Butch Jones had an underlying sense of eagerness and optimism as he spoke to the media to kick-off spring practice festivities for the Tennessee Volunteers on Friday.
The Volunteers and Jones face questions on both sides of the ball as they replace a majority of their offensive production that was lost to the upcoming NFL Draft and attempt to restructure a defense that finished in the cellar of the NCAA last season.
Despite the challenges, Jones credited his team for taking hold of the opportunities ahead and becoming a player-coached team instead of only a coach-coached team.
“Our players have been outstanding,” Jones said. “They’ve done anything and everything we’ve asked them. We’ve challenged them in the classroom, in the weight room, in skill development and they’ve done a great job.
We’ve challenged them in the classroom, in the weight room, in skill development and they’ve done a great job. This is the next phase, this is spring football. We have to get tougher as a football team. -Vols Head Coach Butch Jones
“This is the next phase, this is spring football. We have to get tougher as a football team. There are a lot of things we have to do to make great significant strides.”
The Vols return a senior class that has a combined 16-21 record in three seasons but ensured a strong senior class is foundational for the Volunteers to improve next season.
“I think this is a hungry football team but it comes down to leadership and a strong senior class,” Jones said. “I’ve never a part of a strong football team that hasn’t had a strong senior class.”
That leadership has come in the form of Ja’Wuan James, a massive 6-foot-6, 323-pound senior with 37 total starts under his belt.
“The seniors are important for getting Tennessee back to the standard they are supposed to be,” James said. “We just need to grab the young guys and put them along. If we see something that’s not right we have to correct it and just really take ownership of it.”
James flirted with declaring the NFL Draft during the off-season but ultimately chose to return to Knoxville, citing the genuine nature of Jones and James’ own desire to complete a few unfinished goals.
“The first day he (Jones) got here he called me and showed that he wanted to bring Tennessee back and that he really cared,” James said. “I love it here and I feel like I have a lot still left to accomplish.”
Justin Worley, a junior from Rock Hil, S.C., and a front-runner for the void left at the quarterback position by Tyler Bray, ensured the focus of the team is on this year and not any production they may have lost.
“This is all about Team 117 and developing all the players we have here,” said Worley, who is a former Gatorate National Player of the Year. “We’re moving on now.”