Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is entering his second season at the helm on Rocky Top, and with that comes a jump in expectations.
Jones already did something that his predecessor Derek Dooley was unable to do, when he notched a signature win over No. 11 South Carolina, 23-21, last season in Knoxville.
His rebuilding effort will continue in 2014 with a boat load of talented skill players. But with no quarterback set in stone and, perhaps more importantly, no returning starters on either the offensive or defensive line, it will be a difficult task.
What are Jones' impressions of his team as spring practice winds down? He sat down with B/R's Barrett Sallee to discuss the Vols:
Bleacher Report: The biggest storyline from the outside this spring is your quarterback battle between Justin Worley, Joshua Dobbs, Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson. Where does that stand right now?
Butch Jones: I've been very, very encouraged from that position from what I've seen this spring. Justin Worley has really improved greatly, from leadership to his ability to make all of the throws, particularly the deep balls. Dobbs continues to develop, as well as Peterman, and it's been great to get Riley Ferguson getting a volume of repetition. You know, Riley has an innate ability to create plays. I've been very encouraged. We've tried to simulate as many game-speed repetitions as possible.
Their play as a unit has been elevated because of the players around them. Adding Von Pearson and Josh Malone to the receiving corps, Daniel Helm and Ethan Wolf to the tight end crew and then Jalen Hurd in the backfield has really changed the speed of our offense. Even though they're young, that's why we're getting more consistent quarterback play.
We're going to be extremely patient, take our time and do our due diligence. We'll probably name a starter in [fall] training camp. All of the individuals have progressed, and monumental strides can be taken during the summer months. We're going to be patient, coach, teach and critique, but I've been encouraged.
B/R: Last year, the four-man competition went down to game week, even though Worley was getting a heavier load of first-team reps. Do you want to narrow it down to two a little sooner?
Jones: We do. We'll start to narrow it down. It's extremely challenging with four quarterbacks. We will start to narrow it down probably at the end of this week or so.
B/R: A lot of people were interested in what 5-star running back Jalen Hurd was going to do this spring coming off a shoulder injury which cost him his senior season in high school. So far, it appears that he's adapting quickly. What pieces of the puzzle have to fall into place in order for him to get first-team carries this fall?
Jones: When you look a Jalen, the first thing you have to keep in mind is that: here's a young man who basically didn't play football last year. He has a lot of growth and maturation to do in terms of his overall development, his body, his strengths and the ability to take the pounding every week in the SEC. It's the mental capacity as well as the physical capacity. With the 14 newcomers we had this spring and the 18 others that will be joining us, they're really changing from kids to adults.
He's still nowhere where he needs to be in terms of overall volume, work capacity and just overall knowledge—knowledge of the offense, understanding defenses, understanding run reads and playing behind pads. What we found in a very short period of time is that he's extremely instinctual, he's a competitor, he's smart and he takes coaching. We're very excited about what he's been able to do. Every time we give him the football, he has a knack of making plays, but there's so much more that has to be developed from the rest of spring all the way through summer and training camp.
B/R: How good can wide receiver Marquez North be now that he has some complimentary pieces like Josh Malone and Von Pearson around him?
Jones: It's really aided him in a number of ways. Now teams can't roll coverage to him or double cover him because of the presence of Malone and Pearson. Competition creates growth and development, and he's an extremely competitive player. He's benefitted from a competitive standpoint by having those others here with him.
We've challenged him to really learn the nuances that it takes to be a great receiver. The big thing for him is breaking points. He was really a high school running back and didn't understand playing receiver full-time out on the perimeter. It's the small details. It's the press releases. It's the breaking points in and out of his breaks. It's the overall consistency that we expect him to play with.
B/R: With no starters returning on the offensive line, how challenging has that been for you, and are you where you thought you needed to be at this point in spring?
Jones: Well, it's a great challenge. We're still in the overall development of our program, and those are development positions along the offensive line.
We're going to probably end up starting a true freshman at right tackle in Coleman Thomas. Mack Crowder has sort of been the consistent leader up front at center. We made a decision as a football program to redshirt Marcus Jackson last year at left guard. We're going to rely on them. Kyler Kerbyson is an individual who I think has been a pleasant surprise so far during spring football. He's played with an edge, is very competitive, and I've liked what I've seen.
We're going to have to rely on some freshman playing, like Thomas, and I think it'll be a work-in-progress from now all the way through the end of the season.
(Click here to check out the Tennessee Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker.)
B/R: There is sort of the same issue along the defensive line, with no returning starters, although there is a little bit more experience there. How is that unit shaping up, and who has stepped this spring?
Jones: Well, right now, there isn't anyone. They continue to be a work-in-progress. Every practice is a teaching opportunity. [Defensive end] Corey Vereen continues to show signs, but his whole deal is consistency and performance—the ability to rush the passer not only in the first quarter, but the fourth quarter. It's a relentless approach that we want our defensive line to play with.
[Defensive end/linebacker] Curt Maggitt, having him back just as a presence on our defense has helped us take tremendous strides in moving forward. Getting him in some different situations has benefitted our defense. We're asking a lot of senior Jordan Williams, moving him around inside. You'll see him play a lot more inside than he ever has, but we are going to move him around.
The individuals we have along the defensive front are very prideful, eager and want to learn. Every day they come with a workman-like mentality to get better, and I like that. I like that mentality. But it's a situation where we have seven individuals joining us for fall camp in June, so those guys are going to be ready to play, because we don't have much depth there.
I like the progress Vereen is making, and I like the progress Williams is making. I really like the progress Curt Maggitt is making as well.
B/R: You mentioned Maggitt's role and what he means, and that sort of leads me into my next question: how important are him and linebacker A.J. Johnson to the development of the new-look front seven?
Jones: We're going to have to rely on their leadership and A.J.'s experience. A.J. is an individual where you know what you're getting with consistency, day in and day out, his preparation, the way he practices and the effort he gives. We're going to demand and expect a lot out of him and Maggitt because, really, they're the individuals in the front seven who have the most experience, have played the most football, and they're the leaders of our defense.
B/R: Where did you expect your program to be heading into Year 2 when you got the job at Tennessee, and do you think you can accomplish your goals?
Jones: In one year's time, I think we've taken monumental steps—nowhere where we need to be and nowhere where we expect, but we've come a long way in a year.
You start off the field. We were on course to be the first team in college football to suffer the Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalty. Now, and I've said this is the greatest victory in Tennessee football history, we've crossed that bridge, and we're going to have 96 percent graduation of our seniors. We had a 1,000 on the APR this semester. We've made monumental strides off the field, and that's where it starts.
On the field, our strength numbers last year at this time, even with a veteran front on both sides of the ball, we had zero guys who could squat 600 pounds or more. Right now, we have nine.
I think the foundation has been laid. The standard and expectation has been made, but we only have 13 seniors right now in our football program. Fifty percent of our team is going through spring ball for the first time. Even though the standard and expectations are in place, we still have to go back and define them and continue to work on them just because of the newness and new faces. We've taken great strides from where we started, but we still have a long way to go.
B/R: Do you have any thoughts on the push by Northwestern players to unionize, and what are your thoughts on player compensation?
Jones: I haven't had much time to pay attention to the unionization story and have kind of been in a bunker here trying to make our football team better. In terms of payment of student athletes, the thing I'd like to see explored is the full cost of attendance. I think that's very realistic and would like to see that explored more. As we continue to move our game forward and help the well-being of the athlete, I think that's an element of that in terms of covering the total cost of attendance.
* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand. All recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports, and all college statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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