KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It will take time, but head coach Butch Jones has a clear vision on where he wants the Vols to be as spring practices progress. After the second session on Tuesday, Jones spoke about how members of the team are continuing to re-program their minds and habits with the idea of working towards 'becoming a champion.'
"Work in progress. It is like we told them, `you are either developing good habits or bad habits," said Jones as he addressed the media "We are still in that infant stage of developing our mentality and our football team." Practice No. 3 on Thursday is one which Jones and the players are eagerly anticipating, as he will coach the Vols in full football gear for the first time.
"I told them that football practice officially starts on Thursday when we put the pads on. We have to get a lot better in a hurry," said Jones. "It is our mental conditioning, it is being able to play through fatigue, it is being able to execute. We have very little in right now. I know they are trying but we have to step it up a notch come Thursday. Obviously when the pads come on the game becomes a lot different."
As the Vols continue to learn the ways of Jones and his new staff, he continues to stress the importance of details and specifics. Every little piece goes into building the winning mentality.
"I think the more we continue to do it the more it becomes a habit," said Jones. "You have to practice it every day and you have to live it every day, you have to stress it and you have to have meticulous attention to details. It is going to come with time. The big thing with this football team is they have to understand every time we step on the football field there has to be a great sense of urgency."
Jones has a full picture of what it will take to put the Vols back on the path to success. He is quick to point out it is an entire team, university and community effort.
"I think there is a lot of energy. This is a very prideful program," he said. "Obviously the energy level of our coaching staff. Our coaches have done a great job; our administration has done a great job. I think it is a whole effort on everyone. Our fan base has been tremendous, our former players. When we talk about the Tennessee family that encompasses a lot of things.
APPETITE FOR SUCCESS
Senior defensive lineman Marlon Walls summed up the defense's mindset in one, simple word.
"We are hungry," Walls said. "I think we are about tired of talking about it and about ready to go out and do something about it. We have a lot of seniors this year and we've had some hardships here, but I think it is going to help us out in the long run. I think we are hungry, that is the only word I can come up with, hungry."
Fellow linemate Mo Couch confirmed that sentiment.
"We are hungry for real," Coach said. "Last year, we had the worst defense in Tennessee history. We have a lot of guys that are eager and very hungry. We are just going to be level-headed and work all through spring ball, summer workouts and get ready to compete for the fall."
Since Walls has stepped foot on campus, he has been under the guidance of a different defensive line coach in each and every season. But that doesn't matter to Walls.
"I think it helps us a little bit because you pick up on the defenses a little faster," said Walls. "I know that is crazy to say we are getting used to change, but I think these guys are going to be here for a while, for a long time, I hope so. They are already helping us out more than ever before. Coach Strip is a great guy. He knows what he has going on so it is my job to just shut up and listen. We are excited."
Someone who has been through all the coaching changes with Walls since he stepped foot on campus, Eric Gordon also sees a change in the current players.
"I am seeing guys buying in, guys getting a lot closer, and I am seeing guys get on the same page," said Gordon.
"As a player, especially here at the University of Tennessee, you know what great defense is," Walls said. "You've seen it. We know we can be a good defense, a great defense, especially with this coaching staff. We are looking forward to it. Our expectations are high, like they always are. This coaching staff is going to make sure we get there."
Gordon has set his sights on one location in particular.
"We aren't settling for 5-7," said Gordon. "That is not us as a defense, that is not us as an offense, that is sure not Tennessee as a team. We are hungry. I would like to go out on top. I don't see us doing anything else but getting a ring and getting to that dome."
RANDOLPH BACK IN ACTION
Even though it's just been 179 days since he tore his ACL during the Florida game last season, it seems like it's been a lot longer for safety Brian Randolph.
"It's been a long year for me," Randolph said. " I'm very anxious to get back on the field. It's a blessing that I'm able to now. It's a good feeling to be able to perform with my teammates."
Randolph hit the practice field for the second time on Tuesday but admits there were times in his rehab process when he wasn't sure how quickly he'd make it back.
