Jones fine with Tennessee Vols' 'team of unknowns'

Jones fine with Tennessee Vols' 'team of unknowns'

July 27th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sportscollege

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

VETERAN VOID

Tennessee unofficially has just 29 scholarship juniors or seniors on its roster, and second-year coach Butch Jones signed seven of those players out of junior college in the Vols' past two classes. A couple more of those players were former walk-ons who were awarded scholarships. Only two players -- punter Matt Darr and offensive lineman Marques Pair -- remain from the 2010 class.

Where did Tennessee's junior and senior classes go? In total, 17 of the 40 high school players Tennessee signed in 2011 and 2012 left the program before exhausting their eligibility. Here's a quick look back at those missing pieces.

2011

WR DeAnthony Arnett: After a solid freshman season, Arnett transferred to Michigan State to be closer to his ailing father amid a bit of controversy after then-coach Derek Dooley wouldn't initially grant him a release.

TE Cameron Clear: The jumbo tight end from Memphis was dismissed from the program after his arrest on felony theft charges in May 2012, but he played for Texas A&M last season after a year in junior college.

WR Vincent Dallas: The veteran of a very inexperienced receiving corps last season, Dallas left the program last October after catching 14 passes for 200 yards and one touchdown in 29 career games.

LB Christian Harris: A defensive reserve who primarily played special teams, Harris played in 22 games over the last two seasons before transferring to Division II Grand Valley State this winter.

S Pat Martin: Martin decided to transfer in August 2011 and signed with Middle Tennessee State in February after two years in junior college.

OT Alan Posey: The tackle from Georgia played in three games in two seasons following his redshirt year and transferred to Mercer early last season.

LT Antonio "Tiny" Richardson: Tennessee's starting left tackle for the past two seasons left for the NFL draft after his junior year in 2013 and signed with the Minnesota Vikings after going undrafted because of concerns about his knee.

RB Tom Smith: After recording 24 of his 37 career carries in 2013, Smith transferred to Tennessee State this past winter.

S Tino Thomas: Another Memphis product, Thomas enrolled in January 2012 after grayshirting, played in three games last season after redshirting and transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College.

2012

CB Deion Bonner: A big-time recruit until he was part of an on-campus theft at Georgia in 2011, the Vols took a chance on Bonner, who played in nine games before he was suspended indefinitely late in the 2012 season and left the program.

RB Davante Bourque: The former Texas A&M and LSU commitment from Louisiana abruptly left Tennessee in the middle of preseason practice and transferred to Pearl River Community College in Mississippi.

CB Daniel Gray: After making six tackles in eight appearances -- including a start against Troy when Tennessee gave up a program-worst 721 yards of offense -- Gray transferred to Utah State.

RB Alden Hill: The tailback from Ohio got just 10 carries as a redshirt freshman last season and transferred to James Madison following spring practice.

TE Justin Meredith: Meredith never played a snap for the Vols due to a lingering hamstring problem, but he helped out Tennessee's coaching staff last season while going on a medical scholarship.

DT Omari Phillips: Tennessee poached the consensus four-star recruit late in the summer after he was denied entry to Florida, but Phillips played in just one game and was suspended most of his lone season for violating team rules.

DL Trent Taylor: The one-time Miami commitment enrolled early, but made just one tackle in one appearance and spent most of his short career away from the team to focus on his academics before leaving.

RB Quenshaun Watson: As a freshman in 2012, Watson ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in six games, but he abruptly left the Vols the following January.

KNOXVILLE - In more than seven years as a head football coach, Butch Jones probably has never faced a task quite like the one he faces with the 2014 edition of the Tennessee Volunteers.

There are young, inexperienced football teams, and then there is the bunch Jones and his staff will trot out this fall, starting with the open of preseason practice on Friday night.

Tennessee's roster includes 51 players in their first or second years in the program, and there are only 11 players with 10 or more career starts, a list that includes punter Matt Darr and a pair of true sophomores in receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cameron Sutton, All-SEC freshman team selections last season.

The Vols' coaching staff firmly believes the touted 2014 recruiting class has upgraded the roster, but many of the 32 newcomers will have to play right away simply out of necessity.

A handful of veteran players will have a say in the direction of Jones's second season, but youth is the theme of this Tennessee team, one Jones calls "a team of unknowns," and that's fine with the head coach.

"I like it," Jones said at SEC media days earlier this month. "They sit there, they're eager, they listen to every word you say. They have no preconceived notions on anything. They just want more. They want to learn. They're hungry.

"Our older players have done a great job of mentoring our younger players in terms of the standard, the expectations now that are set forth in our football program. I like coaching a team like that. That's why we have to focus one day at a time."

Tennessee should certainly benefit from the coaching continuity that's long been absent in a program marred by turnover during its current downturn. There were no staff changes for the first offseason since 2007.

Strength coach Dave Lawson's second year in charge of the Vols' winters and summers concluded earlier this week with a late-night lift that featured some video bells and whistles and abundant energy.

Yet the reality that is the grind of college football figures to hit sometime early next month for the handful of freshmen the Vols may need to plug into certain roles this season.

Some rookies already have taken that dose of reality.

"The hardest thing was the tempo of the workouts," freshman defensive back Elliott Berry said. "In high school you have some hard workouts, but it's not an every-day consistent basis. The biggest thing was getting my body and my mind ready so that I could do that every day five days a week."

There's plenty for Tennessee's youth to learn even before the season opener against Utah State in 35 days.

"How fast can we jump the learning curve?" Jones said. "Every day is going to be a new experience for them. Every game, every practice, and it's going to be how we handle the clutter and distractions."

As Jones has noted throughout the offseason when discussing this prized recruiting class, players develop at different rates, and some will be more ready to play immediately than others.

"I just want to learn as much as I can both from the older guys and the coaches," freshman safety Todd Kelly said. "As a freshman, you come in only knowing high school things. The first week I probably learned than I ever have in the game of football within itself. That's gonna continue my freshman year, and that's what I hope for, is to just learn as much as I can."

But can Tennessee win football games while its youth is learning its way against a daunting schedule?

The Vols were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East for a second consecutive year, and while Auburn and Missouri showed last season quick turnarounds in the nation's most unforgiving conference are possible, Jones and the Vols appear to be at least a year away.

On one hand, the promising young talent means there is the potential to surprise, but it's not the ideal formula. This uncertainty might explain why Jones has Tennessee aiming for a bowl game while Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason and Mississippi State's Dan Mullen were tossing out division titles as goals at media days this month.

"Everything is about a bowl game and getting back to that," Jones said. "It's hard to believe that there isn't an individual in Tennessee football's football program right now from a players' standpoint [that's] participated in a bowl game.

"That's one step that we have to work to get back, but for this football team, it's the power of one -- one moment at a time, one day at a time, one snap at a time, one practice at a time. We just have to continue to progress, put our head down and get better week in and week out."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.