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VOL. 7 | NO. 39 | Saturday, September 20, 2014

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Dave Link

Jones’ Wide Net Gathers Old Friends, Top Prospects

DAVE LINK | The Ledger

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Butch Jones was sitting in the office of Knoxville’s South-Doyle High School athletic director and football coach Clark Duncan during a visit to see recruit Jocquez Bruce last winter.

It was the first time Duncan had met Jones, now in his second season as the University of Tennessee’s football coach.

The three of them sat and talked for a while.

Clark Duncan, a defensive back for Johnny Majors’ Vols from 1977 to 80, says Butch Jones is much like Majors and his successor, Phil Fulmer, in their desire to have former players associated with the program. (Wade Payne/The Purple Lens)

“It was just like we had known each other for a long time,” Duncan recalls. “He’s just very personable. It was really neat.”

Bruce, recruited by UT as an athlete, came away with the same impression.

“He’s very friendly, and he’s a funny guy,” Bruce says. “He has a great personality. I just love him.”

Their relationship is ongoing.

Six months after Jones’ visit to South-Doyle, Bruce attended a summer football camp at UT. Jones offered him a scholarship. Bruce was almost floored.

“I had to come home and talk about it,” Bruce explains. “I knew I was going to commit. It just took me three days. I was still shocked. One morning I just woke up, and was like, ‘I’m ready to commit,’ so I called, boom, just like that.”

Nobody could be more pleased than Duncan, who has a vested interest in both Bruce and UT football.

Duncan, of Erwin, about 15 miles south of Johnson City, played defensive back for the Vols during the first four seasons of Johnny Majors’ tenure as head coach (1977-80).

After his last season at UT, Duncan stayed in Knoxville as an assistant coach at Fulton High for five years, then head coach at Powell for 17 years and athletic director at South-Doyle for six. In 2009, Duncan returned to the sidelines as South-Doyle’s football coach.

South-Doyle head football coach Clark Duncan watches Jocquez Bruce, who has committed to play for the Vols next year, prepares to run the ball during practice this week. (Wade Payne/The Purple Lens)

Through the years, Duncan has seen the Vols rise to prominence again – culminating in the 1998 national championship under head coach Phillip Fulmer –then sour end of Fulmer’s coaching run, Lane Kiffin’s tumultuous season as coach [2009], and Derek Dooley three-year reign, best described as a nightmare for the UT faithful.

Those were painful years for Duncan.

“That’s my university, and I bleed orange, and I just hated to see it,” Duncan says. “Being out of playing for 34 years now, seeing a lot of coaches [at UT], some coming and going, it was a little disheartening to see the way things were headed just a few years ago, and then Coach Jones came in, and you don’t know what you’re getting until they get here. But man, I tell you: Shoot, I’m a fan. I love him. I think he’s great.”

Duncan knows success for the Vols under Jones will take time, but he likes the progress so far.

Not that the Vols (2-1) are into moral victories, but UT’s 34-10 loss at No. 4 Oklahoma can be seen as progress. Sure, the Vols didn’t pull the 20-point spread, but they didn’t get blown out like their third game of the 2013 season, 59-14 against No. 2 Oregon.

Many thought the game against Oklahoma would get out of hand. It never did. But the schedule doesn’t get much easier. After the open date Saturday, UT plays at Georgia on Sept. 27 and returns home to play Florida on Oct. 4.

South-Doyle head football coach Clark Duncan oversees one of his team’s practices this week. (Wade Payne/The Purple Lens)

“People have got to be realistic,” Duncan notes. “You know that we’re playing with a large number of freshmen playing in the SEC, and that means that we’re going to struggle for a while.

“Not that those guys are not capable. They’re just young, inexperienced and playing in the SEC. That’s tough. But what people have to realize is that in order to build a program, it doesn’t happen overnight.

“On a much smaller scale, I’ve been involved in two programs that were really struggling [Powell and South-Doyle], and it takes time.

“I know if people will be patient, and give [Jones] the support, and don’t try to be critical, and know that they do know what they’re doing, and give them the opportunity to get better athletes in, and as that system takes over, three, four, or five years from now, we’ll be back there competing in the top of the SEC.”

Duncan sees some similarities between Jones, Majors and Fulmer.

Majors and Fulmer embraced the traditions of UT football, as does Jones. Like General Neyland’s 7 Maxims of Football, historic times of the Big Orange, legendary players from the past. Lettermen were always welcomed back.

Kiffin never got it. Neither did Dooley. But Jones gets it.

“I think you can take Coach Fulmer, Coach Majors and Coach Jones, and they’re so much alike in that they believe in keeping those that were there [playing for UT] feeling like they’re still a part of the program,” Duncan adds.

“Coach Majors was like that. When I left, when he was coaching and as he got out of it, [Majors] still made me feel like I was a part of the program, and Coach Fulmer was the same way, and Coach Jones has certainly reached out.”

Jones has taken the lettermen’s reunion weekend to a level reminiscent of the old times.

This year it’s the weekend of the Florida game. Players will return for the annual lettermen’s golf tournament, have a reunion dinner and reception Friday night, another breakfast in the morning, all culminating when the former players run through the ‘T’ before the game.

Duncan gets chills when he thinks about it. Two of his assistants, former UT receiver Bobby Graham [1999-01] and running back John Rollins [1987-88), will also run through the ‘T’ with Duncan, who missed it last year due to family obligations.

“That’s huge, to let us be a part of that,” Duncan says. “We’ve already started stretching. We’re not going to pull a hamstring going through the ‘T.’ It’s really, really cool. We’ll get to run through the ‘T,’ and that’s special.”

Bruce will probably be there, too. He attended the Vols’ first two home games this season, and said the sellout crowd [102,455] for the season-opening victory over Utah State was deafening.

“The atmosphere was crazy,” Bruce recalls. “I couldn’t even talk to my friends, it was so loud in the first quarter. It was pretty exciting.”

Bruce, 5-foot-10, 168 pounds, will be the first South-Doyle player to sign a football scholarship at UT. He stays in contact with several other 2015 recruits, including quarterback/safety Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman, offensive lineman Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland, defensive end Dylan Jackson of Maryville and linebacker Cecil Cherry of Lakeland, Fla.

“We just talk about football, how our season’s going and all that,” Bruce says. “We really don’t talk that much about Tennessee. We’re trying to finish out this year strong, and everybody’s worried about getting a [state championship] ring.”

Bruce’s versatility could get him on the field early at UT.

In three games this season, he has rushed for 399 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also a threat at receiver – one touchdown catch so far – and starts in the defensive secondary. He’s returned one interception for a touchdown.

Bruce will be ready for whatever role Jones gives him.

“It doesn’t matter where they put me,” Bruce adds. “I’m going to give it my all at whatever position I play.”

Duncan won’t miss a game if he can help it.

Jones has piqued his interest again in UT football, and he trusts the Vols’ coach to continue mentoring and molding one of own.

“To me, I look at our kids as our kids,” Duncan explains. “I feel a father figure to Joc, as I do all my players.

“Knowing that he’s going to be over there playing, it’s exciting for one because we’re going to support [UT] regardless, but now we’ve got somebody that we have helped raise, and helped become a better man, and to see him out there competing, it’s going to be great, exciting.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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