, but again, we cannot assume anything as we continue to elevate and move forward to what we're doing.
"Everything we know in this conference starts in the interior of the offensive and defensive fronts. It's going to be the development of our front seven defensively and replacing many individuals. It's going to be a great opportunity for individuals to step up and it will be a great opportunity for the rest of our freshmen when they get here in June. Offensively speaking, in the offensive line as well. A lot of our mid-year enrollees are offensive linemen, so that's been great to get them going, get their strength levels improved and continue to progress as we move forward.
"We spoke to our football team about the objectives that we have in spring football. First and foremost, I just spoke about it when we started, is building our identity and our style of play. That comes with a consistency in performance. It's a consistent approach each and every day the way we attack spring practice one through 15 but also our off days and our mental development. You can learn so much from just watching your film and learning from your mistakes. We must take tremendous strides in our fundamental improvement- the ability to play in space, block in space, tackle in space, our block destruction, winning at the junction point. We really made a point of emphasis this off-season working with the explosiveness with our hands, overall hand quickness and the violence in terms of velocity we get off blocks. That's something we have to improve greatly.
"Our football intelligence- knowledge is power. We talk about FBI. We have to improve our football intelligence as a football program- understanding situational football. Our running backs- understanding what the quarterback is looking for, `hey I'm the third read in the progression, I don't have to get out in my pass rush. I can give the offensive line just a little bit more help because I know what the quarterback is doing on the third read. I don't have to get out there.' It's our linebackers understanding their run-fix, drop down safety and vice-versa. There's so much learning that must occur in these 15 practices moving forward. We have to find out who our playmakers are, who are going to be our play-makers and not just on offense. When you think of playmakers, automatically our minds go to offense, but defensively, who is going to be able to rush and generate our pass rush when we need it. And the whole mental conditioning that we talk about is really being able to process information but also thinking strategically when you're winded, when your mind is tired- that's the mark of a great pass-rusher, one minute drill, thinking strategically. That's the next phase and evolution of our football team.
"I already talk about it. I think one of the greatest compliments in an individual is that they're consistent performers in everything that we do. We know what we're getting every single day. We can have no bad days. Everyone is excited right now for practice one, but what happens when we get to practice nine and practice 10? It's just like going into training camp, that's when you rely on your leadership- our leadership, the building of our leadership will be big- our overall team chemistry, our brotherhood, the accountability. I always say it's better to be a player-coached team than a coach-coached team. The accountability in that locker room- it's the standard and expectation that they bring to the table. Those are the marks of great football teams. They have that peer pressure, they have that inner drive to the best at everything that they do.
"Toughness, nowhere where we needed to be last year, but last year is over with. It is a new beginning, and it's a new football team. Our toughness must continue to improve both mentally and physically. We have to embrace sudden change, and we have to adapt and adjust. Football's life just sped up a lot faster. We have to be able to handle midstream adjustments and embrace those. We have a lot of things that we have to continue to improve on as a football team. I will tell you this; I am excited in terms of hungry group of young men. They are eager and willing, but they just need to be taught. The 14 newcomers have added a new element and dimension in all facets from the character of our football team to the competitive character of the team. They bring a competitive spirit every day, and they are excelling in the classrooms. They are driven and continue to push themselves. They understand the Tennessee brand and the standard/expectation that comes along with representing that brand. Our older players have done a great job with embracing and welcoming them into our family. They also hold them accountable. We have a few individuals who will not go through spring drills, but we will work towards their mental development in our schemes. These individuals will not being going through spring practice: Drae Bowles, A.J. Branisel, Brendan Downs, Ryan Jenkins, Brian Randolph and Trevarris Saulsberry. They will split their time in the weight room and working on the mental aspect, so when we get them back in June or July, they will be ready to go."
(On football intelligence being a key for evaluating quarterbacks)
"That is a critical component. The quarterback position is a very cerebral position. It is all about making good decisions and choices. They have to manage the football team. There is so much that goes into it. Everything is about the intelligence. There are split second decisions and leadership intangibles. When all else is going wrong, everyone is going to look at the quarterback. They are going to look into their eyes, and they are going to see what kind of confidence they have in themselves and the players around them. We are looking for a model of consistency and performance each day. A great decision in the process will be made from who can get us into the right protections and can manage the entire offense. They have to understand situational football. We need someone who understands that when it third and fifteen, if the pass is not there, put the ball on a check down and add five or six yards to a punt. This helps our defense. Part of playing great defense is a byproduct of not putting your defense in negative situations. In a nutshell, we are looking for consistency and performance from that spot."
