USA TODAY / Paul Myerberg
With 14 midterm enrollees, another 18 recruits on the way and 12 starters lost to graduation or the NFL draft, Tennessee coach Butch Jones will spend the offseason bringing together a team and program in the midst of a daunting transition.
But the changes haven't altered Jones' approach: Tennessee is moving forward at breakneck speed in an effort to catch Georgia, Alabama, Auburn and the rest of the Southeastern Conference, aiming to reclaim its perch in the nation's rowdiest league after a sluggish stretch as an also-ran.
When it comes to 2014, Jones' formula includes one dash of newcomers, a sprinkling of talented holdovers, two cups of all-everything talent and the team-wide commitment needed to return to the postseason after a three-year absence. If that sounds easier said than done, remember that this same methodology led Jones to five seasons of eight or more wins in six years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati – so the blueprint is there, waiting patiently for this wealth of talented underclassmen to hit their stride.
As his team prepares for summer conditioning, Jones spoke by phone with USA TODAY Sports national college football writer Paul Myerberg about Tennessee's spring, a quarterback competition, brand-new offensive and defensive lines, Tennessee's fan base and an eight- or nine-game SEC schedule.
Q: Any general thoughts on the spring? As you came out of it as a group, staff and team, did you at least come close to accomplishing all the items on your to-do list in your second spring?
A: Well, I thought our spring was very, very productive. Productive in so many ways. I think right now it's earning the right to win and believing rather than hoping, and teaching our players how we earn that right. From your commitment levels, to consistency and performance, to your goal-setting and planning, you accountability, your leadership, your toughness both mentally and physically. So all those things – team chemistry – all those things that go into earning the right.
Our players have done a really great job. I really believe right now we have a common commitment to success. Everything we talk about within our football organization is being completely aligned, everyone all aligned, and we have that alignment. I thought that the 14 mid-year enrollees really changed the dynamics of our football team from a competitive standpoint. Most of those signees were on the offensive side of the ball, so you could see a completely different offense.
We have 18 more additions that will come in June, and most of those are on the defensive side of the ball. So I think you'll see an influx of talent on that side of the ball. But continuing to establish our culture, our mindset, but also a work capacity. Also having to get these 14 individuals ready to play as true freshmen as well.
Q: Thinking about that culture shift underway with the Volunteers, do you remember when things clicked in your two previous stints (Central Michigan and Cincinnati)?
A: At Cincinnati, I thought our defining moment was our second year when we played N.C. State. We had played them the previous year and they physically dominated us (a 30-19 loss). They physically dominated us in every aspect. Then in a year's time we played them again (44-14 win), and I thought that was kind of a defining moment for us. You know, here we've had a lot of small victories each and every day, I thought. The victory over South Carolina was a big step in our style of play. Every day there are small, little victories that are being won. And obviously those small victories eventually, we're learning, will turn into victories on the field.
Everything we talk about, it's your style of play, it's how you play, it's how you compete. We use the term "63" and the effort strain that's required. (Jones has defined "63" as "Four to six seconds, three great efforts.") It's the discipline, the ability to do your job. So right now we're still dealing with the realities of building a football program. But I'm very encouraged by what I see.
Q: Attention's being paid to the quarterback competition. I know you've said the competition will continue when the guys return from summer workouts, but is it safe to say that two guys have separated themselves from this four-quarterback race?
A: I think we'll know a little bit more after summer conditioning. But I thought all four quarterbacks took great strides in moving forward this spring. I think they were a byproduct of us improving our skill level at the wide receiver position, the tight end position, the running back position. I thought they all took great strides. Now, the next evolution of this football team occurs in the summer months, and especially for a quarterback. So much growth and development and maturity can occur throughout the course of spring that we'll know a little bit more who are quarterback will be in August camp, when we get back into it.
Q: I would bet that you've never hit on a situation where you're doing a wholesale overhaul of the offensive line like in 2014. You had a few guys in the spring who can help immediately. You foreseeing things jelling in August?
A: I do. I do really see those individuals coming together. You're exactly right, so much is working together. I thought we had pretty good continuity among the five up front. I've never been in a situation where you basically have to replace both your offensive and defensive lines. Again, it's the reality of building a football program right now. We're going to have to play some true freshmen on both sides of the ball, and as we know in the SEC, at those positions it's unforgiving. But it's also invigorating, being around an inordinate amount of youth and developing them. I thought our older players did a great job of really mentoring the young players that came into the program in January.
