KNOXVILLE – After going 10-14 in the previous two seasons combined, it was apparent that the Vols needed a fresh start in the leadership of the football program.
Almost eight months to the day that Jones accepted the Tennessee job and met with his new players for the first time, that fresh start has been a positive factor for almost everybody around the program.
From recruiting, to alumni relations to the players on the current roster, the clean slate has been welcomed across the board.
That’s especially true for a player like redshirt freshman defensive tackle Danny O’Brien, who sat through a season last year on the bench while his teammates struggled on the field. The former four-star recruit had aspirations of playing as a true freshman, but is now thankful to have four years of eligibility remaining under Jones and defensive line coach Steve Stripling.
“Coach Strip has completely changed my game,” said O’Brien. “He’s the best coach I’ve ever played under. He’s doing great things with all of us defensive linemen.”
O’Brien has also seen a new start physically after reshaping his body in the offseason. The 6-foot-2 native of Flint, Mich., cut his body fat from 32 percent to around 22 percent this offseason and dropped from 310 to the 285-290 range.
“My body has completely changed,” he said. “I had to be a little bigger in the 3-4, but now they want us to be play makers, not space eaters, so I’m moving twice as good as I did at 310 and I actually feel a lot more powerful because both my bench and squat went way up.”
Linebacker Dontavis Sapp, who is a projected starter at outside linebacker, has enjoyed the benefit of a new start as well after contributing mainly on special teams through three seasons with the prior staff.
“When Coach Jones came, there was just a whole different demeanor about him,” Sapp said. “He’s always walking with a bounce, he’s always looking amped up and ready to do something – I think there’s something wrong with him. I love him to death, though. He said everybody has a clean slate. Everybody has equal opportunity to come out here and compete.”
Jones set the expectations for how he would treat his players at that initial meeting after his hiring. Everybody would get a chance. The past was the past.
“I told every player when we walked in here and we had our first meeting, Dec. 7, everyone was responsible for building their own identity," said Jones. "What they had done in the past did not have any merit at all."
Injury update: Tight end Justin Meredith (hamstring) and linebackers Christian Harris (knee) and Justin King (unspecified) remained out of practice on Monday afternoon. They were joined on the sideline by safeties Byron Moore and LaDarrell McNeil. Both are dealing with minor hamstring issues, according to Jones.
Notes and observations:
• The Vols did some quick scrimmaging at the beginning of Monday afternoon’s practice. At quarterback, Justin Worley worked with the first team, Nathan Peterman led the second group and freshmen Josh Dobbs and Riley Ferguson each got a chance with the third team.
• Ferguson threw an interception to redshirt freshman Tino Thomas during that period. Both Dobbs and Ferguson dealt with a bad snap from freshman lineman Dylan Wiesman, who has been working at guard and center this fall.
• With Moore and McNeil out, redshirt sophomore walk-on Max Arnold got first-team reps at safety.
• The newcomers continue to impress at wide receiver. Marquez North, Paul Harris, Josh Smith, Ryan Jenkins and Johnathon Johnson have all worked in with the first or second team at some point. Jenkins got open and made a nice reception today during the scrimmage part of practice Monday. Returning receivers Drae Bowles, Jacob Carter and Devrin Young seem to have all slipped on the depth chart a little, but it’s still very early in camp.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga