Tennessee fourth-year football coach Butch Jones doesn’t need to think too far back to when his Volunteers were so irrelevant that it was evident in the empty seats at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama.
That was only 2013, when the downtrodden Vols and their unknown coach were afterthoughts. Now, after some heavy lifting on the recruiting trail and gradual-but-continual improvement on the field, UT is the favorite to win the SEC East.
The new commanded attention was evident in the packed house of media members who listened to Jones speak on Tuesday.
Expectations in Knoxville are high, but they don’t make Tennessee shy. Amid his routine array of cliches, Jones never blinked at questions about predicted success from reporters on SEC Network’s broadcast of SEC media days:
To me, I love it. That’s what you work for. You want high expectations. You want high standards. I remember standing up here at the podium three short years ago, and the room was half-filled and nobody was talking about Tennessee football. … That’s why you play, is to be in a program like the University of Tennessee where everybody is talking about you. That’s what you work for. Now it’s what you do with that opportunity.
He also joked that he’d heard in all the years of the media picking the champion, it’s only been right five times, so he didn’t know if that was a good thing.
That was a moment of levity in a newsy press conference during which Jones discussed the settled Title IX lawsuit, injuries, new assistant coaches and shuffling of some coaching titles. All of that was headline-worthy, but the biggest thing for the Vols throughout this offseason is the hype.
Are the Vols worthy of the praise or will they wilt on the big stage, much the way they did with late-game flubs against Oklahoma, Florida and Alabama a season ago?
As expected, Tennessee didn’t participate in much off-field trash talk (more on that later) in Hoover with classy representatives Joshua Dobbs, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. But that doesn’t mean they’re robotically going through the motions.
Even Dobbs—the quarterback who is always so careful with his words—admitted to GoVols247’s Wes Rucker that it’s difficult to contain emotions when thinking about the possibilities:
Some Tennessee fans joked on message boards about playing drinking games when it came to Jones cliches, and he said his share. But there was a lot of sincerity sprinkled in.
There seemed to be a quiet confidence among the orange contingent in the Birmingham suburb. Unlike the blustery Gators trash-talking a day earlier, the Vols talked about how far they’ve come, but they also acknowledged that where you start means little versus where you finish.
That doesn’t change the mentality of the team, according to Reeves-Maybin (via Rucker):
No taking the Gator bait
Last year, Jones stole the SEC spotlight when the normally reserved coach returned fire to former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier‘s comment that the Vols and Arkansas were doing “cartwheels and high-fives” following 7-6 seasons in 2014.
There were no such verbal fireworks this year.
A day after Florida linebacker Jarrad Davis delivered the latest low blow in the Vols’ direction following a few months during which defensive back Jalen Tabor tweeted several bulletin-board volleys toward UT, Tennessee players weren’t biting.
First, here are Davis’ comments regarding 11 consecutive wins over the Vols, via ESPN’s Brett McMurphy:
Reeves-Maybin just shrugged it off. “Some guys talk,” JRM said. “I just play.”
“I don’t really got time for that,” added Sutton, via the Orlando Sentinel‘s Edgar Thompson.
That doesn’t mean that once Tennessee gets between the white lines, it’s a group of altar boys. Sutton doesn’t like to run his mouth, but that doesn’t stop his teammates from running it for him. They’re 18-22-year-old kids, for the most part, so the chatter remains heavy on the field.
Reeves-Maybin joked with Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee that he’ll pick up Sutton’s slack if he keeps his trap closed following a big play:
Not only did Jones expound on new defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and tight ends coach Larry Scott on Tuesday, he also announced that some assistants would be adding some clout to their titles.
Jones announced that Scott—whom the Vols plucked from Miami—would also become UT’s special teams coordinator, holding both titles former UT assistant and current Eastern Kentucky head coach Mark Elder held in Knoxville.
Also, running backs coach Robert Gillespie will be assistant head coach for offense, and linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen will serve as defensive run-game coordinator.
Jones was very complimentary of the impact Shoop and Scott have made thus far in his press conference on the SEC Network telecast:
In terms of the coaching staff, we have two new additions. We have a new defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop. Bob has done a great job of coming in. We’ve really reaped the benefits since he joined our staff. He’s done a great job of building the relationships that it takes to be extremely successful with not only our defensive players but everyone in our football family and our football program. And then Larry Scott, who coaches our tight ends and also be our special teams coordinator, has done a great job, just like Bob, of really establishing relationships. It’s new energy. It’s new ideas.
Though continuity has been a vital cog in Jones’ first few years as a head coach, he’s injecting some new blood this year. He hopes it pays big dividends.
Title IX still on Jones’ mind
An ugly chapter reached a conclusion last week when UT agreed to settle a Title IX civil lawsuit with multiple Jane Does for $2.5 million.
It was a certainty that Jones would be asked about the lawsuit at SEC media days on Tuesday, and he didn’t shy away from responding, according to the Tennessean‘s Adam Sparks.
“I don’t view it as a relief,” Jones said. “I don’t view it as put behind us. I think that’s a serious matter, a serious issue that every college, every university, every college campus faces. It’s also in society as well. We’ll continue to have that as a learning experience for our football program.”
Jones noted that he’d continue to educate his players on the issues and continue to bring in guest speakers to address the real-world issues that face everybody—not just on college campuses.
Other newsy items that were discussed on Tuesday:
- Tennessee rising sophomore star Shy Tuttle saw his 2015 season cut short with a year-ending leg injury suffered against Georgia. Jones said the defensive tackle will resume running next week and would be “50 to 75 percent” when fall camp starts. That’s a little less optimistic than what Vols fans were expecting, but UT needs him healthy for the bulk of the conference schedule.
- Reeves-Maybin was named Tuesday to the Butkus Award watch list. The award honors the nation’s top linebacker.
- Think Dobbs can’t do it all? Well, he may need to improve his air assault on the field this year, but he’s pretty good already in the air. The quarterback literally helped fly Jones, Reeves-Maybin and Sutton back to Knoxville following Tuesday’s festivities.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.
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Source: Bleacher Report CFB