KNOXVILLE - Tennessee football coach Butch Jones made the observation near the close of Thursday's pre-spring-practice news conference.
"Michael Palardy, and I'll continue to say it, he was the MVP of Team 117," Jones said of his former punter and kicker. "His consistency and performance ... and now we have to replace him."
When the MVP of your 5-7 football team was your senior kicker/punter, it sounds like returning the Volunteers to winning seasons, bowl berths and consistent Top 25 rankings may take longer than anyone in Big Orange Nation wants to consider.
This isn't to say the Vols can't achieve all those things this autumn. The talent seems to be rapidly improving. Most coaches will tell you the biggest jump in play for a new staff comes from year one to year two, and to that theory, Jones said, "When I talk about great strides ... last year at this time we had zero individuals in our football program that could squat over 600 pounds. Right now we have nine."
Of course, he also said, "The one position that is concerning is the offensive line. There is a recruiting class where there are no recruited offensive linemen in the entire class. We are still down a recruiting class. Normally, you want to have about 15 offensive linemen on scholarship, and I believe we are at nine or 10."
Returning to that point, he later said, "Now you have individuals that most of them have never [played] a snap in a college football game before."
The problem is, within the sadistic, sinister Southeastern Conference, most folks believe games are won or lost along the offensive and defensive lines.
Even Jones said, "Everything we know in this conference starts in the interior of the offensive and defensive fronts."
And what does UT have returning up front on both lines? Basically zero. Nada. Zip.
All five starters are gone from the interior offensive line. Four stout performers also exited the defensive line, which inspires the question: If you can't hold your own up front, how can you possibly expect to hold back the tidal wave of pressure that's unleashed most every down in SEC stadiums on both sides of the line of scrimmage?
Not that Jones isn't doing all he can to convince his current players of the desperate need of Team 118 to improve its strength and conditioning, especially its strength.
"They're going to have to have a great June and July and then into August camp," he said, singling out his newcomers, "because a lot of these individuals will be playing, we have no choice. If not, you're [the media] going to be playing and I'm going to be playing and it won't be good."
This isn't to say that Jones said nothing to lift a Volniac's spirit.
He talked of improvement in his quarterbacks, though he offered no time frame for naming a starter, saying it could be as late as the "week prior to Utah State."
He also singled out rising sophomore wideout Marquez North, which opposing defenses would also be wise to do this season.
"Marquez North, his body, he looks like a completely different person," Jones said. "He has tremendous confidence right now -- he is one of those individuals that you just see that look in his eye and you see he's extremely competitive -- but he's focused. He has that look in his eye that he's chasing greatness."
That's the goal of every college football team at the start of spring practice: to chase greatness.
But Jones also knows greatness isn't built in one season. Probably not even two seasons. Perhaps not even three, though for how close to greatness fans expect a third-year UT coach to be, Jones need only look to the man he replaced -- Derek Dooley -- who was gone one game shy of three complete seasons.
So while sounding positive, Jones also sounded realistic, whether most of the Big Orange Nation wants to hear such sobering news or not after four straight losing seasons.
"You are not going to fix all of your deficiencies in one recruiting class," Jones said. "That is just the way it is. ... We still have a long ways to go in this program in terms of depth and overall competitiveness at each position."
Fair or not, just how long he has to go will probably determine how long he'll have to chase greatness as the UT football coach.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org