There wasn’t any controversy to speak of when Team 118 took to the practice field Friday. To be sure, however, there are far more questions than answers as the Tennessee Volunteers begin their second season under Jones.
“We have to take monumental steps in the development of our football program and our football team. The first step is really building our identity in Team 118. We really started building our identity the Monday after the conclusion of the Kentucky game. That’s when we started our offseason strength and conditioning program. We wanted to get going immediately. Our players have done a great job. Dave Lawson, Mike Szerszen, our entire strength and conditioning staff has really done an outstanding job,” Jones said.
He is particularly pleased with the progress of the individual gains made by Team 118 in the strength department. Last spring there were no Volunteers who could squat more than 600 pounds. This year, thanks to a very demanding regimen put into place by Lawson and Company, nine Vols are able to stand up with more than 600 pounds on their shoulders.
But that is only the beginning. Being strong in the weight room is one thing, being strong on the football field in the heat of Southeastern Conference football is something else entirely. Not only will Team 118 need to be physically fit, mental fitness with also play a major factor in the success of the Volunteers. Now one knows this better than Jones, who steps into his second spring camp at UT with close to half of the roster going through its first spring practice.
“Toughness ... nowhere where we needed to be last year, but last year is over with. It is a new beginning, and it’s a new football team. Our toughness must continue to improve both mentally and physically. We have to embrace sudden change, and we have to adapt and adjust. Football’s life just sped up a lot faster. We have to be able to handle midstream adjustments and embrace those,” he told the crowd.
Sure, there are some high quality and highly-touted recruits who are expected to have a sooner-rather-than-later impact, but the reality is no one knows for sure how these guys will react, grow, mature and pick up and buy into Jones Ball.
“The standard, the expectation is in place. However, we cannot assume anything. I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of a football program where just about 50 percent of the current roster is going through their first spring practice, so we cannot assume anything. We have to teach them everything,” he said. “It’s not starting from ground zero, because of the foundation that’s been laid, but again, we cannot assume anything as we continue to elevate and move forward to what we’re doing.
I supposed it could be called a controversy, but it’s more like a true competition to see who will lead the Volunteers as quarterback of Team 118. Four signal callers will be trying to keep up with the Joneses this spring, with no one QB standout as the clear favorite after last season. Senior Justin Worley and sophomores Josh Dobbs and Nathan Peterman all took snaps last year.
Worley started in four of Tennessee’s five wins in 2014 but was lost to the Vols after a thumb injury that required season-ending surgery. After Peterman’s catastrophic first half at Florida, Jones threw Dobbs into the fray. The then freshman found the going tough but finished with a nice showing, racking up more than 250 total yards in the Vols’ win against Kentucky.
Riley Ferguson never saw action as a true freshman due to a fractured tibia. The now redshirt freshman has been widely regarded by many as the QB saviour for the Volunteers although he has never taken a snap in a game situation.
The bottom line is the field general position is wide open in 2014 with no clear-cut leader. It remains to be seen who — if any — of the quartet will step up enough during spring camp to have an edge when fall camp arrives in August. Jones said he will be evaluating each one on a daily basis to see who is moving foward not only on the field, but in strength and conditioning, film study and in the weight room. If no proven leader takes charge during spring camp, Jones said it may be the week of the Volunteers’ opener against Utah State before a quarterback is chosen.
“We will chart, film and evaluate everything. We will evaluate how they are in team meetings, in the classroom and how they perform in individual drills. Every rep is a valuable rep. You don’t know how many reps you are going to get, so you better make sure you make the most of every single rep. Every rep is for a championship. Each rep is for becoming the starting quarterback,” he said. “Has there been a timetable set on who our starting quarterback is? No, there are no timetables. That person will emerge. I don’t know if it is the second week of spring, after the conclusion of the Orange-and-White Game or a week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself. Right now, they just have to work on making themselves better individually every day and being a leader. They have to prove that they can win at Tennessee.
“I would like to have somebody step up and emerge and be our quarterback, but I’ll also tell you this: Building our identity in the football team and in the quarterback position and in every position, it’s positive energy and momentum.”
I’ll tell you something even scarier than not having a standout quarterback under center — not having ANY starters returning to either the offensive or defensive line. If that doesn’t send shivers up your spine then, to paraphrase the immortal Clark Gable, “Frankly my dear, you ain’t a fan.”
All nine starters from the interior have departed the field at Neyland Stadium for the final time. This could certainly be the big dose of reality that tempers the excitement of the Top 5 recruiting class brought in by Jones and company on signing day. If a quarterback does emerge from the four-hound pack, who will be there to keep the fire-breathing SEC defenses off his back?
To those expecting to be back in the hunt for an SEC title in 2014, surprise! That’s not to say there hasn’t been so far or won’t be any improvement in the coming months. That’s where the strength and conditioning comes in and where the Vols will see major gains. But, the reality is — and I dislike it just as much as the next Big Orange fan — there is still a long road to travel before Jones has Tennessee back among the elite, not only in the SEC, but in the NCAA as well.
“You are not going to fix all of your deficiencies in one recruiting class. That is just the way it is. You fix it over time with consistency and continuity,” Jones said. “I thought we were able to build upon that in this recruiting class, but we still have a long ways to go in this program in terms of depth and overall competitiveness at each position.”
How long the Volunteers have to go and how long it takes them to completely turn the program around is and will be a question mark up to and beyond Aprils’ Orange-and-White Game. The bottom line is, getting the SS Big Orange to run a steady course through the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Southeastern Conference is and will be a daunting task for Cap’n Jones and crew.
Whether or not Cap’n Jones will be promoted to admiral is a question no one has an answer for at this time. Just how long he will have to step up in rank and how long he has to sail the SEC seas is yet to be determined. Turning around a 5-7 season and breaking the streak of four straight losing seasons will surely go a long way.
Richard Roberts is Sports Editor for the Cleveland Daily Banner. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.