By Alex Norman
It was a beautiful day in Knoxville. On Tuesday, March 24th, the sun was shining brightly without a cloud in the sky. It was the kind of day that makes you realize spring is here and the long hard winter is over.
Vols fans hope that the weather that greeted their football team on the first day of Spring Practice was a harbinger of more good things to come, for a program that appears to have emerged from a long hard winter of its own.
Of course, that winter has lasted since the firing of Phillip Fulmer in November 2008.
“We have basically one goal and that is to be a better football team every time we step into the Anderson Training Center,” said Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. “Everything else will take care of itself. We have to work on being a much better football team. Everyone is responsible for their own self-determination. If every individual in our football program improves individually then we improve collectively as a football team. That is where earning the jersey, earning the right… all that is associated with it. There is an expectation on this football team but it all comes from inside, it comes from us.”
Jones knows full well that the anticipation is growing. Now in his third year in charge, Jones has seen his Vols win 5 games in 2013, then 7 games in 2014, including a dominating performance in the TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa. Throw in the fact that Tennessee returns 18 starters (tied for most in the nation among Power 5 conferences) and you can see why fans are so excited about the possibilities that the 2015 season could bring.
“Praise and blame… it’s all the same. I don’t listen to any of that,” said Jones. “I know what we have inside. And that’s what I like about our players. They’ve had a consistency in approach each and every day. They have not been entitled. They have not had a bad work day. But also I think it’s a compliment when your program has those expectations placed upon them because they see what’s going on here at Tennessee. They understand how far we’ve come from year one to year two to year three. And really the people inside the program know how far we’ve come. We’ve come night and day. The standard and the expectation are always going to be high at Tennessee. That’s what we expect and that’s why individuals come here. They want to play at the elite level. They want to play at the highest level, and they want those standards and they want those high expectations.”
One major change for the Vols this spring is that there isn’t an open competition for the starting quarterback position. In the previous two years Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson were all fighting for that spot. But Worley has graduated, and Peterman and Ferguson left the program. Wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as anyone that watched the Vols at the end of 2014 knew that barring injury, Dobbs would be the guy in 2015.
Jones says that presents its own set of challenges for the junior signal caller.
“You have to fight complacency. That’s a human condition. And Josh has been driven,” said Jones. “He’s just got that different look in his eye. And the other thing is, in terms of confidence, he’s leading others. He’s not setting the example, he’s leading them vocally. He’s been very demanding. He set up all the offseason throwing on his own. So he’s really taken ownership in that position.”
One challenge for Jones and this coaching staff is the fact that they are limited this spring. Key players like defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Curt Maggitt, defensive tackle Danny O’Brien and wide receiver Jason Croom are out due to injuries. Players like running back Jalen Hurd and linebacker Dillon Bates are participating this spring, but won’t be at full strength either after surgeries.
“It is going to be a challenge but that is what we need to do to get better,” said Jones. “Every day is an accumulation of knowledge and we have to make sure we are accumulating that knowledge each and every day. The biggest setback is the injuries. Having nine individuals out and a number of individuals that are day to day. That really hurts the progress of your football team. But again, if you look on the positive side, it also allows for many opportunities.”