KNOXVILLE — The timing is nearly perfect for Butch Jones and Tennessee.
Among some rules changes in college football, one under-the-radar tweak has the Volunteers' second-year coach looking forward to his team's summer work.
In a change the NCAA approved last October, coaches now can be present for mandatory summer strength and conditioning workouts, traditionally termed voluntary for players, for eight hours a week for an eight-week period, and two of those eight hours can be used for film study and review.
Previously, any interaction between players and coaches was prohibited, and teams were strictly in the hands of strength and conditioning coaches.
"The summer months are really where I think your football program and your football team really, really develops," Jones said during Wednesday's SEC coaches conference call. "I think the leadership that is formulated with it being a player-led football team is critical. The leadership, everything that goes along with it, the team chemistry -- that's necessary to win.
"But now, to be able to have two hours in a classroom setting, I think will prove to be extremely beneficial for us, just because of the influx of newcomers that we have in our program."
After adding 14 early enrollees in January, the Vols will welcome the rest of a touted 2014 signing class to campus later this month, and with so many of those freshmen and newcomers needed to fill significant roles immediately, it's crucial that those players will get some face-to-face interaction with the coaching staff prior to the start of preseason practice in August.
Though that interaction is limited to weight training and conditioning -- the footballs will stay stowed away -- many coaches are welcoming the change. For a staff like Tennessee's whose style includes plenty of teaching, the change, recently made by the NCAA for basketball, is a good one.
The element of player-led on-field workouts beyond the mandatory eight hours remain, and while coaching staffs with more experienced teams may elect to take more of a hands-off approach, the Vols' coaches figure to make full use of their newly allotted time.
"For us, it's going to be a balancing act, because you have to deduct that from your time in the strength and conditioning room," Jones said. "Having to play as many true freshmen as we're gonna have to play this year, every rep in the weight room is as critical as every mental rep in the classroom setting. We'll use a balancing act.
"I think for us, that rule change is coming at the right time."
Tennessee got exactly what it wanted in Sunday's scheduling announcement from the SEC, particularly the league's decision to keep one permanent cross-divisional game.
Jones and athletic director Dave Hart have been staunch in their stance of trying to preserve the Vols' traditional game with Alabama, and while Hart publicly has reiterated his desire for the SEC to move to a nine-game conference schedule, Jones said Tennessee's annual game with the Crimson Tide was his biggest concern.
"That's in our DNA," he said. "It's a great tradition that we have here. It's great for our fans, and I think it's great for the SEC and it's great for the country. That was the big thing.
"Really, I don't think there's any perfect solution," he added regarding the league's eight- or nine-game debate. "It's what's best for the conference as we continue to move forward. I support that, but the thing for us is being able to maintain the rivalry with Alabama."
The other part of the SEC's announcement -- teams must play a non-conference game against an opponent from the ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten or Big 12 starting in 2016 -- hardly changes much for Tennessee.
The Vols have played such non-conference games in every season but one since 2000, when Tennessee's out-of-SEC slate included Southern Mississippi, Louisiana-Monroe and Memphis. In 2011, Tennessee played Cincinnati out of the Big East.
In that 13-season span, the Vols have played Oregon (2013 and 2010), North Carolina State (2012), UCLA (2008-09), California (2006-07), Notre Dame (2004-05 and 2001), Miami (Fla.) (2002-03) and Syracuse (2001).
Tennessee plays at Oklahoma in September with the Sooners are slated to return to Knoxville in 2015, and the Vols will face Virginia Tech in the game at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2016.
"We play the best of the best," Jones said. "You look at this year's scheduling, we have Oklahoma at Oklahoma, and nine out of our 12 opponents on our overall schedule are bowl teams.
"In terms of meeting that criteria, we've always met that criteria here, and that's been one of the challenges in part of building this football program back is we've had a very, very challenging and very difficult schedule."
It's been nearly three weeks since Tennessee completed spring practice, and Jones said he thought the offense left those practices "a little bit ahead" of the defense and pointed to the early enrollees who made immediate impacts on that side of the ball.
"I think that's a direct correlation," he said.
Jones said the 18 summer reinforcements, many of them defensive players, should bring an "infusion" of depth and competition to a side of the ball that needs it.
"We should be," he said, "a different defensive football team."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...