"It was a long time," Randolph said. "There were times that I thought I was never going to get better. But I just came in and got my work in, my rehab in, and now I'm back. It didn't take too long."
Although the physical part of rehab was no easy task, Randolph said the hardest part was the mental aspect of the recovery and having to watch the games instead of playing in them.
"There were some days that you come in and it felt like it got worse from the day before. It was a long lagging thing so it took a while to get over."
"That hurt me a lot. Sitting at home watching the game," Randolph said. "It was the worst feeling ever. I felt like I couldn't help my teammates, but for the most part they did pretty good while I was gone. I just wish I was out there helping them."
Despite being back on the field, the road to recovery isn't over. Randolph will battle soreness and overcompensation until he's regained confidence in his knee.
"Today, it's a little sore," Randolph said. "I kind of tweaked my hamstring a little bit because I just think it has a lot to do with me trying to overcompensate. I feel like at times I can go 100 percent, but other times I'm a little bit slower."
"I have no fear in it (his knee) right now, but we haven't put on any pads yet," Randolph said. "I think that might make a difference but for now, I don't have any fear."
JOURNEYMAN READY TO PURSUE DREAM
Pursuing his dream of playing football in America's best conference has finally come to fruition for junior transfer Riyahd Jones. Originally from Columbus, Ga., the 6-foot, 186-pound cornerback, has traveled all over the Southeast to pursue his dream.
The one-time Kentucky commit spent the 2011 season playing defensive back at Georgia Southern before transferring to Garden City (Kan.) Community College for the 2012 campaign, and eventually picked the Vols over multiple big-time offers from around the nation. With just two spring practices under his belt, Riyahd Jones has already set the standards for himself.
"My expectations for myself are just to get better as a player, develop a high-trust level with all the coaches from offense to defense and special teams and hopefully to earn that starting spot," said Riyahd Jones. "I didn't come here to be a backup; I came here to pursue my dreams."
Being a journeyman, Riyahd Jones isn't about to back down from a little competition. In fact, he knows exactly what he needs to work on and believes that gives him a leg-up.
"I've been coming in to watch extra film and do anything I can to be ahead of the game," Riyahd Jones said. "When you get to a place like this, everybody is good at their position. You've got to do something to separate yourself, whether it's lifting extra, backpedaling extra, watching extra film or whatever you have to work on. The biggest thing for me is working on my smarts to become a smarter corner so that's why I watch a lot of film."
The majority of JuCo players are brought in with just two years of eligibility remaining, meaning coaches expect them to make an immediate and positive impact on their program.
"That is what you try to dig into with the junior college players because when you bring a junior college player in you are bringing them in for immediate help," head coach Butch Jones said. We did our due diligence and he has done a great job. We are throwing so much at him and he is digesting everything from football to academics."
Although he claims to be a jokester on his Twitter account (@CoolJones_), Riyahd Jones says he is all business on the gridiron, especially with a set of shoulder pads on.
"When it's time for one-on-one or any type of pass, I get serious," Riyahd Jones said. "I take it personal when a receiver catches a ball so that's why I break it up. When the pads come on, that's when you're all going to see a beast. I'm just getting started."
TIGHT ENDS TAKE ON HIGHER PRIORITY
Under first-year head coach Butch Jones and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, Tennessee fans will get a somewhat different look on the offensive side of the ball than what their used to.
One difference will be the utilization of the tight end. Last year, at Cincinnati, Jones had one of the most productive tight ends in the nation in Travis Kelce, who caught 45 passes for 722 yards and eight touchdowns en route to an all-conference selection.
This production caught the eye of current Tennessee tight end junior Brendan Downs.
"I watched a lot of film on Cincinnati's offense," Downs said. "When I heard about the hire I went and looked at how Cincinnati used their tight ends. That is going to effect me. I was interested in that and once I saw that I was like `okay I think I am really going to like that."
"He asks a lot of his tight ends, we are all over the field," Downs said. "I think when he says that he means we have to be even more locked in because we are doing all kinds of different stuff on and off the field and with personnel. We have to be really locked in out there and have a really good grasp of the offense."
