KNOXVILLE – Discussion of how great an offseason has been is an annual rite of passage for football teams of all levels as they transition from the grind of summer workouts to the practice field as August approaches.
Tennessee was no exception on Wednesday.
Coach Butch Jones and selected players met with the media in Knoxville for the first time since the spring. There were plenty of the usual platitudes about the intensity of the summer workouts, the growth of the team and the leadership that has developed, combined with anecdotes about team bowling and rafting trips.
But there’s some data to back up how successful this particular offseason has been in the first year under coach Butch Jones, especially off the field. The team recorded a 2.8 GPA (the best in recent history for the program) in the spring and Jones said the results were even better in the first session of summer school.
The team has logged over 1,300 hours of community services since Jones took over. There have been no arrests in Jones’ tenure. The Vols are currently ranked No. 1 in recruiting by Rivals.com.
The offseason “wins” have piled up. But how will that translate once the Vols take the field for the first fall practice on Friday?
“I feel like we’re creating a higher standard for Tennessee,” sophomore safety Brian Randolph said. “When we get a 3.0 [GPA] in a class, that’s not a great thing – that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. The recruits are buying in and it just seems like everybody is buying in to our program right now.”
Added senior defensive end Corey Miller: “The difference with this team compared to last year's team is that we understand that we have to keep driving no matter what. There are going to be bad plays or turnovers, bad things happen during games, but we have to overcome and keep moving forward."
Jones realizes that he won’t be able to see the true progress of the team until it steps on the field on Friday and even then, he will have to wait a few days to see everybody with full pads on. Further tests come in season-opening games against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, followed by a brutal stretch that includes Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama over a six-game period.
"I've said it and I'll continue to say it that I think this team will be defined by how we handle adversity, how resilient we are and as we know the schedule is a great challenge," Jones said. "And I know you guys get tired of hearing me say it, but it's all process oriented."
Jones candidly admitted that UT won’t be the most talented team in the SEC this season, but hopes that attention to detail, effort and a team-first attitude can make up the difference.
Those were missing attributes in last year’s losing campaign under former coach Derek Dooley. The returning players hope memories of those shortcomings help fuel a turnaround this season.
"Rather than going 5-7 we could have won 10 games last season,” Miller said. “It is all about finishing in the fourth quarter. There were games we should have finished and we know we should have finished and that leaves a pain in your heart with a little bit of regret.”
The optimism of the offseason could quickly wear off if losses start to pile up, especially if the Vols are on the wrong end of some blowouts. That’ll be the time of year that proves how much of Wednesday’s talk is rooted in reality.
Jones added that this team has bought in more than his first teams at Cincinnati and Central Michigan. That Central Michigan team he referenced won the MAC title in 2007. Is a conference title in UT’s future in 2013? Probably not.
But the calendar is about to turn to August. Everybody is 0-0. The offseason optimism can live on.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga