'One year better': Jones, Vols embrace elevated expectations

'One year better': Jones, Vols embrace elevated expectations

February 22nd, 2015 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

University of Tennessee NCAA college football head coach Butch Jones, left, speaks during a press conference introducing Mike Debord, right, as the new offensive coordinator on Feb. 13, 2015, in Knoxville.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Like nearly every inch of wall space inside the Anderson Training Center, the hallway that leads to the small reception area outside the office of Tennessee football coach Butch Jones is covered in pictures and graphics.

More than a couple of the frames are from the Volunteers' 45-28 win against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl seven weeks ago, the program's first postseason success in seven seasons.

That success is part of the reason Tennessee is being pegged for more next season.

Since the Vols finished the 2014 season with four wins in five games and put the final touches on a second consecutive top-five recruiting class, elevated expectations have been rolling in for a program that's not had this kind of offseason attention in years.

Sitting behind the large desk in his plush, corner office that doubles as a showpiece for the various visitors who stroll through daily, Jones -- wearing a gray pullover with the TaxSlayer Bowl logo on the sleeve -- readily discussed the swell of hype around his program entering his third season.

"I think it's a compliment to our players. I think it's a compliment to the way we finished," Jones told the Times Free Press on Thursday morning. "I think people around the country can see the transformation of Tennessee football in all aspects, from our style of play to winning off the field.

"But we still have a long way to go. When you look at what this football team was able to accomplish with the inordinate amount of true freshmen playing, having to replace both sides of the line of scrimmage, most of our special teams being comprised of first- and second-year players -- they did a great job.

"We just have to continue to grow and elevate and develop our football program. You want to be part of a football program that has high expectations, which we do, but I continue to stress this with team 119: We just can't be one year older. We have to be one year better."

Slated to return nearly the entirety of a young, inexperienced team that weathered a midseason losing streak to go 7-6 last season, Tennessee is popping up in offseason Top 25 lists from various national pundits and analysts.

The Vols could wind up with the program's first Top 25 preseason ranking since 2008 and probably will garner some votes to win the Southeastern Conference's East Division at the league's media days in July.

One ESPN pundit recently picked Tennessee to play in the Sugar Bowl next season.

"I don't think you can hide it," Jones said. "I think some (players) are more worldly, some understand more than others. I think our team still has a youthfulness about them that they still don't get caught up in all that, which is a good thing. Again, you want to be in a program that has high standards, high expectations."

With the season opener against Bowling Green in Nashville six months away, Jones and his coaching staff are bunkering down in quality-control work, planning for spring practice and, as always, recruiting, while the players are in the middle of the offseason strength program and practicing on their own.

Jones and his assistants are stressing the notion of individual improvement breeding collective improvement to the players, who are setting one weekly goal, then meeting Mondays with Jones, their coordinator, their position coach and a strength and conditioning coach to review if that objective was met.

"This is the greatest time of year for me," Jones said. "This is my favorite time of the year, because this is really where your team is born. This is where your identity is born, your leadership is born, your work capacity, your work volume, your toughness.

"Individuals can concentrate on developing in the classroom. They can get stronger in the weight room. They can work on their conditioning levels, they can work on their technique and they can work on their football IQ, their football intelligence. This is really where your team is developed."

Through recruiting, Tennessee will enter the 2015 season on a much more level playing field with its fellow Southeastern Conference members in talent, though Jones insists the Vols are "not there yet" in establishing depth.

The 2014 and 2015 classes, Jones said, were necessary "to really jumpstart" Tennessee's program, and the Vols are bringing in plenty of quality players needed to compete in the unforgiving SEC.

There are, though, still holes in Tennessee's roster. The biggest question continues to be the offensive line, which needs help at tackle, and the Vols return one quarterback and one running back with experience. Tennessee lost one of its three-man defensive tackle rotation and must replace All-SEC middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.

"We're still a couple recruiting classes away," Jones said.

"That's why development of a football program, not a football team, but a football program -- there's a difference between developing a team and developing a program -- takes time," he added. "It does not happen overnight. ... You can't fix all your problems, all your depth, in a couple of recruiting classes. You develop that over time."

That time appears to be nearing, though, with the Vols expected to build off last season.

The ultra-competitive Jones is confident his program learned what it takes to win last season and developed the desired culture he and his staff continue to stress to players.

He shared a conversation he had with Inky Johnson in which the former Tennessee defensive back, now a motivational speaker, told Jones, "Everybody wants the prize, but nobody wants the process."

The process appears to be working for Jones and the Vols, which means more prizes are expected.

"It's all about winning, and that's why you compete," Jones said. "You want great competitors. You're in it to win football games. You're in it to win off the field. You're in it to win everything that you do."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.