- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Butch Jones has seen enough of Team 118 this spring to know that it should be faster, more athletic and more talented next season.
For those not up on Jones’ lingo, Team 118 is his pet name for the 118th football team in Tennessee’s proud history and the second one that he will coach.
As Rocky Top’s master brick layer, Jones’ task is clearly stated: making Tennessee football whole again by building it back brick by brick.
“If you’re going to do it right, that’s the only way,” Jones said. “There are no shortcuts.”
That’s easier said than done, especially with a win-starved fan base hanging on every shred of hope. The Vols have suffered through four straight losing seasons and haven’t had a winning SEC record since 2007, Phillip Fulmer’s next-to-last season.
That was four head coaches ago.
“We’re still not where we need to be to compete at a high level in this conference, but we have taken great steps in moving forward by increasing our team speed and overall athleticism, and the exciting thing is that there are 18 more newcomers arriving in June,” said Jones, who was 5-7 in his first season at Tennessee, which included a win over No. 11 South Carolina.
A large chunk of a signing class, ranked No. 5 nationally, is already on campus. Including junior college signees, the Vols brought in 14 early enrollees. Many of those will play key roles next season, and a handful may start.
Junior college offensive tackle Dontavius Blair and junior college receiver Von Pearson won’t have to wait long to get on the field, and the same goes for freshman running back Jalen Hurd, freshman receiver Josh Malone and freshman offensive tackle Coleman Thomas.
“We only have 13 seniors in the program,” Jones said. “We’ll be much more talented, but very youthful. It’s kind of invigorating, though, because this football team has been willing and they’ve been eager. We’ve just got to teach them.”
What you can’t teach is experience, strength and explosiveness in the offensive and defensive lines, and that’s where Jones’ greatest concern lies with Team 118.
He knew when he took the job that his second season might be his most challenging after seeing what the Vols had coming back up front. All five starting offensive linemen from a year ago are gone as well as their top five tacklers in the defensive line and seven defensive linemen from their 2013 opening-day roster.
“I knew right away when I studied the roster that we were in trouble in Year 2 in terms of depth and experience,” Jones said. “We had to make a commitment in recruiting. We have to get back to attracting the top-level offensive and defensive linemen to the University of Tennessee. We’ve had them. You look at all the great offensive and defensive linemen who played here, and now the opportunity to play early and at an institution that has that tradition in the line of scrimmage is as great as it’s ever been.”
The truth is that Jones won’t have a good feel for what his defensive line will look like next season until the rest of the freshmen start rolling in this summer. Sophomore Corey Vereen has been impressive at one end this spring, and redshirt junior Curt Maggitt is going to move around and play a lot with his hand down. But the Vols will need freshmen Derek Barnett, Dewayne Hendrix, Charles Mosley and Michael Sawyers to come in and help right away in the defensive line.
“It still has to evolve, and right now, that’s just where we are,” Jones said. “We’re going to have to play true freshmen. And as we know, this is an unforgiving league when it comes to the line of scrimmage. But it is what it is. We’ve been talking to them a lot. They have to have a great next few months at home while they’re finishing up high school, and then when they get here in June, we have to get as much out of them as we can, get them bigger and stronger.
“That’s just where we’re at in the program. We’re going to have to rely on true freshmen.”
From what he has seen so far from some of the newcomers already on campus, Maggitt isn’t sure that’s such a bad thing.
“One of the things you see is some good competition at different positions with these new guys, and you’re going to see even more when the rest of them get here this summer,” Maggitt said. “I can already tell that we’ll be a better team and a faster team.”
And maybe the team that puts an end to the longest drought in modern Tennessee football history.
"We all have the same goal, and that's getting Tennessee back to where it's supposed to be," Maggitt said. "We've got Coach Jones' back, and he has ours."
15hSam Khan Jr.
2dSam Khan Jr.