HOOVER, Ala. — Hundreds of reporters lurked, waiting for Butch Jones, the third and final coach to appear in the main hall on the first day of SEC media days, armed with questions like, "What do you think you've got to do to take that next step, you know, to get to Atlanta?"
One inquiry centered on where the 2017 Tennessee football team will turn for leadership with six NFL draft picks departed from a team that fell short of Atlanta, site of the SEC championship game.
Another question concluded bluntly with "Do you view that last season as a disappointment?"
Jones came prepared with answers from a perspective that reached further into the past than a 2016 season — derailed by losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt — that was the subject of many questions Monday on the first day of the annual preseason frenzy at the Wynfrey Hotel.
"I think if you step back and really look at the narrative, there are a lot of great things and a lot of positive momentum that continues to really progress in our football program," Jones said.
The narrative he pitched goes back to December of 2012, after Derek Dooley's three losing seasons as coach. Tennessee, Jones accurately recalled, was perilously close to being penalized for subpar performance in the Academic Progress Rate when Jones accepted the job. He and his staff have corrected the classroom woes.
"And then on the field, we're very proud of the fact that it's very, very difficult to win in the Southeastern Conference, and we're one of only three programs that have won nine games two years in a row," Jones said. "We've been very fortunate to have three straight bowl victories for the first time in 20 years in our great program's history and tradition."
But as Jones enters his fifth season as the Volunteers' coach, nine-win seasons and improved APR scores are not what he sees as the jewels of the Vols' future.
"There's so much more out there to be accomplished, and we've only started," he said. "And that's what I like about this year's football team, is there they're very, very driven, very, very motivated."
He painted a picture of progress, stopped short of calling 2016 a disappointment and laid out an optimistic view of the future that will first be carried out by a 2017 team he described as "blue collar" and "workmanlike."
The players he brought to the media event seemed to fit that description. Defensive tackle Kendal Vickers, a relatively unheralded high school prospect, has been a steady contributor for three seasons. He enters his senior year without the preseason accolades garnered by players such as Derek Barnett last year.
"Those guys are great, but they're not on the team anymore, so we've got to deal with it," Vickers said, referencing Barnett and other departed defensive playmakers. "We've got great players on our team now and guys that can step up and play those roles."
Tennessee's player delegation also included cornerback Emmanuel Moseley and offensive lineman Jashon Robertson and stressed a "next man up" mentality within the locker room.
Last year's team was led by stars. This year's team, Jones, said, will be led by committee.
"Leadership is the key to any successful football team, and we do have to replace some individuals there," he said. "But that's the exciting thing about this football team is it's really been leadership by the entire team. It started with our 17 seniors. They've done a great job of really educating our younger players about the standards and expectations within our football program, and this is probably the best collective leadership that we've had in our football program to date."
Jones apparently avoided any questions about his job security. But Vickers was asked about the sentiment that Jones could be on the "hot seat" this season.
He, too, took a broad view in assessing the job performance of his head coach.
"It's a little disrespectful," Vickers said. "When I got here, we were 5-7 and I was redshirted. Things were bad. For us to win three straight bowl games, us being 9-4, we haven't won every game and we go out there to win every game. He's changed this program so much, and he's done everything he's possibly been able to do to change the culture at Tennessee."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com