Tennessee's offensive line continues to be a work in progress this spring. But one young gun has already taken strides in making it better, and he's not even supposed to be in college yet.
Jack Jones is supposed to be preparing to walk across the stage for graduation at Oakland High School in nearby Murfreesboro. Instead, he’s preparing to stop 300-pound monsters from knocking him on his back and sacking backup quarterback Quinten Dormady.
The 6-5, 289-pound right tackle decided to enroll early at Tennessee
in January after taking summer classes last year and wrestling with the thought of leaving high school a semester before he was supposed to be gone. Now he's become a key cog to the offensive line in the third year of Butch Jones' reign in Knoxville.
“I probably started thinking about it last year during the spring time. I was kind of like ‘I don’t know.’ Should I do it, should I not do it, should I enjoy my last semester of high school,” Jones said after Saturday’s practice. “By the fall I was like, I’m ready to do it. It’s something I need to do.”
He’s pretty happy he did, too.
Despite his hair being longer than his time as a Vol, Jones has been forced to grow up rather quickly. That rapid maturation process has already paid off, as the former four-star prospect has slid onto the second team at right tackle, gaining valuable reps in the process.
“With every practice I’m feeling like I’m improving a little bit. I’m kind of taking steps forward,” Jones said. “Every practice you’ve got to find something to work on and get better at it (and) keep going to be able to see that transformation from the first practice to the spring game.”
Jones figured the most difficult part of that transition wouldn’t even be on the field. He assumed his increased course load and more challenging classes would be the hardest aspect of life as a college athlete.
“That is the exact opposite. The hardest part is definitely football,” he said. “It’s a physical grind and a mental grind, but I’ve learned to embrace it and I’m really enjoying it, honestly.”
The former Under Armour All-American is still adjusting to the speed and physicality of SEC play, but his development is night and day from where it was when he first stepped onto the field wearing a Tennessee practice jersey.
“I was thinking, I was panicking, I was asking the guards what we’ve got,” Jones said. “About practice three they moved Chance (Hall) into right guard, so I was like, dude, we’ve got to learn this because I can’t ask you anything and you can’t ask me anything,”
Hall, a fellow freshman, has also been baptized by fire early, but the two early enrollees have benefited from learning on the job.
“We’re both guys that like to finish people and play with a little nasty attitude. We’re kind of learning as we go,” Jones said. “We’ve just got to remember that we’re early guys. We should be in high school right now, and if we mess up we’ve just to keep playing and forget about it.”
Jones also recognizes he’s not where he needs to be in the weight room to overpower SEC defensive linemen. That only comes with time in the strength and conditioning program. The guy who recorded 125 pancake blocks as a high school senior does, however, know being a technician on the line can help overcome those early strength deficiencies.
“That’s one of the things I pride myself on is my technique. That’s definitely a big thing,” Jones said. “That’ always been an important factor for me. I’ve never been somebody to try and sit there and muscle you. I try to get my feet down and get good leverage on you.”
Butch Jones has been able to closely monitor his freshman’s progress this spring and didn’t mince words on how he felt about him.
“I love Jack Jones. You can see his athletic ability, his leverage. He’s tough. His mind is just swimming right now,” the third-year Tennessee head coach said. “That’s a by-product of being a young player with the line calls, mastering your technique. (He’s) obviously getting stronger in the weight room, but he’s also benefiting from being an early enrollee.”
Jones has been in college for less than four months and is slowly becoming the offensive lineman the Vols need him to be. He says his pass blocking is his strength right now, and he hopes to continue learning the offensive calls to truly be a well-rounded player by the time the spring game rolls around.
But even in those times when he gets lost and feels like he’s drowning, offensive line coach Don Mahoney gave him some pretty solid advice on what to do.
“Coach Mahoney told us,” Jones said. “If you mess up and don’t know what you’re doing, go hit somebody at 100 percent.”
See what Big Orange fans are saying here
Listen to more from Jack Jones