KNOXVILLE - Tennessee opens football practice on Friday, and coach Butch Jones is looking forward to gaining a better grasp of what he'll have to work with in his first season with the Volunteers.
"Our players are very excited, and I think very rightfully so," Jones said Wednesday afternoon at the Vols' preseason news conference. "I think we've had a productive offseason program. Our players, to this date, have answered every challenge that we have given to them."
Jones, though, is hoping his team begins camp further along than it ended spring practice more than three months ago.
"How much have we improved our strength levels? How much have our conditioning levels improved? Our leadership, our team chemistry, our team togetherness?" Jones pondered aloud. "That's what I'm excited to see.
"We cannot start from ground zero. We have to take what we worked on in those 15 practices of spring football and continue to progress. We can't be starting back; we have to continue to move forward."
The Vols have to find a quarterback, develop consistent playmakers at receivers and learn a new defense a year after the unit registered the worst statistical season in the program's history.
Jones said his first Tennessee team has "bought in more quickly" to a new coaching staff's way of life than either of his first teams at Central Michigan, which won the Mid-American Conference title in 2007, or Cincinnati, which went 4-8 in 2010.
"I think we all know this. It's not a secret," Jones said. "Are we going to be the most talented team this year? No, we're not. We all understand that.
"But talent doesn't win championships. Teams win championships. The last place we won two championships in a row and I believe we were picked fourth or fifth in our conference, but I thought we had the best collection of individuals who bought into a goal and they held each other accountable to the standards and expectations of the football program.
The Vols are adding an outline of the state of Tennessee above players' names to the back of the home and away jerseys and adding "Tennessee" to the front of the white road uniforms.
When asked about the possibility of breaking out any special uniforms at some point this season, Jones did not shoot down the notion.
"I would tell you this: in today's world of recruiting and the age that we live in, that's something that's kind of been important to programs," he said. "I respect the great tradition we have here, and I think I've proven that. Everything is about our tradition, but we will continue to look and evaluate that, and if that's best for us, we will do that.
"There may be something coming, but everything that we do, and if we do it, we'll respect our traditions here at Tennessee."
Jones said he wants Tennessee's open practice, schedule for Aug. 17 at 7 p.m. at Neyland Stadium, to simulate a preseason game. The Vols open the season two weeks later there against Austin Peay, but the new coach wants to see his team perform with fans watching before throwing it out there in the opener. The idea, Jones said, originated during a meeting with former Tennessee and current Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning earlier this summer.
"In the NFL, they have the luxury of preseason games, so a coaching staff pretty much knows everything you're talking about [and] they understand how their players are going to perform in stressful situations," Jones explained. "I've seen this team 15 times, and we're going to be a different team in training camp than we were in spring football. Why the open practice? We're going to treat it almost like a preseason game in that I want to create pressure situations, I want our offense to have to execute the one-minute drill, I want our kickers to execute when there's people in the stands.
"I don't want us to perform the first time on August 31st against Austin Peay. I don't want that to be the first time with this team. That's really weber the idea was formulated and born with the open practice."