KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There’s an unwritten rule among Tennessee coaches to avoid looking too far into the future. That’s a fairly standard practice among college football staffs, but it’s also a way for the Volunteers to prevent speculation about a brutal 2014 schedule. The Vols have nonconference bouts with Utah State and Oklahoma by Sept. 13. They play at Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina, and they host Florida and Alabama during a particularly daunting stretch in October.
But Tennessee’s slate isn’t the most pressing concern in Knoxville. It doesn’t even crack the coaches’ current list of priorities. Rebuilding remains a frequently mentioned word on Rocky Top. That's why staffers probably stock up on Advil before addressing what lies ahead.
“I love when reporters are like, what do you think about game five? Whoa!” Tennessee wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said, throwing up his hands. “Let’s get through period two of practice. That’s where we’re at as a football team. We’ve got to learn how to stretch. Let’s not worry about the Gators right this second.”
The irony, of course, is the Vols have been eyeing the future since Azzanni’s boss, head coach Butch Jones, arrived on campus in December 2012. Tennessee was smarting from the wounds inflicted by Derek Dooley’s tenure when Jones won over the fan base before the team hit the field in ‘13. Still, Tennessee lost seven games for the fourth straight season last fall (a first for the program) and missed a bowl game for the third consecutive year, something that hadn’t happened since 1978.
But Jones’ debut campaign also included a few unmistakable bright spots. An upset of No. 11 South Carolina and a near-upset of No. 6 Georgia on back-to-back weeks last October illustrated the beginning of a culture change. Jones and company made monumental strides on the recruiting trail, too: Tennessee inked the fifth-rated 2014 signing class in the country, according to Rivals.com. Its list of ‘15 commitments ranks among the nation’s top 10.
There’s a positivity surrounding the program that hasn’t existed since 2007, when Phillip Fulmer led the 10-win Volunteers to the SEC Championship Game. But taking a step forward in year two under Jones will be a tall task. After all, youth remains a major obstacle for a team trying to reestablish its spot near the top of the conference hierarchy.
“There has been a complete shift culturally,” Jones said. “It’s not where we need to be yet, but every day you see progress. … I think we’re going through the realities of building a college football program at an elite level. But I think we’ve made tremendous strides. I think we’re right there in terms of mentality, the standard, the expectations.”
A quick glance at the Vols’ roster reveals why reaching bowl eligibility remains an iffy proposition. Forty-six of the team’s 95 players went through spring practice for the first time this year. Tennessee is the only major-conference school that loses every starter from its offensive and defensives lines, meaning veteran experience comes at a premium; the Vols count only 15 seniors on the depth chart.
Yet Jones believes Tennessee’s youth, which he calls “invigorating,” has raised competition across the board. Fourteen members of the 2014 signing class enrolled early. The signees who arrived this summer have impressed, and the team has taken bounds forward in the weight room. No Tennessee player could squat 600 pounds last year. Twelve can now.
at Ole Miss
at South Carolina
Freshmen running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone -- both five-star, in-state products -- are expected to contribute from the get-go. Safety Emmanuel Moseley has the potential to break out. Still, coaches are careful not to anoint any superstars. “We won’t know for sure until the lights come on,” offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said.
Tennessee wasn’t able to keep up with the SEC mentally or physically last season. Its offense started three different quarterbacks and averaged 23.8 points per game, 11th in the league. Meanwhile, the Vols’ defense was regularly exposed. Oregon and Auburn embarrassed Tennessee by a combined score of 114-37.
To address that issue, Jones brought in former stars Peyton Manning, Jason Witten and Eric Berry to speak to the team in June. Upperclassmen such as linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt have assumed more vocal leadership roles, and Jones has plastered the number 63 on every door in the program’s practice facility. According to Jones, an average football play lasts six seconds. An individual must make three great efforts to make any given play a success. Players are reminded of that each time they open a door.
“A lot of these kids that are going to be playing for us haven’t even gone through the rigors of a college football season,” Jones said. “The distractions of the media, the time management issues of classes and all those things that a student-athlete goes through. That’s why we just have to focus on the moment and win that moment each and every day.”
The good news is Jones’ messaging has taken hold. There’s a sense of continuity surrounding the program, and not solely on the roster. Jones’ entire staff returns intact. Few schools have experienced more recent coaching turnover than Tennessee, which is on its third head coach since Fulmer's ouster in 2008. “It’s my first time having the same defensive coordinator two years in a row,” Maggitt, a redshirt junior, said.
Maintaining the status quo is as important to coaches as it is to players.
“We don’t lose a step,” Bajakian said. “We don’t lose a beat. Having that continuity and chemistry has helped us move forward more quickly, in terms of our installment. I think that leaks down into the players. They see that and are able to have the same type of chemistry.”
Echoed Azzanni: “I had a neighbor tell me the other day, ‘Man, I hope you guys stay here a long time.’ I told him we all just built houses. That’s a big deal. I’ve never built a house -- I’ve rented everywhere I’ve been. With this place, we all kind of have that feeling that if we do it right, we could all be here a long time.”
The program’s focus is on the moment, but Jones isn’t blind to the expectations that come with the Tennessee job. Early strides in year one have cultivated a desire for more. Only time will tell if the Vols’ young promise can produce results.
“There isn’t any bigger stage in the country than Tennessee football,” Jones said. “… Fans can see the progress we’re making. Yes, we expect to win -- 5-7 is not up to our standards. But they see the improvements in the style of play. They can feel the energy. It’s contagious.”