The Tennessee Volunteers are coming off its fourth straight losing season and faces what could be another difficult season in 2014, especially with a killer schedule.
But spend a few minutes with second-year coach Butch Jones, survey the Vols’ recruiting and talk to a few of their fans, and it’s anything but gloom and doom on Rocky Top.
“We have great momentum,” Jones explained. “We have the greatest resource of all – people. You couple people with the vision of what’s going on at Tennessee, the new dormitory, the new football complex, but I also think it’s what Tennessee can be and what it will be.
“Everything in life is about timing, and this is the right place at the right time.”
In other words, Jones sees pretty clearly through all the dark clouds that have engulfed Tennessee’s program ever since Phillip Fulmer was forced out at the end of the 2008 season.
The Vols pulled in the No. 5-ranked recruiting class nationally last year and are currently ranked No. 10 by ESPN in the 2015 class.
“Our players are compelled, and they’ve been our greatest ambassadors,” Jones said of the Vols’ recruiting success.
The good news for Tennessee is that the Vols are starting to reel in four- and five-star prospects with regularity the way they did back in the 1990s when Fulmer had the program rolling. The bad (or scary) news is that a lot of those freshmen are going to have to play key roles this season.
Tennessee is the only team in the country that doesn’t return a single starter on the offensive or defensive line, although Curt Maggitt is moving to defensive end after missing last season with an injury and starting as an outside linebacker two years ago.
“We’re going through the realities of building a football program,” Jones said. “Sometimes, I think of us as an expansion team. But our players have done a great job. They’ve really embraced everything. Our older players are really mentoring the younger players. The whole key for us is how we manage the natural adversities that a football season brings about.”
Jones said first-year players will be a staple in the defensive line rotation this season, and the offensive line will be equally inexperienced.
“But we have great competition heading into camp,” he said. “Last year at this time, we had zero players who could squat 600 pounds, and we were a veteran group. This year, we have nine.”
The Vols were able to get all 32 signees in this class in school, which includes the ones they counted back as part of the 2013 class. Several of those players are expected to play key roles, namely running back Jalen Hurd.
Jones said the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Hurd doesn’t look like a true freshman, nor has he performed like one since enrolling early back in January.
“He’s got the elusiveness of a smaller back. He can make you miss and get the tough yards like a big back and has good speed,” Jones said. “For his size, he’s able to do some things I haven’t seen from a back in a while.
“He’s one of several young guys we’re going to be leaning on this year. It’s never ideal when you’re playing so many of those guys, especially when their first road trip is going to be Oklahoma. But that’s just where we are right now.”
It’s not where the Vols expect to stay, though.