Tennessee coach Butch Jones opens spring practice Friday with all the same coordinators and position coaches who were with him last year. This marks the first time Tennessee has returned its entire coaching staff intact since 2007, when it went on to reach the Southeastern Conference championship game.
That continuity represents a major step forward for a program marked by instability since the 2008 exit of Phillip Fulmer.
“It’s huge,” Jones said. “You can’t put a value on it because it’s so significant. You win with consistency and continuity, consistency in messaging.”
When Jones took over at Tennessee, he became Volunteers’ fourth coach in six seasons, not including Jim Chaney’s one-game stint as an interim coach in 2012. Some of last year’s seniors went through four position coaches in as many years.
This year, Tennessee’s new faces will be on the field instead of on the sideline or in the booth. Although he was just hired in December 2012, Jones already has been part of Tennessee’s program longer than about half the players on his spring roster.
The Vols hope a heralded recruiting class featuring 14 early enrollees will help fortify a team that must replace all of last year’s full-time starters on the offensive and defensive lines. Jones also must decide on a starting quarterback before Tennessee opens the season Aug. 30 by hosting Utah State.
That’s a major challenge for a program coming off four consecutive losing seasons, the first time that’s happened at Tennessee since 1903-06. Tennessee went 5-7 in Jones’ first season.
“We have a group of young men that are hungry,” Jones said. “They’re eager. They’re willing. They just need to be taught.”
The quarterback competition figures to garner much of the attention.
Senior Justin Worley made seven starts last year before undergoing surgery on his right thumb. Sophomore Joshua Dobbs started the final four games in Worley’s place. Sophomore Nathan Peterman started a 31-17 loss to Florida before injuring his throwing hand. The competition also features redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson.
“There are no timetables,” Jones said. “That person will emerge. I don’t know if it’s the second week of spring. I don’t know if it’s after the conclusion of the Orange & White Game. I don’t know if it’s the week prior to Utah State. That will take care of itself.”
Jones says he’s looking for playmakers, both on offense and defense. The return of linebacker Curt Maggitt from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and the arrival of freshman running back Jalen Hurd and wide receiver Josh Malone - both listed as five-star prospects by at least one recruiting service - should help in that regard. Tennessee also must rebuild its special teams following the graduation of kicker, punter and kickoff specialist Michael Palardy. Jones called Palardy the most valuable player of last year’s team.
Tennessee isn’t at full strength this spring. Wide receivers Drae Bowles and Ryan Jenkins, tight end Brendan Downs, safety Brian Randolph and defensive lineman Trevarris Saulsberry aren’t participating in spring drills as they recover from injuries. Wide receiver Alton “Pig” Howard is on a leave of absence from the team to deal with personal issues. Reserve defensive lineman Gregory Clark left the team during the offseason.
Jones still likes what he has. Jones says the Vols have upgraded their overall team speed. He notes that nine of his players can squat over 600 pounds, something none of the Vols could do last spring.
He sees plenty of potential from this young group. Now it’s just a matter of watching it develop.
“Things don’t change overnight,” Jones said. “We live in an instant gratification society, I understand that, but we’re going to build it the right way so it’s set in stone for a very, very long period of time.”