(On knowing when the quarterbacks have taken steps forward)
"We will chart, film and evaluate everything. We will evaluate how they are in team meetings, in the classroom and how they perform in individual drills. Every rep is a valuable rep. You don't know how many reps you are going to get so you better make sure you make the most of every single rep. Every rep is for a championship. Each rep is for the becoming the starting quarterback. Has there been a timetable set on who our starting quarterback is? No, there are no timetables. That person will emerge. I don't know if it is the second week of spring, after the conclusion of the orange and white game or a week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself. Right now, they just have to work on making themselves better individually every day and being a leader. They have to prove that they can win at Tennessee."
(On differences in roster depth now compared to last year)
"Each position is a little bit different. They each have their own storyline when you look at depth. We are not anywhere close to where we need to be in relative to being an elite program. Elite programs are modeled with their consistency in depth. We don't have that luxury. It is still an opportunity in the recruiting process to come here and play early. I thought we took monumental strides at the tight end position, and we tried to add depth at the running back position. We are still not where we need to be, but the one position right now that is concerning is the offensive line. There is a recruiting class where there are no recruited offensive linemen in the entire class. We are still down a recruiting class. Normally, you want to have about fifteen offensive linemen on scholarship, and I believe we are at nine or ten. That is also with some position changes and individuals moving. We are not where we need to be, especially with the way we want to run the football and play with a high level of physicality. That is one of the things we had to guard against in this recruiting class. You are not going to fix all of your deficiencies in one recruiting class. That is just the way it is. You fix it over time with consistency and continuity. I thought we were able to build upon that in this recruiting class, but we still have a long ways to go in this program in terms of depth and overall competitiveness at each position."
(On differences in the quarterbacks)
"The biggest difference I see, in terms of their growth and maturation, is their bodies. We challenged Joshua Dobbs, and I believe he is at 210 pounds right now. He looks vividly different compared to when he walked in here as a freshman in June. If you look at Marquez North, Joshua Dobbs and Cameron Sutton, these individuals played for us as true freshman. They didn't have the luxury of spring football. They walked in as young adults. Within a little over a month, they are playing the SEC. The quarterbacks have all added the weight and muscle mass that they needed. This gives them improvement in arm strength. I think a full year in our system of understanding their reads, progression and the standard of expectations of a leadership will help them. They understand the demands with this position. I see them making tremendous strides. I am excited to put a football in their hands and see how far they have progressed since this past season."
(On the quarterback spot)
"I would like to have somebody step up and emerge and be our quarterback, but I'll also tell you this: building our identity in the football team and in the quarterback position and in every position, it's positive energy and momentum. I see individuals start that momentum from spring practice, carry it all the way through the summer months, to strength and conditioning and then moving forward into August camp. So, again, I think there's a monumental rule change that's going to change especially the development of the quarterback position in effect this year. We're able to spend up to two hours in the classroom with our positions. Now that counts against their time in terms of working in the weight room, but now for a coach to be able to have up to two hours a week to sit in a film room in a classroom setting and teach the quarterbacks and every position, that's a game changer. When we talk about functional intelligence and football intelligence (FBI), that's a big difference."
(On the importance of staff continuity)
"It's huge. You can't put a value on it because it's so significant. You win with consistency and continuity, consistency and messaging. We have a term in our football family called `all-aligned.' Everyone must be all-aligned in everything they say. If you go speak to our receptionists, if you go speak to our trainer, our equipment personnel, our coaches, our strength staff, they all speak the same language. We are all on the same page. We have it now and I've said it: you win with consistency and continuity. You talk about the development of the quarterbacks, but now our secondary can walk in and hear the same things over and over again from Coach (Willie) Martinez in the back end. Our entire defense is hearing the same terminology. We are light years ahead of where we are at this time. We still have much, much needed growth and improvement, but we have taken tremendous steps and strides in moving forward with this football program."
(On the challenges of a young team)
"You got to have a little bit of patience which you all know I'm not really good at, but you got to have great patience. You can't assume anything. It's the small details, so our older players have done a great job at really mentoring our younger players. It may slow down your installation a little bit. We're going to have five practices and then we'll break for spring break and then we'll come back. Those five practices, when we come back from spring break, are going to be critical that we're going to be able to retain the information that was processed in practices one through five. I will know a little bit more about the maturation process of this football team when we come back after practice six of how we respond after spring break. I think in moving forward, you can't assume anything. It's the small details, it's the meticulous attention to details that we must have. We always talk about as a teacher, our messaging must be clear, clean, concise and direct. We have to do that and we have to rely on our older players to nurture our younger players along."
