KNOXVILLE — The media guide calls it Butch Jones’s second season as Tennessee’s coach.
You could make the case it’s more like his first one, though.
After all, the Volunteers’ roster includes 51 players in their first or second years in the program, including the 32-man signing class that serves as the biggest piece of evidence that Jones and his staff have a struggling program heading in the right direction.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a roster flipped like this in the history of college football,” Jones said at the onset of preseason practice. “At some times I feel like we’re an expansion team with some first- and second-round draft choices and some veterans, and that’s what makes it exciting. Our patience will be tried.”
Jones came to Tennessee with a winning track record from his years at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, so the Vols’ 5-7 season in 2013 certainly did not sit well with him. And he does have some experience turning a first-year struggle into a second-year breakout.
At Cincinnati in 2010, the Bearcats were 4-8 with one near-upset — a 31-29 loss to No. Oklahoma — and losses by 24, 27, 21 and 18 points down the stretch of the season.
In 2011, Jones guided Cincinnati to a share of the Big East Conference title and a 10-win season.
With the Vols in 2014, Jones wouldn’t need a six-win turnaround to have a remarkable season, given they have to replace the entire starting offensive and defensive lines from last season while relying on a handful of freshmen to play a lot right away.
“I’ve been exceptionally proud of our players, but it’s still teaching them the culture,” he said. “I don’t think you just totally develop it in a year. It’s an ongoing process.”
A second year in a system is typically an advantage for players, but these Vols are so young that even defensive coordinator John Jancek acknowledged that’s not the case.
“The youth of the defense really wipes that out, unfortunately,” he said. “Coach [Willie] Martinez won’t be covering anybody, and Coach [Steve] Stripling won’t be rushing the passer. It’s what your kids know.
“There’s so many of them out there. We count the [first-year players’ black] stripes in the picture frames, and there’s seven guys in the front seven that all have a stripe on their helmet. It shows, but they’re working hard, and they’re going to be all right.”
Tennessee will be young, but some of the new Vols have upgraded some positions on the field before even playing their first collegiate snaps. And Jones has become increasingly adamant that youth can’t be an excuse.
“We can’t control how young we are,” he said after the preseason’s first scrimmage, “but what we can control is how we execute and how we take care of the football and how we play with effort.”
Second-year surges have become a recent trend for successful SEC coaches.
Alabama, with its foundation-setting 2008 recruiting class, started Nick Saban’s second season 12-0 in 2008, and former Florida coach Urban Meyer guided the Gators to the 2006 national championship in his second season. Georgia won the SEC title in 2002, Mark Richt’s second season.
Mississippi State went from 5-7 in 2009 to 9-4 in 2010 under Dan Mullen, and Bobby Petrino had Arkansas in a bowl game after a 5-7 debut season in 2008. Florida went from 7-6 to 11 wins and the Sugar Bowl in its first two years under current coach Will Muschamp.
What steps does Tennessee take in Jones’s second season?
“It’s everybody’s goal to bring back Tennessee to where it’s supposed to be,” said freshman linebacker Dillon Bates. “It will happen. It’s just a matter of time of us getting together and us doing everything we can to help this season and taking one day at time, not looking at the past and thinking about past seasons.
“It’s thinking about what we can do right now to bring us back to where we’re supposed to be.”
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 ...