Coming off back-to-back five-win seasons, new Tennessee head coach Butch Jones inherited quite a challenge. A revolving door of coaches, a lack of depth and instability within the athletic department had humbled the once-proud Volunteer program.
However, in just six months, Jones has transformed Tennessee into what it once was—a destination program. Jones closed strong, finishing in the Top 25 of the 247Sports.com recruiting composite index in 2013, and has the Vols in the Top Five of the 2014 team rankings.
Not bad, especially considering he hasn't coached a game in the orange and white yet.
But the season could be even more of a challenge. Tennessee is switching back to a 4-3 scheme in an effort to fix what was the SEC's worst defense in 2012. It also has to replace a quarterback and the dynamic receiving duo of Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson.
In a telephone interview with Bleacher Report, Jones talked about his outlook for the 2013 season, his success on the recruiting trail and the future on Rocky Top.
Bleacher Report: What were some of the surprises that you found when you took over the program in December 2012?
Butch Jones: You can never put a value on experience. This is the third time taking over a program, and for our staff, it was the third time as well. Usually, there are a few common ingredients on why a program wasn't successful. The big thing is coming in here and laying the foundation and building it brick-by-brick, but also establishing the standard of excellence that we are going to abide by not only on the field but off the field. Our players have done a good job with it; but again, it's championship expectations with everything that we do.
B/R: A lot of those championship expectations rest in your ability to replace Tyler Bray at quarterback. Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman went through spring, and freshmen Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs will come in and compete this summer. How much of a chance do either of the true freshmen have at winning the job?
BJ: We are going to play the best individual that gives Tennessee the best chance to win. I don't care if you're a senior or a freshman, the best players are going to play. The players who play with a very high level of consistency. The players who earn the trust of their peers and the coaching staff. And players who understand what it takes to play at Tennessee and our expectations of winning on the field and off the field and playing winning football.
Obviously, we aren't able to be out there this summer, but we were able to see the two quarterbacks that have been here this spring. I think it's a process that's going to be ongoing, especially when August hits. We are going to take care of the football, who can manage the game and who can make the right decisions under center.
B/R: What specifically does Dobbs bring to the table that can give your offense a little bit of an edge?
BJ: Josh is extremely cerebral. He has all the intangibles that you want in a quarterback. He has great football intelligence and great command and presence. He's a leader, and isn't afraid to step up and take charge. He has all the quarterback intangibles, but again, it's really difficult on a true freshman to come in at this level and play. We will see.
You know, Riley Ferguson is a winner. He's used to winning and has a great skill set. He's extremely athletic. The big thing about him is that he's used to winning football games. It's in his DNA. I think it's going to be a great competition come August.
B/R: A lot of the focus in the offseason will be on the quarterbacks, but having that veteran offensive line and a stable of running backs is a pretty nice luxury to have in Year 1. How important are those guys in easing the transition?
BJ: Everyone wants to talk about the quarterback situation and everyone wants to talk about the offensive line, but this is still a football team that only won five games and one SEC game. As much as everyone wants to talk about the starting quarterback, I want to talk about who's number six and seven on the offensive line. Who's number seven? That's the thing right now going into the season, that's one of the areas where we need to improve is the depth along the offensive line. I'm very concerned about that.
With our running backs, we have to be able to make plays in space. We have to have running backs who get what the play is blocked for. We need individuals with the ability to make defenders miss in space and miss at the second level of the defense, but also get that tough yardage when it's 3rd-and-1. Establishing even more depth to be able to do that will be one of the top priorities in August.
B/R: How good can 6'4", 215-pound freshman wide receiver MarQuez North be?
BJ: It's extremely difficult, because we haven't been able to see him since he arrived on campus. But we know that he's extremely competitive, an extremely hard worker and obviously, he can run. He has the stature in terms of his size and his frame to be every bit as good as he wants to be. He's going to have a great opportunity, with the inexperience at wide receiver, to come in and insert himself right away.
B/R: Having safety Brian Randolph back from injury is huge as you look to rebuild that defense. How much has your team benefited from his return and the experience from some other members of defense as they've had three schemes in three years?
BJ: You win with consistency and continuity. With these players, specifically on defense, they've been through a lot of different schemes. But you can use that to your advantage. Like I tell them, you can use that as your toolbox to build your football knowledge.
Having Brian Randolph back is big from an overall competitive nature. He's played good football for us in the past. To get him back healthy is going to be big for the back end of the defense. Experience is important, but they have to have experience in what it takes to play winning football. That mentality, that mindset, that perseverance, the leadership qualities, the ability to handle sudden change, mental conditioning that goes into being a top-level defense, being able to play the next play in what we call "snap and clear" is big.
You're going to give up a big play every now and then, but you have to be able to eliminate it from your mind and play the next play. You can't let one bad play beat you again three plays down the road. Those are all things that we are working on when we talk about teaching our guys the standard and the expectation of what it takes to play winning football on defense.
B/R: Conditioning has been one of your bigger focuses, and it sounds like from what you've been saying this offseason, you're working your team hard to get them in shape come fall.
BJ: Our kids are a little bit in shock right now with the volume of running and the standard and the expectations, but that's who we are and that's what we do. To see their bodies changing has been incredible. Within a month-and-a-half of coming in here, we dropped 260 pounds of fat when we did our Bod Pod testing, and gained 240 pounds of muscle.
These players have been working extremely hard. Has it been a grind for them? Absolutely. Has it been challenging? Absolutely. I think the individuals can see the progress they've been making. Make no mistake about it, we are going to be a much stronger football team. Hands down. Are we anywhere we need to be? No. We are kind of in that average place for where we were in other places in Year 1, so every day is critical for where we want to be with this football team.
B/R: Who specifically has stood out in terms of players who have transformed physically over the offseason?
BJ: If you look at [defensive tackle] Daniel McCullers, he doesn't even look like the same individual. He looks lean and trim for 360-some-odd pounds, but he was well over 400 pounds. He has worked extremely hard. [Defensive lineman] Corey Miller is another guy that comes to mind. [Linebacker] A.J. Johnson's body has changed. You look at their traps and their shoulders and their core areas, and you can tell they have worked exceptionally hard.
[Offensive lineman] "Tiny" Richardson's body has really changed. I think both quarterbacks—Worley and Peterman—have put in work. You can go across the board and see differences in these kids. But you can also see it in their confidence level in the way they think of themselves and the confidence that this is forming in them.
B/R: You have made quite the splash on the recruiting trail, closing strong in 2013 and then jumping up into the Top 10 in most team rankings so far for the class of 2014. What do you attribute your success so far to?
BJ: We have a great brand to sell and a great product to sell with the University of Tennessee. This is still one of the top flight institutions in the country, and I feel like it's the most storied football program in all of college football. You look at the vision from our administration, and people make a place. We have tremendous people and tremendous resources. We have great academics and have hired some great people like Joe Scogin who's leading the charge in academics over at the Thornton Center. We've got some key pieces to the puzzle.
You look at the tradition of Tennessee and the brand new Anderson Training Center and one of the biggest places to play college football in Neyland Stadium, and all of those things are big in terms of what we have to sell. Then you have guys like Peyton Manning, Eric Berry, Arian Foster and the history of talented players, as well as one of the most passionate fan bases in the country who have high expectations for Tennessee football every day.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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