Spring football, for obvious reasons, is a chance to start fresh. But it’s all a matter of degrees. Auburn, coming off a trip to the BCS National Championship Game, doesn’t need a full-blow makeover with Nick Marshall back under center and seven other returning starters on offense. South Carolina, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, which bring back a healthy amount of experience, are all in similar boats, building upon last year’s success rather than rebuilding entirely.
And then there’s Tennessee.
Common sense dictates that every year roughly 25 percent of any given roster turns over as the senior class departs and a new freshman class steps in. Throw in a few underclassmen leaving early for the draft and that number can swell to anywhere from 30-35 percent. But Butch Jones isn’t dealing with a normal situation at Tennessee. Since taking over the Vols late in 2012, he has hit the recruiting trail hard in an effort to rework the roster in a hurry. His first full signing class in February featured a jaw-dropping 35 prospects, 14 of which made their way to campus early to participate in spring practice.
“Fifty percent of our players were going through spring practice for the first time,” Jones said on a conference call earlier this month. “We’re still dealing with the realities of building a football program in an elite conference, but I thought out players were very focused. As we continue to move forward, this summer is going to be very big for our overall development in all phases.
“I thought our program benefited from 14 newcomers. I thought they brought a whole other level of energy and competition and that competitive culture that we speak about each and every day. I thought we took tremendous strides improving as a football team and as a football program.”
Tennessee will need to make improvements in leaps and bounds if it wants to stay competitive in the SEC. While the rest of the East lost its fair share of starters (Aaron Murray and Jadeveon Clowney, among others), the Vols were hit where it hurts most as a grand total of zero starters return on either the offensive or defensive lines. Without a true incumbent at quarterback, look for a real youth movement in Knoxville this season, maybe more so than we saw in Year 1 under Jones.
Jones called spring practice “extremely productive” and said that “great progress” was made in terms of developing an identity and style of play. But what had him “very excited” were all the new faces he saw for the 14 practices and spring game.
Jalen Hurd, the No. 8 running back in the ESPN 300, and wide receiver Josh Malone, a fellow four-star prospect who was No. 43 overall in the ESPN 300, made a positive impression on the staff since arriving on campus, and the two were the first to score touchdowns in Tennessee's spring game. Defensive back Emmanuel Moseley, a candidate to start at cornerback, and linebacker Jakob Johnson, whom Jones called an "alpha male," also stood out. Junior college wideout LaVon Pearson, who is 6-foot-3 and was the No. 2 player at his position in ESPN’s Junior College 50, is expected to make a contribution, along with junior college transfer Dontavius Blair, an offensive tackle.
All told, six of the 14 early enrollees were offensive or defensive linemen.
“I thought our older players did a great job of teaching the 14 newcomers our culture, our standard of excellence, our expectations, our mindset, really what it means to play here,” Jones said. “I think it was a big, not a wake-up call, but I think it was great that for the spring game we had almost 69,000 people, and we needed that to happen because we needed to see those youngsters in that type of environment and see how they could compete individually.”
Moving ahead, Tennessee should benefit substantially from a new NCAA rule that allows for more contact between players and coaches during these summer. As Jones said, “the rule change is coming at the right time for us.”
It will be a balancing act, however, because whatever time coaches spend with players will be deducted from the strength and conditioning room. Not only does Jones want his guys getting physical reps, he wants “mental reps in a classroom setting.”
“Being a player-led football team is critical,” he said. “The leadership, and everything that goes along with it, the team chemistry, that’s necessary to win. To be able to have two hours in a classroom setting will prove to be extremely beneficial to us because of the influx of newcomers that we have in our program.”
Don’t look now, but even more rookies are on the way. Safety Todd Kelly Jr. and linebacker Dillon Bates, both top-five prospects at their respective positions, are among the remaining signees to get to school this summer.
“Most of our signees were early enrollees,” Jones said. “Now we get the infusion of the depth and competition with the 18 newcomers coming in. I believe, 16 are on the defensive side of the ball, so we should be a different defensive football team.”