Jones, Volunteers Still Face Steep Climb Up Rocky Top

By Don Wade

HOOVER, Ala. – It’s Tennessee against the world. Don’t believe that? Just ask second-year coach Butch Jones.

Last season’s “brick-by-brick” theme has been replaced by the “power of one,” as in one team against all odds. Given the power/opportunity of the microphone and a large contingent of reporters at SEC Media Days, Jones used his pulpit to say, without exactly saying it, please don’t expect too much too soon.

Jones delivered this message with lines such as: “We are still going through the realities of building a college football program.”

And “Being so young, we have to focus on a moment, win one moment at a time.”

Tennessee coach Butch Jones speaks to the media at SEC Football Media Days on Tuesday, July 15, in Hoover, Ala. Jones has his work cut out for him, but fans expect the second-year coach to deliver.

(AP/Butch Dill)

And “There’s a difference between earning the right to win and hoping to win.”

And “We’re having to replace almost half of our football team.”

Take all that in and you start to believe it would be a miracle if Tennessee could equal last season’s 5-7 record, 2-6 in the SEC.

But in the informal and unscientific poll that was chatting up a few UT fans gathered in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham, the results were consistent: The faithful expect more.

Vols Nation supports Butch Jones, yes. Believes he’s doing a fine job along the recruiting trail, picking up prized prospects and national accolades. Believes he’s a vast improvement over Derek Dooley (nice guy, in over his head) and Lane Kiffin (not a nice guy and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is).

Jones, they say, is also better than the latter stages of Phillip Fulmer (a loyal member of the Vols family who brought the program a national title during the 1998 season but became distracted and disconnected toward the end).

“He’s doing everything right,” Dave Stamey, 51, a longtime season-ticket holder, said of Jones. “The thing is, what would the program look like without him?”

Good question. That said, no UT fan is on record as saying another 5-7 season and a third straight loss to Vanderbilt is acceptable.

Weston Wilkerson, 30, wearing an orange striped shirt and holding a miniature UT helmet and a football he hoped to get Jones to sign, had driven two hours from his home in Huntsville to be here.

“I’d have been here sooner, but I came straight from a job interview,” said Wilkerson, who grew up in Southaven rooting for the Vols, rejecting all SEC others.

Wilkerson is hoping for an 8-4 season, but says he’s expecting 7-5.

Tennessee will be tested immediately, albeit at home, by Utah State. They play at Oklahoma. In the SEC, games at Georgia and South Carolina loom as likely losses within the East Division. The Vols have a home game with Alabama, but venue probably won’t matter. Florida and Missouri come to Neyland Stadium, and those games and Ole Miss on the road maybe rate as toss-ups, though it’s certainly possible UT could be the underdog in all three.

Wilkerson calls beating Vanderbilt “a must,” and Stamey says the same of Kentucky – proof a UT fan now takes nothing for granted. Stamey also says he could live with less than 7-5:

“But we definitely gotta get to a bowl.”

Yet even 6-6 may be a steep climb up Rocky Top. The Vols have a three-man quarterback derby – odds-on favorite senior Justin Worley, redshirt sophomore Nate Peterman and sophomore Josh Dobbs – and few great seasons start with doubts at that position.

More worrisome, the Vols are, in Jones’ words, “The only school in the country that has to replace both starting interior lines, both offensively and defensively.”

That may or may not be true. But if you haven’t figured it out, the coach, in his heart of hearts, seems to have some concerns about getting to six wins. And players seem to sense that some fans wish they could literally take matters into their own hands.

“We got a lot of fans I think would love to suit up,” said defensive lineman Curt Maggitt.

Senior linebacker A.J. Johnson could have been suiting up for an NFL team this fall. He considered turning pro after leading the team with 106 tackles and a team-high 8.5 tackles for loss. Johnson was arrested in February and charged with buying alcohol for an underage person and resisting arrest.

He says he returned for his senior year for a lot of reasons, but at the top of that list was a feeling of not accomplishing the most basic goal – a goal that by way of record has eluded Tennessee for four straight seasons and five of the last six.

“I came to Tennessee to be a winner,” Johnson said. “And I’ve got one more season to do that.”