(On if it is different than having a veteran team)
"It's very different, much different. You can start a lot faster. Your pace will be a lot faster, but I like it. It's invigorating, I know for me and our entire staff, because they're eager, they're willing, they have no bad habits right now. They hang on every word that you say, so that's the exciting thing. We only 13 seniors right now in our football program, so when you have an older veteran team, you can go a little bit faster. You can push them a little bit that much more. You're not starting over and we're not starting over, but a lot of these individuals have only been here for a few months."
(On the challenges of the young offensive line)
"It's probably a combination of both because you can't play the position if you're not strong enough, both mentally and physically. Then, you have to have the football background, the understanding of your schemes. Football is a thinking man's game. You have to think all the time. You add being able to do two or three things at once and play with a high level of physicality, trying to impose your will on defenders, trying to wear your opponent out for 60 minutes. You have to be strong mentally and so what we really stress to our players is complete, total understanding of your schemes. When you have that, the game slows down. That's what happens to an older, veteran football team. They have that knowledge base of their schemes where they're able to go out there and play faster because the mind doesn't tie the feet up. As a younger player, you're trying to do so many things at once. You're trying to learn what formation you're in, trying to learn how to line up, trying to learn about your stance, your start, then coverage recognition, then coming off the football, then executing your assignment, then finishing the play and doing it over again. That's why experience is always big. The other thing that's lost in this is individuals who are learning an offensive or defensive scheme, now you throw in the special teams game. Now, all of a sudden, you're adding a whole other element in terms of fundamentals, techniques and scheme, added to the basis and foundation you're trying to build offensively and defensively."
(On filling certain positions)
"Well, we had the luxury last year of having individuals that have played those positions for a long period of time, and I love them all. They are great character young men, they are doing exceptionally well, I talk to all of them just about every single day so you have that comfort level, where now you have individuals that most of them have never taken a snap in a college football game before. In so, again you have a different element, but I also see a since of hunger. Again, this football team has been extremely eager, so it's a balancing act, it's different, but they're all kind of exciting and like I said, I've liked our mentality. This is a team I've found very early that I can challenge them and they can respond. They have not backed down from any challenge that we have thrown at them, but as we know as the calendar winds down, the challenges become that much greater in moving forward."
(On the program growing the most between Year 1 and Year 2)
"Well, I do agree in terms with the consistency and continuity and the familiarity, our players understand us, we understand our players. I know more now where we are act as a football program and where we need to go. I know much more now sitting here talking to you right now, than I did a year ago at this time, but also every situation is different based on returning individuals, based on where you are act in terms of depth of a football program so every single situation is different, but there is and there will be mark difference from year two to year three and that's the thing we have to really focus in on is the process, we're going through a process, things don't change overnight, we live in an instant gratification society. I understand that, but we're going to build it the right way so it's set in stone for a very, very long period of time and you're dealing with individuals, you're dealing with 17-22 year old individuals, you're not dealing with robots, they all develop differently and so that's the exciting thing, we get to develop a lot of these individuals for the first time, but as we know there will also be some growing pains ahead of us as well."
(On offense identity)
"Well I'd like to think we're growing more of an identity of the way we want to play and I think that is evident in terms of the way we recruited. With the wide receivers that we were able to bring in, to track to come here to Tennessee, the running backs, the tight ends, we want to be much more up tempo. We want to challenge that ten second rule. We want to play much faster. We've got to get faster. The word "fast", improving team speed, we must become faster in everything that we do. As a team, in our thought process, our style of play, both offense and defense and then special teams as well. But we are becoming much more of what we want to be, but we still are not there yet, but we want to be an offense that has multiple, multiple personnel groupings, plays a number of different individuals that can run the ball consistently, and has a dynamic pass game that we can push the ball down the field, but really what makes an offense, is the players and their dynamics.
