KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee football coach Butch Jones believes the lawsuit against the university over its handling of assault complaints involving athletes won't distract his team as it opens spring practice.
The Volunteers began practice Monday afternoon, a month after Tennessee was sued in federal court. The suit, which has eight unidentified women as plaintiffs, alleges that Tennessee has violated Title IX policies and created a ''hostile sexual environment'' through a policy of indifference toward assaults by athletes, including football players.
''Our players have been very focused, very driven,'' Jones said at a morning news conference. ''We've had the best offseason we've had since we've been here, very driven both academically and athletically. I don't see that being an issue one bit.''
An amended complaint in the lawsuit states former Tennessee receiver Drae Bowles assisted a woman who said she'd been raped by two other players, and that later he was attacked by teammates and told by Jones that he had ''betrayed the team.'' The complaint said Jones later called to apologize.
Jones has issued a statement saying he only tried to assist Bowles and that ''I will fight all of these false attacks on my character.'' He declined to comment further Monday and said he stood by his original statement.
Players agreed the lawsuit shouldn't cause a distraction as they practice.
''I wouldn't say it's affected our focus,'' linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. ''Once it's time to work for us, we go to work. We don't think about any of that stuff. Maybe a little bit outside of football, it might get in some guys' heads, but once it's time to work, we're all focused.''
In the weeks since the lawsuit was filed, all of Tennessee's head coaches held a rare joint press conference to defend the culture of the athletic program and athletic director Dave Hart held a separate media session in which he said that he trusts Jones ''implicitly.''
Jones has spoken frequently about the variety of guest speakers he has brought in to talk to his players about avoiding mistakes on and off the field. He addressed that subject again Monday.
''We talk about making the right choices and the right decisions every single day,'' Jones said. ''It's like raising your family. All of us that have children understand, you try to raise them the right way. I have three boys, and we've raised them the same way and they all have a different personality about themselves. They have a different way, the way they perceive things. That's why we try to have a variety in that program. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any school in the country that is (as) invested in that topic (as) the University of Tennessee.
''It's a year-round program. Do we need to continue to grow and evolve and improve? Yes, but every great organization is always looking that way.''
Tennessee is preparing for a season in which it is expected to contend for a Southeastern Conference title. The players say all the off-field issues haven't hindered them in their preparation for the season.
''It really hasn't been a distraction,'' quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. ''We're focused on the task at hand, getting better this offseason, getting better this spring. We're just excited to get back on the field and throw the ball around.''
The Vols return most of their key players from a team that went 9-4 last season and closed the year on a six-game winning streak to finish 22nd in the Top 25. The only starters from Tennessee's 45-6 Outback Bowl triumph over Northwestern who have departed are offensive tackle Kyler Kerbyson, wide receiver Von Pearson, defensive tackle Owen Williams and safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph.
But not all of them will be participating in spring practice.
Jones said Monday that safety/kick returner Evan Berry, offensive tackle Chance Hall, wide receiver Josh Malone, offensive guard Jashon Robertson, tight end Joe Stocstill, running back Joe Young and defensive linemen Derek Barnett, Andrew Butcher, Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle and Kendal Vickers wouldn't be out for spring practice due to injuries. Jones didn't specify the nature of any of the injuries but said all should be ready to return this summer.
Jones also said Austin Smith would be moving from linebacker to defensive end, Micah Abernathy would be shifting from cornerback to safety and Jason Croom would move from wide receiver to tight end this spring. Jones added that Abernathy also would be working out at nickel.
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