Downs said the offense will be quick and up-tempo, similar to the pace of last year's offense under Jim Chaney.
"We were a little up-tempo last year so that certainly helps the transition to this offense," Downs said. "But it is faster. In practice there is definitely a noticeable difference in pace. It has been a little different but I am starting to get used to it."
The versatility required of the tight end position is something that fellow tight end sophomore Justin King is also embracing.
"It's going to be a lot, a lot of things Coach Jones is throwing at us right now," King said. "We just have to come in, watch film, learn his offense, and learn what he wants us to do so we can be a better team."
"I'm not really a guy that feels like I can do so much," King said. "Whatever Coach Jones wants me to do. If he wants me to split out, flex out, come in the backfield, I'm going to do that. Like I told another guy, I just want to win. That's our main focus right now."
With the loss of the team's top four receivers from last season--Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson, Zach Rogers and Mychal Rivera-- Downs realizes that production from the tight end position will be critical to the Vols' success this year.
"I think it is important. Any time, not just with the receiver talent lost, but in this offense especially tight end is going to play a big role in the passing game so he has to be on top of it."
HEAD COACH BUTCH JONES
(On learning about Tennessee tradition)
“I think it is a pride of who we are, I think it is a pride of what they are representing. This is one of the most storied college football programs in the country and our players have to take ownership. Whether it is team 117 or team 118 a year from now, we are here to protect our tradition and build upon that tradition. There is a standard of excellence that comes when you come to The University of Tennessee. I think it is those players understanding that. We talk about, the deeper our tradition, the deeper our standards, the tougher and deeper our pride is in everything that we do. It is just the standard expectation in this football program and we will not compromise.”
(On the difference of practicing with pads on)
“It may because it becomes a lot different. Now you have to get up off a pile, now you have to locate the signals and you have to get up. So everything is accelerated. I am looking forward to just the individuals who can retain the information that they had in practice one and practice two and apply it to the field and then also be able to take the knowledge that they learned that day with the install. The big thing is we need to be a physical football team and that is going to be born in practice.”
(On early enrollees)
“I think it is challenging for a number of reasons. We have to keep in perspective that they should still be in high school. But I tell you what, come August they will reap the benefits and the rewards of enrolling early. Right now you have to be patient a little bit. Everything is accelerated and football is just a small part of it. They are in a new setting, they have new friends, they are taking college classes, a college academic load. There are so many things around them that is not just football, it is everything adding up. They are doing a great job.”
(On the positive reaction by former players)
“It has been positive but not just in the past three days. We came here in December and it has been into January, February and now into March. Everyone has been receptive. Our former players have been tremendous. They have shown up. They have done everything that we have asked of them. We have to do a good job of giving back to them as well. I am very proud of them, they have done a great job. They speak to a number of them each and every day. We are going to have a lot back on Saturday as well. I am proud to be the caretaker. They built this football program, this is their program. The other thing that I think that great programs have is our current players are starting to develop relationships with our former players. I think that is big. Our football program right now has a lot of momentum in all aspects. I think people around the country understand what we have here at the University of Tennessee and they are waiting for Tennessee to wake up. And we are waking up and I think you see that in all aspects. By the way we practice, the effort that our players are giving, the effort of our former players, and also in the recruiting process.”
(On developing relationships with former players)
“Day one. That is part of being a head football coach. You get to paint the vision for everything. The way your players perform on and off the football field, the type of student athletes you recruit, the type of environment that you foster on and off the field. That is why I enjoy being a head football coach. We have a long ways to go. I am just telling you. I am very impatient, with this football team we are all learning. We have to come Thursday with a sense of urgency. We have to come tomorrow in our lifting sessions and with our meetings also with a great sense of urgency. That is a process that these players go through; they have to understand the magnitude and importance of spring football every single day.”
