AT A GLANCE
What: Vols' season opener
Who: Austin Peay at Tennessee
When: 6 p.m. Saturday (Aug. 31),
Radio: 106.5 FM
KNOXVILLE — Bricks and construction projects have become synonymous with the Tennessee football program in the nearly nine months since Butch Jones took over as coach.
While his recruiting efforts have laid a solid foundation for rebuilding the Volunteers, Tennessee's new coach now may face his biggest challenge.
With his first game with the Vols less than a week away, and a brutal schedule ahead in September and October, Jones soon will learn how much progress he's made in changing the mentality of a struggling program. Before the Vols truly can began building, they need to make sure they've cleared all the debris.
"We're kind of trying to build something new, and to build something new you've got to tear down the old building," senior tailback Rajion Neal said last week. "Anything we once knew, once thought or believed in, we tore that down and we're trying to buy into his new blueprint, his new platform for building Tennessee back up. That's really all you can do.
"I feel if you don't buy in, you'll never really reach the potential of the coaching staff and what the game plan could potentially do for you. I truly believe, man, from the seniors on down, everybody has pretty much bought into what Coach Jones has brought to us. That's a man that keeps his word and brings excitement."
The offseason excitement of a highly ranked recruiting class and the positive feelings Jones has created will be tested by a team expected to have trouble winning a lot of games. Tennessee lost nearly 80 percent of its passing-game production from last season and has unknowns at quarterback and receiver. And even with a new coordinator, how big of a jump will a defense that was the program's worst a season ago make with basically the same cast of players?
The schedule, with five top-10 teams among the first eight opponents, isn't unforgiving; it's just plain cruel.
Jones developed a track record of winning at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, but Tennessee has developed a track record of losing over the past five years, a stretch that has included three head coaches, a revolving door of assistant coaches and strength coaches, four losing seasons and three postseasons without a bowl game.
Can Jones, a self-described blue-collar coach, and his staff instill that identity into his team within a year?
"It depends on your leadership," he said. "We preach it every day. I see us making great strides, but a lot of times it comes from within, it comes from your leadership. It stems from each player holding himself to a high level of accountability, but also holding each other to the standard and to the high level of accountability.
"I think we still need more. I think it's work in progress, but every day's an opportunity to teach. I'll point out leadership opportunities for them, where they could have helped this, and maybe on the field I'll call somebody up and say, 'Hey, this is what you need to do; go handle this situation this way.' We're constantly teaching it every single day."
Jones and his staff can coach and teach until their voices are gone, but it's really up to the players.
Many of them throughout the offseason have spoken highly of Jones and the changes he's brought to the program on and off the practice field. The staff is demanding and spares no detail. The Vols have practiced more situational football this preseason than in ones past.
At the recommendation of some of the assistant coaches, players watched video of last year's preseason practice to compare it to this year's, according to senior defensive tackle Daniel Hood.
"I never imagined that it'd be like it was," he said. "The difference, I was literally speechless. I called every D-lineman and told them to come into the room just to watch it to see the difference.
"It's just the little things. Say it's a 7-yard slant route or something. The D-line before, you'd play a block, then you'd plan and maybe jog a half a step and say, 'Well, they got the tackle.' Now it's like even if there's a tackle made, it's almost a dead sprint. It's not just a turn-and-look mentality first -- it's more of a turn-and-sprint.
"It seems so little, but I promise you, if you could just get up there and see the film of last year's camp versus this year's, you could tell this is a 5-7 team, then you'd look at this one and say, 'They've got these two things, let's see what they can do.'"
What many of Jones' past teams lacked in talent, they made up for in effort and toughness, albeit in conferences less difficult than the SEC. As the coach has said, Tennessee's margin for error is small. The Vols can't afford to make costly mistakes in any phase of the game.
Jones wants his team to play with discipline and toughness, two things the Vols have lacked in recent years.
"I think it's all in your mindset," Neal said. "It's all in the coaching. It's all in being coachable. It starts with leadership, and if you can get those guys on board, then I think anything is possible."
Some of those seniors and leaders are under the third or fourth position coach of their careers.
"I think it's all in how you embrace change," Jones said. "It's sudden change; that's life. You know what? You have no choice. You need to embrace it, and the quicker you embrace it, the quicker you reap the benefits of it.
"We spend so much time on the why -- the power of why, why are we doing this, this is why we're doing it -- and I think because they understand why we're doing it that way, they can see the benefits of it."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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