KNOXVILLE — The conflict probably rattled around in the mind of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones with every Jalen Hurd broken tackle or Josh Malone reception in spring practice.
The same mental battle probably will emerge again in the Volunteers' August camp when Todd Kelly intercepts a pass or Dewayne Hendrix makes a play off the edge.
Whether you want to call it a reason or an excuse, the fact is that Jones' second Tennessee team is going to be very young and will rely on immediate contributions from a handful of freshmen who signed in February as part of a touted recruiting class.
On one hand, some of those freshmen will enhance a roster in need of improvement, much as many of the 14 early enrollees -- including tailback Hurd and receiver Malone -- did for Tennessee's offense this spring.
Yet they still will be a year removed from high school playing in a league that's had 241 players selected in the past five NFL drafts.
"I feel very encouraged, very excited about the future of our football program for a number of reasons, but obviously the 14 newcomers did a great job," Jones told the Times Free Press in his office Wednesday.
"I think it's also a reality check of just how difficult it is for a true freshman to play and get ready coming in here in June, just having a month of training camp or 29 practices and then having to compete at a high level. I think that's a dose of reality."
Tennessee heads into the 2014 season with just 12 seniors on the roster, down from 18 in Jones' first season on the job. The Vols added 23 players in 2013 and signed 32 in February, so 55 players will be guys whom Jones and his staff brought to the program. That also means more than half the roster will be first- and second-year players.
Later this month, most of the rest of Tennessee's 32-player signing class will arrive on campus for summer school and the start of the offseason workout program. Many of those players are defensive reinforcements, and plenty will be needed to be ready to play in 2014. The defensive line and secondary are in particular need of help.
Two months of workouts and player-led on-field work and a month of preseason practice will be all that stands between the newest newcomers and the season opener against Utah State, now just 107 days away.
"When you look at the maturation phase that the 14 newcomers went through," Jones said, "they'll be so much ahead of the game because of having that spring under their belt both mentally and physically."
The late-May arrivals face a trickier adaptation. The months of June and July will be big to their development, but it won't provide the truest test of how quickly they can adapt. The mental and physical grind of being a full-time SEC football player and a full-time student really kicks in completely in when August arrives.
"These are unknowns," Jones said. "At least with the 14 individuals, they've been through a semester of college life, taking a full academic workload, where these individuals coming in have never been through that. That's challenging in and of itself, and then getting them ready to perform at a high level."
Jones said the 14 January enrollees went "over and above" the expectations he and his staff had for them so far, and he's touched on how they've improved the team over and over again since before spring practice even began.
It seems pretty clear the coaching staff believes Malone and junior college transfer Von Pearson at receiver and freshman tight ends Ethan Wolf and Daniel Helm have upgraded their positions. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Hurd gives the Vols a backfield dimension they've lacked. Coleman Thomas has been the starter at right tackle since he stepped on campus.
Is it fair or realistic to expect the defensive arrivals to have a similar impact?
Six of the 14 incoming defensive recruits -- linemen Hendrix and Derek Barnett, linebacker Dillon Bates and defensive backs Kelly, Cortez McDowell and Evan Berry -- were consensus four-star recruits. Three others -- linemen Michael Sawyers and Joe Henderson and linebacker Chris Weatherd -- earned four-star billing by three of the four major recruiting services.
Once they arrive on campus, you might as well toss out the recruiting rankings.
"It's probably hard because every individual develops at their own pace, but the reality is we're dealing with the realities of building a football program," Jones said. "The realities are they're going to have to play. They have no choice. There is no other individuals. They have a tremendous opportunity.
"That's why this summer, from a structure standpoint, is critical, with the two hours of meeting time but also getting them bigger, stronger, faster and relying on our older players to help mentor and develop them over the months of June and July and really into August as well.
"We're going to be force-feeding a lot of individuals. Repetitions are going to be at a premium come training camp."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
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 ...