Tennessee Vols eager to move out of rebuilding mode

 

Tennessee coach Butch Jones feels like the Vols are close to reclaiming their place among the SEC's top teams. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

Tennessee coach Butch Jones feels like the Vols are close to reclaiming their place among the SEC’s top teams. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

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DawgNation.com is fanning out across the SEC to get a look at Georgia’s early-season conference opponents. This is the second installment in the series, which will be running all week.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones leaned back in the black swivel chair in his posh office atop Tennessee’s Anderson Training Center and took a long pull on his Vernor’s Diet Ginger Ale as he thought about the question he’d been asked.

Since he has been in this seat, his narrative has been about the “rebuilding” of the Volunteers’ football program. Now entering his third season on Rocky Top, Jones was asked when his task ceases to be a reclamation project and becomes something resembling an accomplishment.

“I think you’re always construction,” said Jones, who has never met a maxim of which he couldn’t make use. “You’re always working to get better. But the one thing we do have in place is our culture, our standards, our expectations. We have that in place now. But you don’t just change the dynamics overnight, and unfortunately we’ve struggled for a number of years now.”

“You don’t just come in and fix everything in a three-year window.”

Maybe not, but repairs are well under way. Aesthetically if nothing else.

You can start with the massive building in which Jones is conducting this pre-practice interview on Tuesday. It’s taking place on the top floor of the $45 million Anderson Training Facility.

Former Georgia defensive coach Willie Martinez is assistant head coach and defensive backs coach at Tennessee. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

Dedicated not long after Jones had arrived on the scene, everything around the place smells new, is named after somebody and comes with the precursor “state-of-the-art.” It features a multilevel strength and conditioning area that’s one of the largest in college athletics — 22,000-square foot area – an 11,000-square foot rehabilitation center stocked with zero-gravity recovery chambers and Smokey’s Grill, a cutting-edge dining hall for athletes.

But spending money and having fine facilities is nothing new in Big Orange Country. What’s most different around here has been the final records they’ve had to post in the many display areas throughout this expansive complex. Starting with Phillip Fulmer’s last year in 2008, that’s been 5-7, 7-6, 6-7, 5-7, 5-7, 5-7 and 7-6.

Here’s an astounding stat: Tennessee has been ranked one week in that seven-year span (23rd in 2012, before an early-season loss to Florida). The natives, you could say, are getting pretty restless.

But everybody’s expecting that streak of mediocrity to end this season. The 2015 Vols are considered the best bet to trip up Georgia in the SEC’s Eastern Division race this year.

“I feel like we’re getting very close,” said defensive back Emmanuel Mosely, a sophomore from Greensboro, N.C. “You can see it in the recruiting our coaching staff is doing. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting very close.”

The Vols ought to be pretty good on defense. Georgia natives Cam Sutton and Brian Randolph help make up one of the better secondaries in the SEC. Defensive ends Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett are arguably the best bookends in the business. And junior Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who averaged 11 tackles a game last year, is one of the most underrated inside linebackers in the league.

Offensively, few teams can claim better skills players than the Vols. Junior Joshua Dobbs of Alpharetta majors in aerospace engineering and is one of the few entrenched starters at quarterback in the SEC. Their tailback tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara rivals those at Georgia and Alabama. Their wide receiver corps is embarrassingly deep, starting with proven players such as Pig Howard, Von Pearson and Marquez North and continuing through ballyhooed freshmen such as Preston Williams from Atlanta’s Lovejoy High (assuming his eligibility is restored).

“We continue to progress and we’ve come a long way,” Jones said. “It’s light years from when we came here to where we are now in every facet of the program.”

Freshman Jauan Jennings is the latest skill player to make a splash at Tennessee. He has been impressive since moving from quarterback to wide receiver. (AJC / CHIP TOWERS)

There are still issues. The Vols remain young up the middle on defense, in the interior defensive line and at middle linebacker. And offensive line was already a concern before losing starting guard Marcus Jackson to a season-ending bicep injury and backup Austin Sanders as well. Injuries have also impacted the wide receiver position, where Jason Croom has been out since the bowl game with a knee injury, and Marquez North has missed time with a sprain.

Tennessee also lost one of its most versatile defensive starters in nickelback Rashaan Gaulden, who broke his foot in practice last Thursday. That has caused a shuffle in the back third.

“It’s about that time,” Jones said. “The good thing is most of the injuries occurred at a relatively early stage in the camp. We’re starting to get just about everybody back.”

Dobbs, Kamara, Williams, Randolph and Sutton represent a common theme you’ll find on the Tennessee roster. They’re all from Georgia, and the Atlanta area in particular.

Jones makes no secret of the fact that his restoration plan relies heavily upon scoring major recruiting victories in Atlanta.

“When you look at the entire tradition here at the University of Tennessee, you look at Georgia, the Atlanta area, the entire state,” Jones said. “There’s been some great players that have played here. And when you look at it form a proximity standpoint, 2 1/2, 3 hours, it’s a home territory for us. We consider that part of our home area.”

“Great high school coaches, the quality of the players and the quality of the character of the young men that you’re bringing in from there, it’s a great fit and it’s an easy ride. I really believe is all you have to do is look at the past successes and traditions, and a lot of it stemmed from Georgia. And now we’ve made tremendous in-roads.”

That’s what makes the Georgia game such an important one for Tennessee. The Bulldogs have dominated the series of late, winning five in a row and six of the last seven. But the Vols have been tantalizingly close of late, losing 34-31 in overtime in Knoxville in 2013 and 35-32 last year in Athens. They play Oct. 10 at Neyland Stadium.

“It’s important first of all because it’s an Eastern Division game, and obviously the proximity of the state,” Jones said. “But every game in our conference is very, very important. All I know is I believe the players in the Atlanta and Georgia see what we’re building here and see what we have here and it’s very attractive.”

NEXT STOP: Columbia, S.C.

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— By Chip Towers, AJC and DawgNation.com


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