The fact Tennessee’s record went from 5-7 in Year 1 of the Butch Jones era to 7-6 in Year 2 represents progress that even the most casual fan can see. The Vols are convinced the improvement goes much deeper than the surface, however. Several believe Jones is developing the foundation needed to win big in the years ahead.
This opinion became evident when InsideTennessee recently asked several players to pinpoint the biggest step the program has taken in Jones’ first two years at the helm.
With Tennessee coming off consecutive records of 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7 and 5-7, he inherited a program with a defeatist attitude when he took the reins prior to the 2013 season. Thus, the biggest challenge he faced was convincing players accustomed to losing that they could become winners. Apparently, that mission has been accomplished.
“The biggest step in the program is just our competitive spirit,” rising junior cornerback Cameron Sutton told InsideTennessee. “We work hard each and every day to get the job done. We play for each other and have each other’s back. It’s a brotherhood out there, a family. We know we’re playing for each other, and that makes the game easier and more fun for us.”
This bond isn’t confined to the football field, however. It extends to the meeting room, the weight room, the class room and anywhere else two or more players happen to gather.
“Whether we’re playing football or not, it’s a brotherhood,” Sutton said. “That bond we have has to carry on through the spring and summer. That’s the big thing that we have.”
Defensive tackle Jordan Williams agrees that the camaraderie and team unity has improved dramatically under the current coaching regime. He believes the Vols made strides last fall that foretell a very bright future, even though he won’t be around to participate in it.
“The big step was our togetherness and accountability,” Williams said. “Last year (2013) if somebody messed up we’d just brush it under the rug, like ‘Let’s move forward.’ This year (2014) we were addressing the issue, focusing on it. Nobody pointed fingers but everybody was taking blame if you messed up, and then moving forward.”
Another departing senior agrees that 2015 could be much better based on some key steps taken in 2014. Defensive back Justin Coleman believes the Vols worked their way onto the same page during the just-ended season, almost to the point of relating telepathically.
“I feel like we got better in our communication,” he told IT. “We talked every day on the field. If there was a situation where Coach gives us a bad environment – like a loud sound on the speakers – we learned how to get through that.”
From his first day in charge Jones has stressed the importance of Tennessee becoming a player-led team, rather than a coach-led team. Several Vols are convinced that day is at hand.
“I believe the biggest step the program has taken is holding guys accountable, on and off the field,” rising junior defensive end Corey Vereen told IT. “If a guy doesn’t do things right the first time, you get on him and make sure he does it right the next time. Stay on people. Have fun but do your assignment.”
All of these player comments suggest the dark days of Tennessee football have ended and that Jones has the program on its most solid footing in years. That underscores perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the head man’s first two seasons on The Hill: He has injected new life into a program that was flat-lining when he arrived.
For the first time in years the Vols are justifiably pumped. The students are pumped, too. So are the fans. There's a renewed level of excitement and optimism surrounding the program. The buzz is back on The Hill, and that bodes well for the future.
“Spirits have been high,” Jones said recently. “That’s the thing: The hardest thing to build in a football program is the culture, the standard, the expectation, the way you practice and all of that.
“Now the next step is maintaining it, but we’ve been through the hard part of the process. I think that shows with getting to a January bowl game. It shows with a 2.77 overall GPA and it shows with our work ethic.”
Tennessee has taken a lot of steps during Jones’ first two years at the helm. Clearly, the gap between the Big Orange and the SEC’s elite teams is closing.