Vols’ coach Butch Jones says pro­gram ‘very strong’

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY DAVID COBB STAFF WRITER

Ten­nessee foot­ball coach Butch Jones may face a sim­i­lar line of in­quiry along ev­ery stop on col­lege foot­ball’s unofficial off­sea­son speak­ing tour this sum­mer.

It started at the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence’s an­nual meet­ings Tues­day in Destin, Fla., where Jones took ques­tions from a small group of re­porters that will pale in com­par­i­son to the gath­er­ing at next month’s SEC Me­dia Days.

“When you took over this job, where did you ex­pect to have the pro­gram by now?” a re­porter asked Jones. “And are you about where you’d like it to be?”

“It’s a jour­ney and it’s a process,” he replied. “I’m very grate­ful to all the play­ers and staff that have re­ally brought Ten­nessee foot­ball back. We still have so much to do, and it’s all about win­ning championships. But the first el­e­ment that goes into win­ning championships is con­tend­ing to win championships on a con­sis­tent ba­sis. Our pro­gram has done that.”

Ten­nessee con­tended to win its first SEC East ti­tle since 2007 last year, un­til losses to Van­der­bilt and South Carolina ended an in­jury-rid­dle team’s chances at that bench­mark. The Vol­un­teers won a bowl game, six play­ers were drafted into the NFL and the pro­gram posted an­other strong year un­der the stan­dards of the NCAA’s Aca­demic Progress Rate.

But those things, pointed to by Jones as signs of progress, fig­ure to do lit­tle in quelling the ris­ing im­pa­tience among Ten­nessee fans longing for tro­phies. They likely will do lit­tle to curb sim­i­lar ques­tions from be­ing asked of Jones as the Sept. 4 sea­son opener against Ge­or­gia Tech draws closer.

In Street and Smith’s col­lege foot­ball pre­view mag­a­zine, Ten­nessee is listed as one of the top three over­rated teams in the coun­try along with Notre Dame and Wash­ing­ton State. Jones is in­cluded in the pub­li­ca­tion’s “hot-seat watch.”

Athlon Sports was a lit­tle kinder in its re­cently pub­lished 2017 pre­view mag­a­zine, rank­ing the Vols No. 19 in the coun­try and in­clud­ing Jones among “10 more get­ting warmer” be­hind its list of coaches on the hot seat.

Both pub­li­ca­tions picked the Vols third in the SEC East.

Still, de­spite the out­side doubts, Jones and his staff, who will be in Chat­tanooga on Saturday for the first stop in this year’s Big Orange Car­a­van, have gen­er­ated mo­men­tum on the re­cruit­ing trail. Ten­nessee has 11 com­mit­ments in the 2018 sign­ing class. The group is ranked ninth in the coun­try and sec­ond in the con­fer­ence, ac­cord­ing to 247Sports.

That’s with a staff with five new or pro­moted as­sis­tants. The new staff mem­bers have added ex­per­tise, en­ergy and ex­cite­ment, Jones said. He said they also have pro­vided a “fresh start” to the play­ers.

There is pos­i­tive en­ergy and mo­men­tum around Ten­nessee foot­ball, Jones said in end­ing his an­swer about whether the pro­gram is where he ex­pected it to be at this point.

“You look at three straight bowl wins,” Jones said. “There’s only three pro­grams in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence that have won nine games or more the last two sea­sons. Ten­nessee is one of them. We’re grad­u­at­ing our play­ers. We’re putting play­ers in the National Foot­ball League. So I think the pro­gram is very, very strong.

‘We talk about con­sis­tency in per­for­mance. We talk about sus­tained success, and we’re hav­ing it right now.”

STAFF FILE PHOTO BY DAVID COBB

Ten­nessee coach Butch Jones walks through his team’s stretch­ing line be­fore a spring prac­tice at Haslam Field. Jones took ques­tions from a group of re­porters Tues­day about the im­pa­tience of Ten­nessee fans, who are yearn­ing for ac­co­lades.

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