From 'Champions of Life' to SEC title? Butch Jones stays optimistic

It's full speed ahead for Vols coach Butch Jones, who hasn't let last year's tough season get him down. Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports

Months removed from a very disappointing season for the Tennessee Vols, Butch Jones legitimately feels good about where Tennessee football is right now and where it's heading.

"I think our program has tremendous momentum in moving forward," Jones said during Monday's SEC coaches teleconference.

Now, it's been easy to make fun of Jones and the Vols in recent months. His "Champions of Life" comment was mocked ad nauseam by many outside of the fan base, and loathed by many inside of it. Then, we all had a good laugh with the spiel about Jones only looking for "five-star hearts" when it became clear that national signing day wasn't going to be as joyous for Vols fans as in recent years.

Tennessee has been an easy punching bag for months because this team was the odds-on favorite to win the Eastern Division in 2017, due to all their supposed star power and the fact that Florida and Georgia didn't fit the bill on paper, yet they lost four SEC games. Jones only added to Vol Nation's anguish with those cheesy lines.

But if you really dive into what Jones said on Monday and take a look at what this program has been doing since the end of last season, you can't really argue with the man. Jones might not approach the whole how-to-send-a-message thing well at times, but even in his most monotone delivery he makes his point about how Tennessee seriously does have real momentum in 2017 and he's got the facts to back it up.

"When you look at the NFL draft with the six drafted players and the numerous free-agent signings, the 972 in the APR (Academic Progress Rate) -- that's what it's all about, is winning football games, graduating players and developing them to play at the next level," Jones said. "I think our program has a lot of momentum. It's a great challenge this offseason in terms of the summer then into fall camp with a very, very good Georgia Tech and the many challenges they will present, but I was pleased overall with the spring."

After failing to have a single player drafted in the previous two NFL drafts, six were drafted in April, including defensive end Derek Barnett going in the first round to the Philadelphia Eagles. Tennessee's football team also posted a program-best 972 multi-year APR score, a 16-point increase from last year. It was also 40 points higher than it was three years ago.

Tennessee is also off to a fast start on its 2018 recruiting class. The Vols already have nine verbal commitments and currently rank 10th in ESPN's class rankings. Four of Tennessee's commits -- OT Cade Mays, QB Adrian Martinez, WR Alontae Taylor and DT Brant Lawless -- are ESPN 300 members, and Jones has verbals from two quarterbacks in Martinez and three-star Michael Penix Jr.

Seven of those nine commits have come during the spring. Only LSU ranks higher than the Vols in the SEC, coming in at No. 2 nationally, and has more commitments (16).

On the field, Jones feels he has two capable quarterbacks in Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano, who will continue their competition through fall camp. He's seen more playmakers emerge on defense, especially in the front seven. And he anticipates guys who suffered some nagging spring injuries to be back in time for fall camp.

All and all, it was a successful spring for a Tennessee team trying to shake last year's shortcomings and for a coach who has been thrust onto the hot seat this year. What has happened in the last few months won't be the end-all for the Vols, but it sure was a good start.

People were laughing at Jones to start the spring, but he's the one smiling now.

"We focused on the details, the accountability and the toughness of really what it takes to play winning football on a consistent basis, and I thought our players really answered that," Jones said.