With a top-five recruiting class signed, new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord hired and the start of spring practice still a month away, you may think Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is kicked back in his luxurious office relaxing.
"I love this time of year; this is my favorite time of year," he told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview on Thursday morning. But the reasons have nothing to do with the R&R.
These are the months when the players are living in the weight room, studying in the film room and bending the ear of their coaches. This is when leaders are made and the fat is trimmed from the roster, both literally and figuratively.
It's when Jones believes the identity of the 2015 Vols will be hatched.
"This time of year is really where your football team is born," he said.
Away from the bright lights of the television cameras and the shadows of the media microphones, this year's version of the Vols is already working toward living up to elevated expectations.
Thanks to their first winning season since 2009 and a convincing TaxSlayer Bowl victory over Iowa, they are no longer expected to be the whipping boys of the SEC East.
But they won't sneak up on anybody, either—not as a dark horse to win the division and a team in several way-too-early Top 25 rankings, such those by ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach and Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel.
Tennessee is expected to be back, and Jones firmly feels that weight. It's just no different to him than it's been since the moment he was hired to bring UT back to its place competing for championships.
Through the shield of coachspeak that every leader of a major college football program utilizes from time to time, there are glimpses of Jones' confidence, his belief that the fruits of his culture change are surfacing in the players he coaches.
"We talk about owning the football program, not renting it," Jones said. "We talk about the Power T. I'll be very candid with you: We had too many that didn't love the Power T, so to speak. They loved the power of the 'T'. We talk to our players about, it’s not loving the Power of the T and what Tennessee football can do for you, but it's the investment in that Power T. It's true love and affinity for this great institution."
Jones has it, and he is tasked with making Tennessee great once again. It isn't there yet, but it's getting ever-closer.
He dished on some of the obstacles standing in the way and some potential solutions already in place.
Finding the Future Now
Jones knows the expectations. He also knows what challenges await his talented team that is still incredibly young and had to complete a frantic overtime comeback win over South Carolina and squeak out a close win over Vanderbilt, among others, just to become bowl-eligible.
While UT's talent deficiencies no longer exist thanks to recruiting successes, the lack of experienced depth remains.
Key contributors such as Derek Barnett, Danny O'Brien, Jason Croom and possibly Alex Ellis will miss spring drills with injuries. Star newcomers such as defensive end Kyle Phillips and linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. won't be available, either.
"Right now, our spring football is going to be one of many, many challenges," Jones said.
The biggest will be having to prepare two midterm freshman quarterbacks—Quinten Dormady and Jauan Jennings—to get ready in a hurry. Dormady, Jones said, has been cleared to throw from a recent injury, and he expects him to be "full go" come spring.
That's a big deal. With Nathan Peterman's transfer to Pittsburgh, either Dormady, Jennings or fellow freshman Sheriron Jones will be forced into action right away if something were to happen to Joshua Dobbs.
"It's an opportunity, and it's a challenge," Jones said of readying two true freshmen for playing time at the sport's most visible position. "So much goes into playing the quarterback position that you...kind of like to have them develop at their own pace. But unfortunately, that's not where we're at in our program.
"That's another illustration when we talk about competing for championships and national championships that we're not there yet in the overall evolution of our football program."
|A Closer Look at UT's Freshmen QBs|
|Quinten Dormady||6'4", 200||4-star No. 12 PRO QB||Boerne, Texas|
|Jauan Jennings||6'4", 200||4-star No. 6 DUAL QB||Murfreesboro, Tennessee|
|Sheriron Jones||6'2.5", 191||4-star No. 7 DUAL QB||Moreno Valley, California|
Dobbs is the bridge from the budding promise of Tennessee's current situation to a stabler future. After his breakout second half of 2014 during which he accounted for 17 touchdowns, 1,793 total yards and led UT to a bowl win, he is the catalyst for this Vols resurgence.
Not only is his health vital to the team, the model student is now playing the role of teacher to the newcomers.
With Jones and DeBord only allowed to do so much to prepare the first-year players during the offseason, their experiences with Dobbs are crucial.
"We've put a lot on the shoulders of Josh Dobbs as well in terms of mentoring the younger players," Jones said. "If there's one great illustration of who you want them to emulate, it would be Josh Dobbs. But the great thing is the two quarterbacks, newcomers, who are here on campus both possess different skill sets, so having them here will be very, very big for us this spring.
"We're relying on Josh a lot, you know, just talking about the expectations of playing quarterback here. Josh has turned into basically another coach on the field. And having Mike DeBord here who's seen what it's supposed to look like. He’s coached the Tom Bradys. He's been a part of those players, so he understands that."
Toss in the presence of UT graduate assistant Nick Sheridan, who has been an offensive coordinator at Western Kentucky and South Florida, and Jones is confident the first-year quarterbacks will be as prepared as they possibly can get.
"The resources we have here to develop quarterbacks, in my opinion, are second to none," Jones said.
That doesn't guarantee success for Dormady or Jennings, but it's a good start. It's simply the reality of the tenuous position UT is currently in behind Dobbs at quarterback.
The Cost of Comfort
When former offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian left UT abruptly two weeks before national signing day, the name Mike DeBord probably wasn't one of the first replacements to come to the minds of many Vols fans.
Jones knows that, but he also knows UT returns 10 offensive starters who'd begun to show signs of life within the framework of his offense toward the end of the season.
That's why DeBord—a longtime friend who hired him at Central Michigan—was the first name Jones thought of.
"That’s why I continue to emphasize the right fit for Tennessee," Jones said. "Everything is about timing and, 'How can we enhance the offense? How can we bring in new ideas that understand our offense?' Everything is about our players and their development this offseason and continuing to improve but also our staff.
"We're already reaping the benefits right now of Mike DeBord and the rest of our staff being familiar with each other with Mike having spent a lot of time with them and having worked with them in the past. So, really, the transition has been seamless.
"With Mike DeBord, he has the same offensive philosophies. We've really benefited from the experience he’s gained in the last five years in the National Football League. We've really benefited from him being a year-and-a-half off of football and studying every football program from college to the National Football League. He's a tremendous, tremendous communicator, and our kids have gravitated toward him immediately."
When Jones says they share an offensive philosophy, it isn't lip service. He means it's the same terminology and everything, a scheme that was devised in their time together at CMU.
It's that established familiarity that will help the Vols this spring, Jones said. Whereas a new coach with a new philosophy would have been teaching everybody his methods or trying to learn the language of Jones' system, DeBord already speaks it.
"We've been able to walk in and, really, the terminology has basically stayed the same," Jones said. "That has really helped the overall learning curve. We can go out there and Coach DeBord already knows how to speak the language, and that's critical from a trust standpoint and a communication standpoint as well."
Recently, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd had just come from a meeting in DeBord's office when Jones stopped him for a conversation.
The running back related a feeling that Jones said has permeated the football offices since the assistant's arrival. "You can tell Coach DeBord has worked with big-time players in the way he approaches our current team right now," Hurd told him.
This is Jones' program. He has re-sculpted the culture, cultivated a winning mentality where one didn't exist and has the program, by all accounts, right where it should be in this rebuilding process.
If he's not comfortable with the man calling his offense, what would that say about the state of the program?
"He brings a presence, and he brings a toughness, and he brings a level of confidence," Jones said of DeBord. "So, again, for us to continue to move forward, that familiarity was a big deal for us."
All recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted. All stats and roster information gathered from UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted. All quotes gathered firsthand.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.