KNOXVILLE -- It's still early.
With the start of spring practice, the influx of involvement from its large base of former players and three verbal commitments for the 2014 recruiting class, new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones can smile at the current state of the Volunteers' program.
"Our football program right now has a lot of momentum in all aspects," he said after Tuesday morning's practice, the Vols' second of the spring. "I think people around the country understand what we have here at the University of Tennessee, and they're waiting for Tennessee to wake up. We're waking up, and I think you see that in all aspects but he way we practice, the effort that our players are giving, the effort of our former players and also in the recruiting process as well."
Make no mistake, though, Jones, his staff and the players know the road back is a long and winding one.
"Definitely," said safety LaDarrell McNeil, "especially on defense. Just in the [secondary], we need a lot of work. We've got to keep getting reps and learning as we go."
As he stated last week, Jones wants his team to adapt to his standard of physical and mental toughness first before focusing too much on the X's and O's.
"We're still in that infant stage of developing our mentality in our football team," he said. "I told them now football practice officially starts Thursday, when we put the pads on. But we have to get a lot better in a hurry.
"It's our mental conditioning. It's being able to play through fatigue. It's being able to execute. We have very little in right now. I know they're trying, but we have to step it up a notch come Thursday, and obviously when the pads come on, the game becomes a lot different."
Since taking the Tennessee job in December, Jones seemingly has pushed all the right buttons during his his honeymoon period.
He and his coaching staff improved the Vols' 2013 class and are off to a good start for next February's class with verbal pledges the last three days from Virginia lineman Coleman Thomas, Knoxville safety Todd Kelly and Maryland receiver Neiko Creamer.
The 40 or more former players on the sidelines during Saturday's opening practice were a very noticeable change, and their presence of the past has resonated with the present players, who enjoy the chance to interact with the players who, as Jones says, laid the foundation and built the program.
All those things are positives, but Jones still has his gaze turned toward improving his first team.
"We have a long ways to go, I'm just telling you," he said. "I'm very impatient, but with this football team, we're learning. We have to come Thursday with a great sense of urgency.
"We have to come tomorrow in our lifting session and in our meeting also with a great sense of urgency. That's a process that these players go through. They have to understand the magnitude and importance of spring football each and every day."
More coverage in Wednesday's Times Free Press.