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VOL. 131 | NO. 245 | Friday, December 9, 2016

Music City Bowl Not Most Pressing Issue for Jones

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Butch Jones has a lot more than Nebraska on his mind this bowl season.

The fourth-year Tennessee football coach will spend the next several weeks evaluating his coaching staff and program and figuring out why the 2016 season went from so good to so bad.

UT (8-4, 4-4 SEC) can’t salvage its season with a win over Nebraska (9-3, 6-3 Big Ten) in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl at Nissan Stadium in Nashville (3:30 EST, ESPN).

The Vols were favored to win the SEC East Division and blew it with a 24-21 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 29.

Then the Vols blew a chance to go to the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl with a 45-34 loss at Vanderbilt in the Nov. 26 season finale.

Tennessee accepted a bid to the Music City Bowl on Sunday, and Jones had his first press conference Monday morning since the postgame presser after the loss to Vanderbilt.

Let’s just say the media focus wasn’t on the Music City Bowl or Nebraska.

It wanted to know about potential staff changes, the team’s bowl motivation after a downward spiral, and how Jones and staff would recruit after a poor finish and him having no contract extension past the 2020 season.

Jones didn’t need to be asked about potential staff changes Monday. He addressed it during his opening comments.

“I know there’s been a lot of questions in terms of the program,” Jones said. “I will tell you this: I will thoroughly, thoroughly examine everything in our football program in moving forward. Every amount of time where I’m not recruiting or not in a home or not in a high school, I’m examining that and will continue to do that, and that’s a process.

“You have to take the emotion out.”

Jones needs to do that, like when he fired defensive coordinator John Jancek in early January this year and hired Bob Shoop from Penn State.

There should be attrition to Jones’ current staff after the Music City Bowl, though Jones said Monday it’s “too early” to say if there will be changes.

“I’ll do a thorough examination of anything and everything,” he said.

It will include an exam of the strength and conditioning staff, which has been scrutinized for UT’s rash of injuries this year.

Jones is considering hiring friend and longtime NFL staffer Rock Gullickson to become the Vols’ director of strength and conditioning, according to John Brice of 247Sports.

Gullickson is finishing his seventh season on the strength staff of the Los Angeles Rams.

Jones, who let go veteran strength coach Dave Lawson this April, was asked about a change of strength coaches Monday.

“We actually have an open position,” Jones said. “You’re allowed five positions to work with your football team. We’ve had four, so obviously there will be an addition to the strength and conditioning room just based on we’re down (one position) right now, and that will be an area I will continue to address.

“We have very good coaches here, but again, we’ll continue to address that, and I know that this is a place that coaches and players want to be at.”

UT’s promising season fizzled after a 5-0 start. Injuries played a big part with top defenders Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Kahlil McKenzie, Shy Tuttle, and Cameron Sutton missing much or all of the season.

All will miss the Music City Bowl except for Sutton. Starting right offensive tackle Chance Hall will miss the bowl game due to injury.

How would Jones sum up the season?

“I don’t think I’ve ever been through a football season like this in terms of just the amount of adversities week in and week out, the challenges week in and week out,” Jones explained. “Our players have persevered.

“They’ve showed leadership, but I’ve never been through a season like this, the highs, the lows, and that’s why you have to take a consistent approach week in and week out. That’s why you have to sit back and take the emotion out.

“Obviously, we did not finish the way we wanted to finish and that’s unacceptable in our program. I take responsibility for that as the leader of this program, but we have to do a better job of finishing.”

Jones said he got back to Knoxville early Monday morning from a recruiting trip and was leaving again for more recruiting when the press conference ended.

The Vols practiced Sunday and had final exams during the week. They begin bowl preparation with practices this coming week when the NCAA dead period for recruiting begins.

UT has 15 full practices per NCAA rules prior to the Music City Bowl.

Meanwhile, Jones has a full plate other than game prep for Nebraska. He’s got to finish off what looks to be a promising recruiting season.

So how does Jones sell recruits on UT when staff changes are rumored to be in motion?

“That’s all hearsay,” Jones said. “That’s all talk. That’s all speculation. The things that I can give (recruits) are the facts, and I give them the facts. I think you all know me, is I’m very transparent, and I tell them exactly where we’re at as a football program, where we need to go to get better, the positives things we’ve done.

“There’s a lot of great things here, and they see it, and so those (changes) are all speculation, and anyone can speculate on those, so I don’t really pay much attention to those.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.

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