Q: Is there something really pleasing about seeing an 18- or 19-year-old click on a single play even if there's a degree of inconsistency? I know you may not see the finished product for a few years, but …
A: It's an exciting feeling, you know. We have a lot of positive momentum and energy right now. So I can see the strides taking place. So yes, it is. And the great thing is everyone else around here can see it and feel it as well.
Q: The overall overhaul, from top to bottom: Do you have an idea as to how you're going to blend together a roster with about 30% new faces? Have you talked as a staff about how you're going to break everyone into the mentality?
A: Absolutely. That's why we really, really benefited from having 14 of the 32 signees here in January. I thought that really benefited us. Every moment's a teaching moment, every moment's a teaching opportunity. That's the way we've approached. You cannot assume anything. It's the small details that add up to the large details. Our style of play, our effort, our fundamentals, our team chemistry. They've done a great job with that. But us as a coaching staff, especially in the spring, every single day was an opportunity to get better and to coach and critique and correct. Now this is a huge summer for us because we have to get so many newcomers ready to play not just from the mental aspect but from a physical standpoint, in the weight room, as well.
Q: Nationally there's been a subtle shift from some programs away from the traditional spring game, which many instead choosing to spend that final day in their own environment doing final tweaks and fixes before leaving for the summer. Tennessee's different, I know, but do you see any validity to that approach?
A: I think it's where the state of your football program and that current team is. I think the nuances, the dynamics change from team to team. Do you have a mature team, a veteran team, do you have an older team? Or do you have a younger team? For us, it was critical for us to get into a competitive environment and compete like we did in Neyland Stadium for the spring game. To have just under 69,000 people there was invaluable for us. Because again, we're going to rely on … 50% percent of our players going through spring football were going through spring football for the first time in their careers.
So the ability to go compete in that arena, in that type of venue, was another teaching opportunity for us, another teaching moment. We tried to structure it in terms of some game-like conditions, but also we did some different things in terms of one-on-one competitions. We did wide receiver-defensive back one-on-ones. We did offensive line-defensive line one-on-ones. We did those things because we wanted to evaluate every individual in that kind of competitive environment to see how they would respond. So we tried to get the most out of the spring game as we possibly could. I think we were able to do that.
Q: Since you're going to have 70,000 or so in Neyland, have you ever thought about doing a dance-off, or maybe carrying a cat out onto the field?
A: No, too many people would laugh. Dancing isn't my thing. But it was all in good nature and good fun. We had our first annual student appreciation day for practice, and our student body means so much to us. In the landscape of college football where student attendance is decreasing, ours at Tennessee increased. I believe our student attendance was up over 46% this past year. We're really proud of that.
Q: Where do you stand on the eight- to nine-game SEC schedule at Tennessee, knowing that sticking at eight might mean the end of the Alabama rivalry?
A: The Alabama rivalry is very, very special to us. It means a lot to our fans and our football program. But I'm still in the process of evaluating. I'm going to meet here in a little bit with (athletic director) Dave Hart and we're going to review what's best for Tennessee in moving forward but also what's best for the SEC as we continue to move forward. I'm still in the process of gathering all the facts and information.
Q: Do you remember your first job? How you started, where it was, what the hours were like?
A: I started off taking a volunteer job in the summer months, volunteering to do the laundry for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in training camp. I did that job for about two weeks, and then I remember getting elevated to being on the field. And you never know what experiences or what sort of relationships you'll build, and that's where I met Doug Graber, who was the defensive coordinator at the time, at the end of May. When he became the head football coach at Rutgers he asked me to come with him as a graduate assistant.
My first full-time job was at Wilkes University. At that time I was making pretty good money, I was making $25,000 a year. I was also the intramural director and the men's tennis coach. To move up in the profession I took a nine-month job with no benefits, making $15,000 a year, at Ferris State. But I felt professionally I needed to move up. I had a wife that was willing to sacrifice.
You look at a lot of us coaches, I think the best coaches pay their dues and they work their way up. I had a person tell me a long time when I got into this profession that basically the longer you stay in this profession and you sacrifice, the percentages of you gaining the job, the big-time job that you want go up. Because this profession eliminates a lot of individuals who can't sacrifice, who can't take pay cuts. So the longer you can hold on in being in this great profession and continue to work, work your way up, the percentages increase. That was the advice I was given in the early days of being a (graduate assistant). And it always stuck with me.