published Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

UT Vols coach Butch Jones praises staff stability, players' efforts

Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones looks on from the sideline at Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones looks on from the sideline at Neyland Stadium.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE — For Tennessee football coach Butch Jones and his staff, national signing day is in the rearview and spring football is just around the corner.

There is far too much hustle and bustle inside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex, though, to think anyone in the Volunteers' program is taking even a moment to catch their breath.

A 10-minute snapshot of Tennessee's football offices late Tuesday morning -- coaches and other staffers popping in and out of offices or walking down the hall to the recruiting workroom, many of them with cell phones seemingly glued to their hands -- provides proof of what Jones, who got to his office at 4:45 that morning, would say less than half an hour later.

"This is probably the most busiest time of the year that we're going through right now, because you try to do so many things during this period of time," the Vols' second-year coach said at the end of a 15-minute interview with the Times Free Press just before lunchtime.

"Every day we have a very tight-knit schedule that's very structured," he adds, "and it's kept to the best in terms of structure."

The team is nearing the finish line of its second offseason workout program under strength coach Dave Lawson and his staff. According to Jones, Tennessee's players have swapped "230-and-some-odd" pounds of fat for more than 300 pounds of muscle. Nine players now can squat more than 600 pounds after that number was zero last year.

The Vols' assistant coaches jumped even deeper into recruiting the classes of 2015 and beyond before the last faxed national letter of intent arrived on signing day for the 2014 class earlier this month. Of course by then, Tennessee already had seven commitments for the class that'll sign next February. Weekends mean junior days this time of year.

If that doesn't seem like enough, there's more.

"The next component," Jones said, "is quality control in everything in your football program, from your recruiting and your official visits and unofficial visits to your schemes [on] offense, defense and special teams, to really rolling your sleeves up and looking at your personnel -- everything in terms of measuring where you're at as a football program [and] trying to improve as football coaches."

For the first time since 2007, Phillip Fulmer's penultimate season as the Vols' coach, Tennessee's cast of coaches is unchanged. Jones is the fourth head coach since 2008, and there's been a revolving door of assistant and strength coaches, particularly in the last five years. For the first time in a while, though, the Vols have staff stability in their program.

"Consistency and continuity are critical, especially when you're at the infant stages of building your program," Jones said. "We always use a term 'all aligned.' Everyone has to be all aligned in terms of our terminology, our standard, our expectations. Our coaching staff knows one another.

"The big area is our strength staff. They do a tremendous job. That high level of consistency and continuity -- our players, the older players that we do have, are hearing the same message now for the second time, and repetitions are the mother of all learning. That's been a huge benefit in us moving forward this offseason.

"It's also in the area of recruiting. Our coaches have the same areas. They have the relationships built up. We're building that trust with the high school coaches. They're becoming familiar with us, so it's not just the development of your football team, but it's also from a recruiting aspect in everything that we're doing."

With his first season and first full recruiting class -- a 32-player haul that ranked among the top five nationally -- behind him, Jones has his focus on his second year in charge of a rebuilding program, and he barely hesitated in identifying the next step his program needs to take.

"All the great programs that win on a consistent basis have great depth and great competition," Jones explained, "and we're not there yet.

"To give you an illustration what competition is, all of a sudden now you add D'Andre Payne and Emmanuel Moseley to the corner position. Cam Sutton had a very good freshman year, but now he's got two eager young individuals looking over his shoulder. The same thing with Justin Coleman. I think Justin Coleman has had a very, very good offseason so far.

"That's what competition brings, and we need that across the board, and it takes time."

Jones also cited improving Tennessee's team speed but noted that's "been addressed by youth."

In 2013, the Vols played 15 true freshmen, and they will play nearly that number or even more this season. The entire starting offensive line has to be replaced, and the six defensive linemen who played nearly all the snaps last season also are gone. The 32-player 2014 signing class is a big first step in overhauling the roster of a program that needed it.

At Cincinnati, the Bearcats bounced back from a 4-8 first year under Jones in 2010 to win 10 games and a share of the Big East Conference title in 2011, but it may be difficult for his second team at Tennessee to make a similar leap given all the freshmen and new players the Vols will be breaking into key roles -- and, of course, the strength of the Southeastern Conference.

"We're extremely youthful, so leadership is at a premium," Jones said.

"The characteristics and qualities that great teams have in terms of leadership, accountability, work ethic, work capacity, a level of consistency each and every day, that energy, that mental intensity and effort that it takes every day -- it's continuing to build and elevate just because of the inordinate amount of young players we have in the program.

"It's invigorating. It's exciting to come to work every day. Our players, nothing's been for a lack of effort. It's maybe been just again teaching them the standards and the expectations and just continuing to develop our schemes and our style of play."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.

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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