Like the previous 31 pre-fall camp news conferences I’ve covered, Monday’s media gathering at the Stokely Family Media Center underscored three distinctive elements of the colorful entity known as Tennessee football:
1-The fans have great expectations
2-The head coach hopes to temper those expectations
3-The head coach will not succeed in tempering those expectations
Fan expectations have soared since Tennessee was pegged second in the Eastern Division at SEC Media Days and pegged No. 25 nationally in the NCAA coaches’ preseason poll. Still, Butch Jones spent precious little time on Monday trying to reel in the rampant optimism. Instead, the head man made some valid points regarding both the pros and cons of Team 119.
Here are some of the pros:
—All 13 players who missed all or most of spring practice due to injuries have been cleared for duty. With depth a major concern, this is a huge plus.
—Many players registered personal bests in strength and conditioning tests during the offseason, suggesting this team is eager to prove equal to its hype. “I like our excitement,” Jones said. “I like our mentality, and I thought our team really grew together this summer because of that."
—Thanks to a more stable roster, Team 119 won’t be nearly as dependent on freshmen as Team 118 was. Jones admitted he is “a lot more comfortable” in this regard, adding: “We have some unproven areas but also we have more proven areas than we've had in the past.”
And here are some of the cons:
—Due to the muddled status of senior Von Pearson (legal issue) and freshman Preston Williams (Clearinghouse issue), Tennessee’s receiver corps is a bit thin. As a result, freshman Jauan Jennings will get a look at receiver in addition to quarterback, and sophomore Malik Foreman will work at receiver in addition to defensive back. Concerning the depth woes at receiver, Jones noted: “That's why Jauan Jennings comes into play, and that's why Malik Foreman is still in consideration for playing that position, as well."
—Games typically are won by the team that makes the most big plays, and Tennessee needs more playmakers than it had a year ago, when the Big-Play Corps consisted of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd. Jones put it this way: “Who are the individuals who really step up, perform and make plays in critical situations of the football game?”
—Tennessee must improve dramatically in the red zone after struggling mightily last season. Jones called the Vols' offensive efficiency in the red zone "inexcusable." Meanwhile, the defense surrendered 32 scores in 34 red-zone invasions, with 23 of those scores being touchdowns, creating what Jones called “a point of contention.” With a mobile quarterback (Dobbs), an inside runner (Hurd) and an outside runner (Alvin Kamara), Tennessee should be very efficient in the red zone this fall. Jones admits that he and his staff "expect us to improve greatly on both sides of the football.”
—Jones reiterated that 64 percent of Tennessee’s roster has played one season or less of college football. To overcome this inexperience he says the Vols must excel in three areas – leadership, overall maturity and overall health. Sophomores form the nucleus of the 2015 team, so they must grow up quickly in terms of leadership and maturity. As for health, injuries to key players such as Dobbs, Hurd, Ethan Wolf, Alton Howard, Kyler Kerbyson, Derek Barnett, Curt Maggitt, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton could be devastating.
Can Tennessee live up to the hype by finishing second in the SEC East and 25th nationally in 2015? Maybe. Maybe not. After covering 32 pre-fall camp news conferences, I can tell you this: The Vols have a much better chance to meet these expectations than Butch Jones has to temper them.
Butch Jones speaks with reporters
Derek Barnett finally healthy