published Saturday, March 9th, 2013

Butch Jones feels good about first Vols practice

University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones talks about spring practice plans during a news conference.
University of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones talks about spring practice plans during a news conference.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — The sidelines were crowded, and the helmets were nameless.

A voice blared over the loudspeaker, a red flag waved in one end zone and a stoplight leaned against the fence.

You didn't need much time at Haslam Field on Saturday morning to know there's a new football coaching staff at Tennessee.

"There's a lot of different things," Devrin Young, in a new position himself at slot receiver, said after the Volunteers' first practice under Butch Jones, "but really you've just got to look at the immediate picture and you can't look at the big picture. You've got to focus on what you've got to do for that period. I feel like the team's really buying in, and that showed today."

The quirks of a Jones practice all serve a specific purpose. The nameless helmets reflect the family feeling the new coach is aiming to instill. The numerous former Vols welcomed to the sideline are part of Jones' effort to unite the program's past with its present.

Tailback Jamal Lewis, defensive end Leonard Little and coach Johnny Majors were just a few of the roughly 40 former Vols who watched Saturday's inaugural practice.

"We tell our players this all the time is the logo never comes off," Jones said. "We're one of the most storied programs in the country, and that's the way it should be. It's great to see our former players come back and be a part of it."

As for the oddities like the red flag, waved at the whistle of each play to signify the rep is over during a film review, have distinct meanings.

"It's to make sure that everybody's going to the whistle and nobody's pulling up [early]," center James Stone said.

Jones said Friday he'll find out more about his team when the pads go on Thursday, but even with the Vols working in helmets and shorts on a picturesque springlike March morning, he noticed some small details.

"I like the way our players have embraced our coaching," he said. "I like the way they've embraced our expectations for practice and taking the field and body position. I like the way they coached each other.

"That's what I look at, is teams that have great leadership, they coach each other -- they coach each other in every rep -- and I saw that. We can still work to improve that, but I liked the coming of the team. Again, we have to improve our skill set in every possible element of their game."

Tennessee has 14 more practices to accomplish that goal, but many players viewed Saturday as a good first step.

"We did a walk-through yesterday, but he turned up the tempo today," safety Byron Moore said. "He had people running around, and people were running into each other trying to get their section. I think it was a great first day for us, and we're just looking to build off it."

Said tailback Rajion Neal: "Fast-paced everything. I caught myself a little winded a little bit. Honestly I wasn't surprised, because we actually went through a walk-through of the practice, so they gave us fair warning.

"It wasn't shocking and it wasn't like I was going to die, but I was like, 'You know what, boy, we need to get right.'"

Name tests

In the past, the Vols have donned tape on the front or back of their helmets with their last names written on them for easy identification.

Jones ripped off the tape.

"It's done on purpose," he said. "We're a family, and we expect them to know everyone's names, and us as coaches need to know their names. We came out here and a lot of times in coaching changes you see the name on the front or the back of the helmets.

"We know our players, and that's been a standard and an expectation in our program."

Name tests are part of offseason team meetings. Jones will point to a player and say his name or ask a coach to identify a player or a player to name a coach.

"That's big and that's part of really getting to know our players," Jones explained. "There's something about knowing an individual's name and knowing you care, and if we're going to be a family, if we're going to be a team that's bonded by chemistry, that's important."

History tests

There are more tests in Jones' program.

When former players return for visits, Vol for Life program coordinator Antone Davis leads the current players through a review of that player and his Tennessee career. Current Vols also have learned about the players who previously wore their jersey numbers.

"The past is part of what we have," Jones said. "The tradition is part of what makes our place so special."

It's common for former players to speak to current players, as Lewis did with the Vols' tailbacks.

"He gave us little words of encouragement, the ins and outs of what he went through here and at the next level," Neal said. "When you can get little snippets and little cheat codes like that, why not go ahead and take it all in?"

In his three months at Tennessee, Jones' effort and emphasis on involving the former Vols with the program have resonated with some of the current team.

"I like him a lot, and my favorite thing is that he's making everybody understand the magnitude of what is Tennessee football," defensive tackle Daniel Hood said. "I feel like that's been kind of lost. Today at practice, we had 30-something former Vols come up, and I can't remember in the past three years having that many here.

"Those things are powerful."

about Patrick Brown...

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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