FILE - In this April 12, 2014, file photo, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones walks during the annual Orange and White NCAA college spring football game in Knoxville, Tenn. Jones looks ahead to his second season on the job. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)
“Hands down, it’s depth,” Jones said Wednesday in a post-spring interview with The Associated Press. “It’s depth still throughout the entire football program. We’re still dealing with the realities of building a program.”
Jones has created plenty of momentum off the field thus far. He has signed a recruiting class ranked among the nation’s top five by multiple services. Tennessee’s Orange & White Game this month had an announced attendance of 68,548, the second-highest total in its 54-year history.
But he’s still trying to end Tennessee’s string of four straight losing seasons, the first time that’s happened at Tennessee since 1903-06. Tennessee went 5-7 last year in Jones’ debut season.
Tennessee’s quest for a bowl bid this fall could prove challenging because of its lack of depth. The Vols must replace all five starters on the offensive line, including four likely draft picks. Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson is the only returning starter from the front seven on defense.
“But it’s also invigorating,” Jones said. “This is probably the most rewarding, the most enjoyable spring I’ve had in terms of just coaching on the field, that I’ve had in a very, very long time.”
Jones says the team is showing a greater commitment to success. He says more players have come into his office asking how they can become better leaders or inquiring what the coaches need from them.
He believes that attitude can result in a more confident and productive team his fall.
“It’s earning the right to win,” Jones said. “It’s not hoping to win but believing you’re going to win. You earn that right through your consistency in performance, your goal setting, your accountability and also the leadership and toughness that’s involved. That in turn lends itself to bringing confidence.”
Jones still has plenty of questions to answer before the Aug. 31 season opener with Utah State. The most obvious one is at quarterback. Senior Justin Worley, sophomores Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman and redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson are competing for the starting spot. Jones hasn’t named a leader.
“Each individual’s had their moments,” Jones said. “I thought Josh Dobbs had a very, very good performance in our spring game. I thought Justin Worley was extremely consistent throughout the whole process. We saw glimpses of what Riley Ferguson could be, and I thought Nate Peterman showed some consistency throughout the entire course of spring.”
Tennessee’s quarterbacks should have more help this year, thanks to a freshman class featuring plenty of star power. Josh Malone was the star of the spring game with six catches for 181 yards and three touchdowns. Jalen Hurd had a team-high 66 yards rushing in the spring game. Both were rated as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service.
The Vols hope their defense will get a boost when the rest of their 2014 recruiting class arrives this summer. The list of summer arrivals includes 10 defensive players rated as four-star prospects by multiple recruiting services.
“We all know we’re going to have to play some true freshmen on the defense front, the defensive line position, the safety position and linebacker,” Jones said. “You’ll see true freshmen all over our defense.”
Tennessee’s fan base seems to understand the situation. About 25,000 fans lined up before the spring game for an autograph session featuring Jones and his players.
His office features Tennessee helmets autographed by ex-Vols Peyton Manning, Arian Foster, Al Wilson and Jason Witten plus one signed by former Tennessee coach Johnny Majors. Jones also has a couple of helmets he keeps around for all former Tennessee players to sign whenever they visit.
“The great thing is the fans have been extremely supportive,” said Jones, who went 23-14 in three seasons at Cincinnati before taking the Vols’ job. “They can see the progress we’re making from a recruiting standpoint, from the way our players represent themselves in the community to our style of play on the field, the effort.
“I know we’re nowhere near where we need to be, but they’ve been very, very supportive and understanding. I’d like to think they can see the progress we’re making day to day.”