(On the players losing weight)
“I think it is a combination of a lot of things. I think we can’t get alarmed all of sudden because we are losing all of this weight because this is what they have done. They have lost body fat and they have gained muscle. So actually our players are bigger and stronger upfront but they have lost weight. I firmly believe that Dave Lawson is one of the best strength and conditioning coaches in the country. He does a great job. We do before and after pictures. We have to get bigger as a football team especially in the traps and the neck area and the legs. That is where your explosive movements come from. To be physical football team you have to be a strong football team. Our players have really embraced it and they have done a great job to date.”
RS SENIOR DEFENSIVE LINEMAN MARLON WALLS
(On former players coming back for practice)
“We love it. It shows how much Coach Jones understands what Tennessee football is all about. It’s all about getting the guys back that were here. It gives us an extra boost seeing those guys on the sideline and knowing that those guys are watching because we are wearing their jersey numbers and those guys are greats. We put that extra effort forward when those guys are out there.”
(On the pace of practice)
“That offense is going fast. I remember back two years ago when we were playing Cincinnati here and I remember those first two series, they wore us out. That is going to be an advantage in our corner and a disadvantage for our opponents. We love it. It is going to take us a while to get used to on defense, but it will help us out in the long run. It’s definitely going to help us. I think practicing this way prepares the defense to be able to go out for four quarters and be able to run because last year I think we died out a lot. This fast-paced offense is going to help us out and is going to help our stamina so when the fourth quarter comes around we expect to be jumping around and look over to the other sideline and see those guys bent over.”
(On the difference in the offensive linemen after some have lost weight)
“They are moving. They’ve always been pretty good but our job is to go out there and challenge those guys so I would never tell him that. It’s a blessing to be able to go out there against guys like [James] Stone and Zach Fulton, those guys go hard every play so you know the expectation when you get out there.”
(On having so many senior defensive linemen)
“We’re calling guys out every day. We’ve been around each other for a while so we know each other and you can get on a guy. We expect a guy to be a man and take that coaching. If guys are getting on you, myself included, that means you must be doing something wrong. Us being around each other for so long, we can do that. I think it is definitely going to help us out.”
RS SENIOR DEFENSIVE BACK ERIC GORDON
(On the VFLs returning Saturday)
“It is motivation. These aren’t just the average people. These guys have been here long before we came here. They put their blood, sweat and tears into everything they were doing and we want to get that tradition back.”
(On his role on the team)
“I see myself playing mostly nickel, but I can play the corner too.”
(On knowing the Tennessee tradition)
“It makes a big difference because it is about tradition. You don’t want to be out here playing for nothing. You don’t want be out here not knowing who played in that jersey in front of you, you want to know the history about everything. It is a big part of our Tennessee tradition.”
RS SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK BRIAN RANDOLPH
(On the moment he went down in the game with the injury)
“I remember it just snapped up and I felt something shoot up. Jacques (Smith) came over and I knew it was over.”
(On how the team is with the new coaching staff)
“I notice everyone is more up. They communicate more. They seem like they have a pep in their step.”
(On how the tempo is for his knee)
“It actually makes it better. It doesn’t give me time to get sore and sit around. It just keeps my knee nice and loose so I kind of like it.”
(On this year’s defense)
“We have a lot to prove. I heard a bunch of bad stats, I don’t know what they are, but every single motto we just tell ourselves we were the worst defense in the SEC last year, so we’re just trying to prove everyone wrong.”
“These defensive coordinators, they came in telling us that they want us to play football and not think as much. It’s not as complicated as last year so it gives us a chance to go out there and make plays. It’s pretty easy to pick up.”
SOPHOMORE DEFENSIVE BACK LaDARRELL McNEIL
(On the competition between players)
“It’s free for everybody. The competition is really good. We’re competing with all the guys, not just the starters. We’re just really trying to get better as a whole, that way, anybody can play and they’ll be ready.
“No one is really a starter. Everybody is on the same level and we have to work to get better. We have to keep working it and working it and stay strong. And see if they can pull the next guy along with him, then they’ll be a starter.”
