NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just exactly where the Butch Jones’ era for University of Tennessee football began is up for debate.
Surely, the season opener Saturday against visiting Austin Peay in Neyland Stadium will officially mark the beginning for the tenure of the 24th head coach in Volunteers football history.
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Or maybe it came last Dec. 7, when Jones was hired away from Cincinnati to follow the failed three-year tenure of former Vols coach Derek Dooley, the wild one-year ride of Lane Kiffin before he shuffled off to Southern Cal, and the divisive firing of College Football Hall of Fame coach Phillip Fulmer, who guided the Vols to the 1998 national championship.
Vols fans looking for markers for success along the way after having to endure an unprecedented three-straight losing seasons will tell you it came on the first Wednesday of last February. That’s when Jones announced his first signing class that was ranked 33rd nationally by Scout.com, although he entered the highly-competitive Southeastern Conference recruiting fray way late in the game.
Or it could be that the current crop of 24 commitments for the 2014 class is ranked best in the country by Scout.com. Might it be that Jones has energized a hungry fan base with a relentless work ethic and an unacceptance that Tennessee can’t return to its once-lofty perch among the SEC elite. His reaching out to empower former Vols stars in support of the program hadn’t happened since Fulmer departed.
Yeah, Jones has hit all the markers thus far. Now, it comes down to winning games, even the ones that once were a given. Those include Austin Peay, a NCAA FCS-level member, or a week from Saturday against visiting Western Kentucky, a surging program coached by a familiar foe, former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino.
“The first two games, I always call them the game of the unknowns,” Jones said earlier this week. “You really don’t know what to expect. First of all, from your opponent — new coaching staff, new faces, new schemes — and then also from ourselves, focusing on what we do.”
And that’s about trying to stem the tide — pardon the pun, when you consider Alabama’s consecutive national titles pushed the league’s run to seven years atop the national college football perch — and returning the Tennessee program, the second-winningest in SEC history behind only Alabama, to that of contender rather than pretender.
“I think the big thing for us is, I want to see this team play relentless,” Jones said. “I want to see this football team play with great energy. I think that is the first step of becoming a better football team.
“We have to play with great energy. We have to play with a collective energy, a collective toughness, amongst ourselves.”
If that happens this season, it could go a long way in masking some severe talent deficiencies. While the offensive line is considered one of the best in the country, junior Justin Worley was just named starting quarterback this week, the running back tandem of Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal is only so-so by SEC standards and the depleted receiving corps will be relying heavily on untested players like top recruit Marquez North.
And of the defense, well, senior tackle Daniel McCullers and junior linebacker A.J. Johnson will play at the next level soon enough, but there is still not enough quality depth to immediately impact the worst defense in the SEC last year.
But, as usual, the team’s quarterback is the focus. And on Monday, when Jones released the final two-deep depth chart, he had Worley as the starter.
“We wanted to make the best educated decision for our football team and our football program, and it was taking care of the football,” Jones said of naming Worley, the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, as the starting quarterback. “I think the game experience had a little bit to do with it as well.”
And even that game experience is limited for Worley, who has played in only nine games, starting three, the past two seasons. He played limitedly as a backup last season to starter Tyler Bray, but did complete 48-of-87 passes for 604 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions in three starts as a true freshman when Bray was sidelined by injury.
“I wouldn’t say I was just going in trying not to lose it,” Worley said of battling redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman and a pair of true freshmen, Riley Ferguson and Joshua Dobbs, for the starting job during spring practice and preseason drills.
“I was going in trying to progress as well as I could in my understanding of the offense and management of the game,” Worley added. “Here and there maybe, I wouldn’t make the throw into double coverage and check it down, just trying to be smart — trying to play smart football.”
For senior right tackle Ja’Waun James, there was a comfort level to finally having Worley named the starting quarterback, as most expected.
“It gives us confidence because we have confidence in him now,” James said. “You see him getting confidence in himself out there playing. He is starting to play with a little bit of (swagger), and he is feeling himself.”
That’s the kind of feeling Jones has tried to impart to his team since taking the job. His mantra has been — like most successful coaches — about sticking to the routine. And he hasn’t backed off that, even when it reverberated as coach-speak to the various platforms on which he has delivered his message since becoming Vols coach.
“It is like I told our football team, I don’t like emotional football teams, I don’t like emotional people,” Jones said. “If you show me an emotional football team, I will show you a football team that is up and down. They don’t have a consistency in their performance.
“I want a football team that is relentless and passionate about playing football at the University of Tennessee. I am anxious to see that Saturday night.”
Junior left tackle Tiny Richardson, one of the best in the country at the position, feels the team has bought into what Jones has been selling. And why not? This is a team eager to win and shed a legacy that goes with the program trying to fight through some of the worst of times.
After all, the Volunteers have won only five SEC games the past three seasons, including only two during each of the past two campaigns.
“I think we are just looking forward to winning,” Richardson said. “The biggest thing is that we haven’t won much in the past few years, and it is a new era now. We have been focusing on our effort. That is what you will see a lot more out of this team this year is effort.”