Butch Jones didn’t try to make excuses, but he did want the media to know just how young his 2014 team is. That’s why, within the first minute of his opening statement, Jones broke down the numbers.
“On average, a third of college football teams change, the dynamics change, you have to reinvent yourselves each and every year. There's new opportunities for everyone in your football program from leadership to the roles of your players. For us at Tennessee, we're a little bit different. We're not at the norm in terms of having to replace a third of our football,” Jones said during SEC media day Tuesday. “We're having to replace almost half of our football team. This year half of our roster will be brand new.”
The Vols must replace both the offensive and defensive line, the quarterback position is shaky at best and both the kicker and punter are gone.
But there is good news.
Jones signed 32 players in a top-10 class and 14 of those players enrolled early and were involved in spring football. That helped bring a little continuity to an otherwise chaotic situation. And, it should bode well for the future of the Tennessee program.
“For us the challenge is going to be to maintain our focus, having consistency in performance, and really understanding what it takes to play winning football week in and week out,” Jones said. “We have great team chemistry. I like where this football team is right now. Looking forward to starting practice on August 1st. Quite simply, it's going to be how fast can we jump the learning curve.”
Starting QB spot still up for grabs
Justin Worley came into the spring as the as the top guy after throwing for 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns with eight interceptions, but his job isn’t secure. Nate Peterman, Josh Dobbs and freshman Riley Ferguson are all going to challenge for the starting role in the fall.
The quarterbacking position was a bit of a round-robin last year with injuries and poor play. Jones did get to see most of his competitors in game action, but most times there wasn’t a lot to like. But Jones said the offseason has done wonders for his quarterbacks.
“I'm very, very encouraged by what I've seen,” Jones said. “There is no timetable to naming a starter. I want them to compete as much as possible because I think competition is healthy. I also think the influx of talent around them at the skill spots, wide receiver, tight end and running back is also going to increase their overall level of play.”
It also helped that a famous alumnus has taken the quarterback under his wing.
“Peyton Manning is a great resource,” Jones said of the former Vol and current NFL MVP. “I know he's helped our quarterbacks immensely this off season, as well.”
Five-star talent, five-star expectations
While Tennessee will be relying heavily on several members of its incoming recruiting class, running back Jalen Hurd and receiver Josh Malone might be garnering the highest expectations simply because they were five-star recruits out of high school.
“Jalen has really, really done a great job in the weight room,” Jones said. “He's really sacrificed a lot of things in terms of his eating habits, his rest, his recovery. His body has taken off. For a 6'3" stature of him, he can get the tough yards, but he has the elusiveness to make a defender miss at the second level. He's going to have a great role. That's one of the selling points.”
Malone turned heads during Tennessee’s spring game when he had six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns. He dominated the Tennessee secondary and looked like a veteran even though he’s never played a collegiate down. and his play, along with the play of several other young receivers, gives Jones hope for the future.
“I'm excited about our wide receiver position,” Jones said. “It's going to be one that's going to be exceptionally strong.”
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