KNOXVILLE – In some aspects, Tennessee’s football program enters Year 2 under Butch Jones facing many of the same challenges it did last year.
There’s no definitive starting quarterback and no clear timetable on when one will be named. Many key players, several of which will end up on NFL rosters, are gone from the prior team and there are question marks about who will replace them. Overall, the Vols are still looking up at a majority of their SEC rivals in terms of talent, depth and experience.
But Jones, always an optimist, sees continuing growth in his football program. And with a young roster that has just 13 scholarship seniors, Jones acknowledged that the pace of installation and the speed of practice might not be up to what he would like at this point, but he enjoys having a young team that he can mold.
"I like it,” Jones said at his pre-spring practice press conference on Thursday afternoon. “It's invigorating. I know for me and our entire staff, because they're eager, they're willing, they have no bad habits right now. They hang on every word that you say, so that's the exciting thing.”
Jones is also excited to bring back an entire coaching staff for the first time at Tennessee in nearly a decade. Change has been the norm and stability the exception.
“Our entire defense is hearing the same terminology,” Jones said. “We are light years ahead of where we [were] at this time [last year]. We still have much, much needed growth and improvement, but we have taken tremendous steps and strides in moving forward with this football program."
A big step forward has come in the weight room, where Tennessee now has nine players squatting 600-plus pounds after having none at this point last year. Jones said that quarterback Josh Dobbs looks “vividly different” and is up to 210 pounds after arriving at UT closer to 190.
Jones added that all of the QBs have added weight and muscle and he sees that as the biggest difference in them over the course of the offseason thus far.
And after harping on UT’s lack of team speed last year, Jones thinks that problem is being addressed through improvement in that area in the offseason by the returning players and new additions.
"I think that's what will be the biggest difference in our football team and it should be in terms of our overall team speed,” he said. “I think that will be first extremely evident in the special teams game from the returner position, but also in our coverage teams.
“It's really evident when you watch the quality control of our punt team. Anytime Michael Palardy outkicked the coverage, we gave up a big return. We didn't play in space very well.”
The Vols begin spring practice this Friday with the first workout set for 4:20 p.m. ET. Teams are allotted 15 on-field sessions in the spring. The Vols will practice five times before stopping for spring break after practice on March 14. They will reconvene on the field March 27 and hold nine more sessions before the Orange and White Game is held on April 12.
• Jones confirmed that tight ends A.J. Branisel, Brendan Downs, defensive tackle Trevarris Saulsberry, wide receiver Drae Bowles and safety Brian Randolph won’t participate in spring practice due to injury.
• Receiver Pig Howard remains on the spring roster, though he is not expected to participate this spring either as he attends to personal matters.
• Reserve defensive tackle Gregory Clark, who recorded seven tackles in 10 games last year, is no longer with the program.
• True freshman Neiko Creamer, who is expected to try multiple positions, will start out at linebacker and wear No. 31.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga