Volunteer football coach Butch Jones talks with the media during the UT Caravan at Kingsport's Farmers Market. (Photo by Ned Jilton II)
KINGSPORT — It seemed fitting that new Tennessee football coach Butch Jones was at The Farmer’s Market on Monday for the Big Orange Caravan. Kingsport is where he picked one of his first players for his initial crop of recruits.
Jones discovered Dobyns-Bennett speedster Malik Foreman not long after getting hired, and soon swayed the Vanderbilt commitment to Rocky Top.
“The first day on the job I started watching video of him, like, ‘Who’s this young man?” Jones said, “and we thought he was explosive and all that. We did our research and we’re just excited that he’s a Vol.”
Foreman, who played defensive back and receiver before taking over for injured Chris Cook at quarterback his senior season, has 4.37 speed.
“I think Malik is a very talented young man and he brings so much to the table,” Jones said. “You know, he’s versatile. He can do a lot of things. He’ll start on the defensive side of the ball for us. He’s extremely competitive, but he’s also very, very smart and he has great character, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
UT also signed Foreman’s teammate, running back Devaun Swafford.
Jones is high on Tennessee High products Brendan Downs and Mack Crowder. Crowder, a rising redshirt sophomore center, won the Harvey Robinson Award for being the Vols’ most improved offensive player.
“I love Mack Crowder,” Jones said. “He stands for everything that we believe in. … Mack has done a tremendous job. He has great toughness. And from practice one all the way throughout the spring game he really, really kept getting better day in and day out. He played with an injury, so we love him and he’s really progressing.”
Downs, a tight end, missed the final week of spring camp with an injury.
“(Downs) is an individual who really … developed from the minute we walked in,” Jones said, “and unfortunately his spring was cut short. But we anticipate good things from him this year.”
Jones is eager to return to the success that instilled so much pride in Tennessee football, and he says that begins in the locker room.
“They’re gonna understand what the checkerboards stand for,” he said. “They’re gonna understand the Vol Navy. You know, they’re gonna understand the seven game maxims. … We’re gonna take care of home first.”
Lady Vols basketball coach Holly Warlick, men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and athletic director Dave Hart also attended the Big Orange Caravan, as did a large gathering of Vols fans.
“It’s nights like this that you’re constantly reminded of the magnitude and the importance that is Tennessee football,” Jones said. “It energizes me just to feel the passion and the energy that this great fan base has.”
Hart appears relieved with Jones’ first six months. UT currently has a list of commitments that has it on pace for a consensus top-five recruiting class for 2014.
Vols fans are every bit as impressed with Jones as high school recruits seem to be.
“I was absolutely convinced they would be, but it’s happened quicker than I would’ve anticipated,” Hart said. “And that’s a real credit to Butch. … He feels like he belongs here and he wanted to be here, and I think our fans sense that.”
Warlick had a much more difficult task around this time last year when she began replacing the legendary Pat Summitt. But the Bearden/UT alum led the Lady Vols to an SEC title and an Elite Eight appearance in what was supposed to, relatively speaking, a down year.
“The expectation, obviously, with us ranked fifth in the league wasn’t there,” Warlick said. “So in everybody’s eyes we overachieved. I think we did what Tennessee should do last year. …
“We want to go to the Final Four and we want to win national championships. … We had an outstanding year, but you can always do better. There’s only one coach that’s happy right now, and that’s at Connecticut.”
The Lady Vols could be back on top soon. Bashaara Graves, a 6-foot-2 rising sophomore, made the USA U19 team that will play in the FIBA World Championship in Lithuania (July 18-28). UT point guard Ariel Massengale will play in the World University games in Russia (July 8-15).
Incoming freshman Jordan Reynolds was one of 34 players invited to the USA U19 team’s trials that landed Graves a roster spot. Warlick also signed highly touted 6-foot-5 Mercedes Russell, the MVP of the McDonald’s All-Star Game in which Reynolds shined, too. Warlick also inked incoming freshman Jannah Tucker, a 6-foot guard.
“We’ve got a huge recruiting class,” Warlick said. “I thought we needed those three type of players to fill the void that we had.”
Warlick knew following the John Wooden of women’s basketball wouldn’t be easy.
“If I look at it in the big picture, it gets a little scary,” Warlick said. “I just try to look at it day to day and understand what I have to do and what I’ve been taught. There’s one thing for people following legends. I’ve been taught by that legend. So I think it’s a huge benefit for me to take what Pat has taught me and to put it in to play … how I see fit.”
Martin said the men’s schedule is a work in progress, but includes a tournament in the Bahamas that features Kansas, Villanova, Iowa, UTEP, USC, Wake Forest and Xavier.
“We have Virginia at home, who should be a Top 25 team,” said Martin, adding that the Vols have games at Wichita State and at Xavier finalized.