KNOXVILLE — Coach Butch Jones said in the wake of Tennessee's 17-13 win over Massachusetts on Saturday that the responsibility would be on everyone in the program to bring passion and energy as the Volunteers worked to correct a "flat-out unacceptable" performance.
Jones brought both during his weekly media meeting Monday, as he offered a fiery rebuke of the growing unrest surrounding his program.
"Sometimes the negativity is overwhelming," he said.
The message came as the Vols (3-1) prepare for a Southeastern Conference showdown with No. 7 Georgia (4-0) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium that is shaping up as a defining moment for Jones' fifth team at Tennessee.
During his roughly 20-minute meeting with reporters, Jones scoffed at a request for his evaluation of the seemingly murky quarterback situation, said he thinks media are running a reality TV show "that feeds off drama" and ended with a two-minute diatribe that invoked the term "fake news."
The lone question he openly found favor with — saying "you know, that's a good question" — referred back to Saturday's postgame theme.
"We talk about the different things that make up the structure of our football program, little things that maybe no one really sees until they're not there, things that embody our football program," Jones said. "And it starts first and foremost with energy and passion."
Both were lacking against UMass, Jones said.
"We will not go backwards with that," he said. "We will address that situation. You can make a lot of excuses for it, but there is no excuse for lack of passion and energy."
Jones planned to meet with Tennessee's freshman players Monday afternoon. Among the topics to be covered was their role in providing energy and passion even when they are not playing.
Saturday's CBS SEC Game of the Week stage against Georgia in front of an expected capacity crowd at Neyland Stadium figures to naturally bring more life to the Vols' sideline. But the team is also looking to its veterans and a list of injured players to spark the energy and passion Jones desires at practice and on Saturdays.
"I think that's something we need to take care of inside the team, I guess," senior offensive tackle Brett Kendrick said. "Obviously, senior leaders and just older guys in general out there can kind of show the younger guys what it's supposed to look like and how the sidelines are supposed to look. I think that would be huge for us, and we'll get that corrected."
A question about why injured receiver Jauan Jennings — one of the team's most energetic leaders — has been absent from the sideline was among those Jones met critically on Monday.
"You guys look for everything," Jones said before saying that it bothers Jennings to be so close to the action and unable to participate.
"The way he's wired, he wants to go out there and do it," Jones said. "Knowing Jauan, I'd be afraid he'd run on the field regardless and try to play. Jauan's doing everything he can to get back."
Jones' fire reached its apex when he was asked if the injury that kept defensive tackle Shy Tuttle out of the lineup against UMass was inflicted by a teammate.
"Well, I'll tell you this," Jones said, "football is an emotional game that's a competitive game."
He added that Tuttle's injury was caused not by a teammate but by Tuttle "landing on a helmet."
The coach's tone then grew noticeably more urgent as he commented on the media, "the drama," the positives of the football program and the seriousness with which he approaches his responsibility as Tennessee's coach.
"But also, I love our kids and I'm going to protect our players," Jones said. "And I'm going to protect our program. Sometimes, again, we have to check ourselves."
Tennessee, despite a devastating list of injuries to key players for the second year in a row, has the record most predicted it would have heading into the matchup with Georgia. But poor defensive play against Georgia Tech, a pedestrian win over Indiana State, a gut-wrenching loss to Florida and a lackluster effort against winless UMass have done little to inspire confidence that the Vols will end a nine-year SEC East championship drought this year.
Some media, both national and regional, have begun to speculate on Jones' job security. Athletic director John Currie's public comments on the matter have been supportive of Jones, who said to reporters Monday, "You guys have a job to do, and I'm respectful of that, but also there comes a certain time where enough is enough."
Contact David Cobb at firstname.lastname@example.org.