KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Butch Jones soon will turn his first Tennessee football team over to his strength and conditioning staff.
The Volunteers are going into very familiar hands from his standpoint.
Dave Lawson has headed Jones' strength and conditioning program for the past six years while Tennessee's first-year coach was at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. Such continuity should be an asset as the summer offseason workout program begins in less than two weeks.
"It helps immensely, the familiarity that our entire staff has with Dave Lawson and [associate strength coach] Mike Szerszen and our entire strength and conditioning staff," Jones said before Monday evening's Big Orange Caravan stop here. "They do a great job, and we've been through this for many years now, so [we] have that comfort level, but we're always growing. We're trying to elevate our summer strength and conditioning program.
"We do so much, obviously, with team-building as well, and leadership development, so it helps that we've been through this before."
The stern-faced Lawson has an old-school approach, and Jones said his demanding style is what will resonate most with the players as they try to improve during the summer, when NCAA rules essentially prohibit coaches from being around their teams.
Jones believes the taste of the ins and outs of Lawson's style from the winter workout program, combined with what Tennessee did during spring practice, should help the players maximize what's left of the offseason.
"The great thing is our players understand that they need to have a great summer," he said. "I think going through the 15 practices, but also the winter strength and conditioning program, they understand the type of mental conditioning that they're going to need to have, the collective energy, the toughness that's going to be required for them. I think moving forward into the months of the summer ... they understand.
"They'll probably run more than they ever have. But [it's] not just getting in better shape. We have to become a much stronger football team as well."
Jones said his two biggest gauges for summer improvement are progress in team's leadership as player accountability becomes paramount and, of course, the players improving physically.
And that's where Lawson comes into the picture.
"We let our player staff set the expectations this summer," Jones said. "We're going to challenge every player in our football program to have the best summer that they've had, a personal-record summer in terms of their lifting and their conditioning levels. We'll gauge that.
"I think it's a challenge to all of our players, but the great thing is it's coming from within and I like that."
Spring meetings ahead
After caravan stops in Atlanta tonight and Nashville on Thursday, the spring travels take Jones, athletic director Dave Hart and basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and Holly Warlick to the Southeastern Conference spring meetings next week in Destin, Fla.
The future of football scheduling, specifically whether the league will move from eight conference games to nine, is sure to be a hot topic.
Hart left no wiggle room to his stance.
"I'm a proponent of nine games, period," he said. "I'm a huge proponent of nine games for all the reasons I've articulated. Now, one vote's not enough, but I'd like to see us play that."
An extra conference game would make schedules more difficult, and half the league would play five road games and four homes games in a given year.
There's also historic rivalries, like the Vols' series with Alabama, that Tennessee wants to maintain on a yearly basis.
"I think the 5-4 is at play there, which I understand if you're a coach in the toughest league in America," Hart said. "I understand that, but I think we're going to see a day when all the equity conferences are playing nine games. Some day I believe that's going to happen.
"Will it happen in our league? I personally hope it does, but I don't know that it will."
Hart said he's had some discussions with Jones regarding the league's topics and believes both will be on the same page next week, but as a new coach, Jones is ready to do more listening than talking.
"I think there's arguments for both," the coach said, "but obviously being new, I want to hear the arguments and discussions for both."
Reserve fund report
Hart said Tennessee's efforts to replenish an athletic department reserve fund that dipped below $2 million is a "long-term process."
"We have a good strategic plan," he added. "The chancellor's [Jimmy Cheek] been absolutely great about stepping forward to help us in the short term, so we feel very good long-term where we're going. Certainly short-term, we're still working our way through that."
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 ...