The ability to throw the ball up in the air and highpoint it and go up and get it, players that can maybe make you right when you are wrong, one of those `no, no, no, yes, yes, yes' to be able to throw a five yard hitch out instead of five yards and get tackled, it becomes a 35 yard gain. We all know we didn't have very many explosive plays last year and it's hard to play perfect, you can't, especially in this conference. We need playmakers, so that's why I'm excited to see how far we've come, not just with the 14 newcomers, but I think Jason Croom has had a very, very good off season. Marquez North, his body, he looks like a completely different person, he has tremendous confidence right now, he is one of those individuals that you just see that look in his eye and you see he's extremely competitive, but he's focused. He has that look in his eye that he's chasing greatness. He wants to be better, every time he steps out on the football field. He hangs on every single word that Coach Z says to him. I see that. I see that in Curt Maggitt, I see that in A.J. Johnson. That's rubbing off on Jakob Johnson. We can see with some of our younger linebackers, that is starting to rub off on them. I can see the whole mindset transcending on this football team."
(On Curt Maggitt being back on and off the field)
"Well it means allot, he's our leader, he's the one who has everyone's respect. When Curt Maggitt talks, everybody listens. He's the one getting up in front of the room, he's the one that's coming to me all the time, that constant communication, and then you look at adding him onto the football field. We have to do a great job as coaches, of putting every single person in our football program, putting them in the right places to succeed. We're trying to find value in every single individual on our roster. But I also told them this, `you are responsible for creating your own identity. Your identity is being born, on the field, off the field, you're building your reputation. In the classroom, academically speaking, in the meeting rooms, on the football field, your consistency in performance, and Curt is one of those individuals who has really built his identity. You'll see him all over the field. You'll see him rushing the passer, you'll see him dropping the coverage, you'll see him in the linebacker spot, so we're going to ask allot of him both mentally and physically."
(On traits in young linemen that will give them a look at offense and defense)
"Well first of all, we went into this recruiting class wanting big bodied athletes, individuals that could run, that were extremely competitive, and had versatility. And we have a number of these individuals that unfortunately, won't be here until June so I will be able to assess that a little bit more then, but you go back, and you look at the tradition, allot of our great offensive lines that we've had here at Tennessee, allot of these individuals came in as defensive linemen that made positional changes over to the offensive front. So we just want big bodies, those were at a premium for us, that could run, that were physical, and you always start them off in the defensive line first and foremost. And then if they're a step slower then you move them over to the offensive line."
(On strength level of incoming class)
"They're going to have to have a great June and July and then into August camp because where we're at in the program is, allot of these individuals will be playing, we have no choice. If not, you're going to be playing and I'm going to be playing and it won't be good. So they have no choice, so that's why we've been challenging the individuals that are in the conclusion of their senior year, we're challenging them right now at home to continue to get in the weight room and have that work ethic because they're going to play."
(On faster and improved special teams)
"I think that's what will be the biggest difference in our football team and it should be in terms of our overall team speed. I think that will be first extremely evident in the special teams game from the returner position, but also in our coverage teams. It's really evident when you watch the quality control of our punt team anytime Michael Palardy outkicked the coverage, we gave up a big return. We didn't play in space very well. Same thing with our kick off team, so I think you'll see a difference in our kick cover teams, again, allot of these individuals won't be coming until June, but you look at Malik Foreman as a young man that needs to step up. Devaun Swafford gained some valuable repetitions. These are all individuals that have very, very good speed. Justin Coleman has really added the weight and the strength necessary to compete at a very high level so we are going to ask a lot of him. So I see allot of individuals that have really improved individually and when you improve individually, you improve collectively as a football team."
(On concerns with Palardy being gone)
"Well everyone talks about the quarterback spot, and rightfully so, but the kicking game, Michael Palardy offset it, and I'll continue to say it, he was the MVP of team 117. His consistency and performance, and now we have to replace him. It's going to start with George Bullock, Derrick Brodus, Matt Darr, but also we're excited about Aaron Medley coming in and adding another competitive element and he's going to be thrown into the mix as soon as he gets here as well. But that is an area of concern because you win championships, you win football games by playing great special teams and that has kind of been the hallmark of our teams, is great play in terms of special teams and so much is about kick placement and consistency, being able to kick the 30 yard, the 32 yard field goal on a consistent basis. So I'll know a little bit more where we're at at those positions as we continue to progress throughout spring but also into August camp when Aaron gets here as well."
(On any offseason departures besides Gregory Clark)
"Nope, that's it."
(On special team kicker and punter being separate jobs)
"Whoever can be the best at those positions, whether it is one individual or two or three. We talk about the power of the position. Everything we do is the power that comes from every single position group and our specialists are just like that. Also lost in the mix is the replacement of J.R. Carr, our long snapper and short snapper. He was our leading tackler on our punt team and he brought a whole other dynamic in terms of kick coverage for our punt team. So again, these are all questions that we have to get answered immediately."
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)