(On learning things his freshman year)
““It was tough because I was just getting out of high school. But those guys took me in, even Brian, when he was hurt. He took me in and they taught me. Prentiss (Waggner) and all of them taught me and showed me all the ropes. From there, I got the feel of it and got comfortable."
(On learning the history about the former players who wore number 33)
“It’s basically you have to know your history of the other players. You have to look at what they did, where they came from, how they played and with the mentality they played. You want to be to that level and where they were at with your number and what you represent.”
JUNIOR DEFENSIVE BACK RIYAHD JONES
(On Coach Willie Martinez)
“He’s a fiery coach, but he’s also a great teacher. On the field, he’s loud, but in the meeting rooms he’s teaching like a professor in class. He’s drawing it up, running the film, and running it back, taking us to the field and walking us through it and it has been great. I’m glad to be here. It has been a long journey and without Coach Martinez I don’t know if I would be here. He’s been a big impact on me being here. I didn’t want to go far to a school in the Midwest. My dream has been to play in the SEC my whole entire life. It’s a blessing and so glad to be here. I’m ecstatic.”
(On the biggest adjustment so far)
“The toughest adjustment has been the speed of it. Coach Jones has the offense running at a high-speed pace. One group of receivers will run a play and the second group is already back and ready to line up. You’ve got to get your stuff together and get ready to go. That has been the toughest part. I’m in shape, but the speed is so much faster than Junior College and Georgia Southern.”
JUNIOR TIGHT END BRENDAN DOWNS
(On the pace of practice)
“In general it will help in stamina and conditioning, putting this in now and pushing ourselves to the limit on the practice field right now, when we get out into the game we will be a step ahead as far as conditioning goes. That is what we are working toward.”
(On his knee)
“It still bothers me from time to time but it bothers me more after practice when I will be walking around and feel a little tight. I am getting ice on it. Once I get out there and get going I am fine. It really stopped hurting about a month and a half after I got back.”
(On the VFLs coming back on Saturday)
“That was awesome, especially for me. Growing up around here I watched a lot of those guys play so that was incredible for me. They just introduced themselves, and it was nice to put some names with some faces. I recognized a lot of them. It was cool.”
(On looking back at the Tennessee tradition in meetings)
“I think that is awesome and really important, especially playing at Tennessee. A lot of people don’t understand the tradition here like someone from East Tennessee does. How diehard it is around here. I really appreciated that and all that the coaches are doing with that.”
SOPHOMORE TIGHT END JUSTIN KING
(On his role in the Butch Jones offense)
“I’m just doing what Coach Jones wants me to do. From playing tight end to moving around, I’m just trying to win games and help this team to the best ability I can. I’m a team player so I’m not really trying to find anything that I want to be specific on. Whatever the coaches want me to do, I want to do it, period.”
(On how much his body has changed since he was at Dunwoody)
“It’s changed real big. I came in at 215 my freshman year, I’m around 235 or 240 right now. I’m flirting with that a lot. I’m up and down, but I feel stronger. I feel like I've gotten a lot quicker, I’m ready to work.”
(On his impression of the offense, will it be different from last year)
“It’s different. It’s nothing like last year. We’re real quick. We’re on the ball, get the play, and next thing you know we are looking at the sidelines trying to get the signals. It’s a high tempo offense, that’s what we want. We want to make our opponent tired, and at the same time we have to know what we are doing first. That’s what we are doing out here, just getting better each day.”
(On the pace of the offense in the fourth quarter up two scores)
“We’re not stopping. We’re going to keep putting the gas on the pedal and keep going. We’re going to want our opponent at the end of the game huffing and puffing. That’s our main focus right now. That’s what we are trying to do to the defense, our defense, so that they can get prepared. We have Oregon in our season, so we want them to get ready, get adjusted to that, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
(On what makes him think he can fit at tight end and be a factor)
“I feel like I can bring so much to the table, but at the same time I’m doing whatever Coach Jones wants me to do. If Coach Jones tells me next week that he wants me to play defense, I’ll do it. I’m trying to win games, trying to bring Tennessee back to the top.”