KNOXVILLE - New Tennessee football coach Butch Jones is just another person in the crowd when it comes to three Volunteers juniors' decisions regarding the NFL draft.
After meeting with two of them during his first week on the job last week, Jones has had little involvement in that process.
The expectation inside the Vols' program long has been that receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson and quarterback Tyler Bray would enter the draft instead of staying for their senior season, but only Hunter has made any announcement publicly. He stated his choice to declare for the draft via Twitter this week.
"I've pretty much been just like everyone else in what I've heard," Jones said during a 50-minute interview with the Times Free Press in his office late Friday morning. "I've tried to meet with them and give them my opinion and my thoughts. It's hard because obviously we haven't been here through the years to earn that trust, but I tried to be an individual who could bounce some ideas off and give them a couple of ideas here and there.
"I was faced with the same situation last year at Cincinnati. Every individual has their own reasons why they'll stay or go. I just want to let them know they are part of the Vol family and we'll support them in what they choose."
According to a CBSSports report Thursday evening, Bray will forgo his final college season in favor of the NFL. The junior quarterback, who returned home to California after Tennessee's final exams ended last week, did not return a call and a message from the Times Free Press late Thursday night.
One Tennessee official said following Jones' interview Friday that the program had received no word from any of those three players.
Jones said he met face-to-face with Hunter and Bray last week and received a text message from Hunter this week and "played phone tag" with others this week.
It was "invaluable," Jones said, to his program for offensive linemen Ja'Wuan James and Zach Fulton to decide to return for next season, when the Vols' offensive line will have considerable experience and talent. Jones said he's spoken with big nose tackle Daniel McCullers and is "assuming that he'll be back." Built more for a 3-4 scheme than the 4-3 base to which Tennessee will return, McCullers appears to be weighing a decision.
With most of his focus on recruiting and many players heading home for the holiday break after exams ended last week, Jones said he has been able to meet with only "about half" of the current Vols.
He said he's still evaluating three freshmen who weren't with the program at the end of the season. Defensive lineman Omari Phillips, who joined Tennessee's program after Florida failed to admit him, and cornerback Deion Bonner were suspended indefinitely for violating unspecified team rules. Defensive lineman Trent Taylor wasn't with the team while focusing on academics.
"[It's] still ongoing," Jones said. "A lot of it will be based on academics, too, and how they performed this past semester. I'm still in the process of gaining more facts as we progress here."
As with any coaching transition, Jones said he accepts attrition as "very natural" across the country, though those questions won't be answered until the beginning and end of the spring semester.
"The big thing I've told our football team is that everyone has a clean slate and they're building their own identity," Jones said. "They're building their football identity, they're building their resume and they're building their person brand, and it starts when we get academics today and how they did academically. When we get back, we're going to talk about being a champion, and before we can even consider being a championship football team, our team has to be comprised of individual champions.
"That's how we conduct ourselves off the field, that's how we do academically and it's how we attack the day in the strength and conditioning area, then into spring football and our overall leadership. If you have a team that's comprised of individual champions, then that lends itself to have the ability to be able to compete on the field. It's going to be an ongoing process.
"We have to make sure that from day one we lay the foundations, we lay the standards and the expectations that are going to embody our football program on a day-to-day basis."