Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Wide receivers Justin Hunter, No. 87, Da'Rick Rogers, No. 21, and Matt Milton, No. 85, joke around while posing for photographers during the University of Tennessee Vols' Media Day at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.
KNOXVILLE — Gerald Jones has had a fine football career at the University of Tennessee, but he’s never fully lived up to the immense billing that came when he arrived four years ago as one of the nation’s premier prospects.
He just had his most dedicated offseason, however.
Jones arrived in preseason camp 10 pounds lighter and noticeably faster than he’s been the past few years. Of course, that speed is a likely byproduct of finally arriving in camp injury-free. Long gone are the braces and bandages that covered his knees and ankles.
“Man, this is my very first year coming into the season healthy — completely healthy — and I thank God every day,” Jones said.
The offseason plan was simple: Train harder. Eat healthier. Stretch several times every day. Never miss a training appointment.
“I’m treating my body better than I had in the past,” he said. “I was young and dumb and just eating whatever, but right now I try to treat my body right. It feels good to be fully healthy and not have to worry about injuries right now.”
Denarius Moore, a fellow senior receiver who lives with Jones, said his close friend has never looked better.
“He’s definitely faster,” Moore said. “Not as fast as me or anything, but definitely faster.”
Injuries last season prevented Jones from returning punts — his favorite part of the game — and he wanted to regain that spot. He felt insulted when coaches wouldn’t let him join the return specialists on the first day of camp and volunteered for scout-team duty to prove his worth.
“They told me, ‘You just stick to receiver,’” Jones said. “I said, ‘I’m going to show y’all I can do this, one way or another.’ So I went on the scout team and made a couple of people miss, and Coach [Derek] Dooley liked what he saw and put me back there.’
“I’m very excited to be back there.”
He hopes to keep proving that worth by taking a punt “to the house” in Saturday’s season opener against UT-Martin. Watching video of return units from Dooley’s Louisiana Tech teams and UT special teams coordinator Erik Russell’s Texas Tech groups has him considering that an attainable goal.
“I think this is the best special teams unit we’ve had, coaching-wise,” he said. “That’s the first thing they do every day — special teams, special teams, special teams. It’s proven. If you watch film on (Louisiana) Tech or Texas Tech, they have so many punt returns for touchdowns and so many kick returns for touchdowns.
“I’m excited, man. I know they’re going to call the right play and scheme them up the right way so I can get a chance to take one back.”
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