By Alex Norman
The past few weeks have been filled with off the field distractions for Tennessee’s football program. So actually getting back on the field for spring practice is a welcome change. Vols head coach Butch Jones met with the media on before the first practice in Monday, March 7th, and said that he doesn’t believe the criticism of his program will have an effect on what they are trying to accomplish.
“Our players have been very focused, very driven. We’ve had the best off-season we’ve had since we’ve been here. Very driven both academically and athletically,” said Jones. “So, I don’t see that being an issue one bit. They’re worked hard to earn this right to go out and have a great spring football. Now, it’s on us and it’s on them. I know they’re excited, and I know we’re excited.”
Expectations have been gradually building at Tennessee since Butch Jones arrived in December 2012. From 5 wins in 2013 to 7 wins in 2014 and 9 wins in 2015, the Vols are no longer SEC pretenders, making these 15 spring practices crucial towards even more improvement in 2016.
“To me, this is the most exciting time of the year. It’s all about reinventing yourself and establishing your identity as a football team,” said Jones. “It’s the first time Team 120 takes the field. We are learning situational football and creating habits. We have spoken the whole offseason about how we are 13-5 in the last 18 games as a football program. Those five losses have come from a combined 25 points. We are searching for those 25 points in everything that we do. Those 25 points are everywhere, but they are the hardest to score.”
The Vols return 18 starters, among the most in the country at this level. No longer will freshman be required to play right away simply because there aren’t better options. Now, the newcomers are providing much needed depth, which is even more vital considering that 11 players will miss spring practice due to injury. Among those on the sidelines are five defensive linemen (Derek Barnett, Andrew Butcher, Kyle Phillips, Shy Tuttle, Kendal Vickers) and kick return specialist Evan Berry.
Offensively Tennessee might have one of the best backfields in the nation with quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. However, when it comes to throwing and catching the football, the Vols have underachieved. Despite a collection of wide receivers that arrived with a good deal of 4 and 5 star hype, Tennessee has yet to turn the corner in that area of the offense.
“We’ve got to improve our passing game at all positions,” said Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord. “That starts with protection. We’ve got to do a better job at being firm inside and protecting the edges with the tackles. We’ve got to be more accurate with our throw game. Our receivers have got to work on releases. They’re really been working hard in skill development on the breaking point. That’s another aspect we’ve got to get better at. Running backs want to get better at pass protection. So, all parts of our offense have to get better.”
On defense, the Vols bring back a ton of talent, but the big news is the new defensive coordinator. Jones hired Penn State’s Bob Shoop to replace John Jancek.
“For me personally, what I want to get done, I want to evaluate our personnel,” said Shoop. Find out what the skill set is of each player, find out who are contributors are going to be. Who’s our best 11? Who’s our next best 11? Identify their strengths and put those players in a position that they can be successful and help Team 120.”
With all the coaching turnover and uneven quarterback play in the SEC East, the Vols realize there’s never been a better opportunity than this upcoming fall for them to win the division for the first time since 2007. They hope that a solid spring will help them get there.
Tennessee’s annual Orange & White spring game is scheduled for April 16th at Neyland Stadium.