©2013 NPT PHOTO BY SETH BUTLER Tennessee defensive lineman Jacques Smith speaks to reporters at SEC Media Day in Hoover, Alabama on Wednesday afternoon. Smith says the hiring of Butch Jones at the Vols head coach has been a blessing for him and the Tennessee program.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
(Last modified: 2013-07-21 18:08:18)
 
Author: Seth Butler
Source: The Newport Plain Talk

HOOVER, Ala.—Last December, the University of Tennessee football program was in shambles. The Vols were searching for their fourth coach in six years and they were getting jilted at the altar  by several candidates.

Perhaps it was all a blessing that things turned out the way they did.

While the immediate reaction to the hiring of Butch Jones was not favorable, the three-time conference champion coach has breathed new life into the Tennessee program and fan base. Having to shrug off three consecutive losing seasons, as well as uniting a fan base that has been tattered and torn with Tennessee changing coaches at an alarming rate.

Despite not playing a single down under Jones, the Vols currently boast the nation’s top 2014 recruiting class. And for the first time in nearly a decade, the school’s football program has serious momentum in the arms race that is SEC football.

All the credit for the Vols’ turnaround centers around Jones and his attitude, according to Tennessee’s contingent of student-athletes at SEC Media Days this week in Hoover, Alabama.

“Everything he does is high-energy, high-everything,” Vols offensive lineman Ja’Wuan James said. “Coach Jones is the type of person, that in seven months, has us ready to run through a brick wall.

“He’s that type of guy,” James said.

But how can a personality shape the direction of a football program? While former coach Derek Dooley showed a down-home side to himself to the media, he routinely went overboard in demeaning his players publicly. On more than one occasion, Dooley made it known that he was dealt a bad hand in terms of talent and how that talent was not capable of winning in the SEC.

Jones, however has taken a different approach from day one in Knoxville, and it has made a lasting impact on this year’s squad already.

“As soon as he got off the plane, he spoke to us and let us know we were going to change the culture around here and he did that introducing his family and letting us know that we’re going to be unified,” Tennessee defensive lineman Jacques Smith said. “Once he sent them out, and we talked football - you were able to see both sides of him. It was genuine and it spoke to the hearts of every single player in that room. I promise you it made a difference and it’ll make a difference on the field this year as well.”

Smith, who was initially recruited to Tennessee by Lane Kiffin’s staff out of Ooltewah High School, said that being a family as a football program would make a difference on the field this fall.

“It’s not just about football,” Smith said. “Being in a football program, you have to be a family.

“That is something that we established this spring and it’s something that will take us far in November.”

The past two seasons the Vols have fallen apart down the stretch. In the final two months of the season, they won five of their 16 games in the final two years of Dooley’s tenure and endured a rough time against a rugged SEC schedule.

Vols offensive lineman Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson does not think that the late season swoon will happen for a third consecutive season.

“I don’t think I ever lost sight, but when you get into a grind of a season and you’re losing, sometimes it’s easy for a lot of guys to lose sight,” Richardson said. “Now I think we have better leadership and coach Jones is setting the standard, so I think this year will be a lot better from that standpoint.”

Jones has tried to establish a standard of bringing the Vols back to their competitive heyday. Tennessee’s last winning season was in 2009 and the program has not seriously competed for the SEC crown since 2007.

“Throughout the years of the coaching changes, I think the standard of which Tennessee was supposed to be at was lost,” said Smith, who arrived to SEC Media Days wearing a bright orange blazer. “This is a winning program; we are the winningest program in college football history and there’s a reason why we’re Tennessee.”

Jones’ focus on the Tennessee tradition has been a primary goal of the realm of the Vol For Life program, which was established under Dooley’s watch. Former players have came to speak to the team over the past seven months, in an attempt to get today’s players to grasp the Tennessee tradition.

“As younger layers, you might not understand what you represent,” Richardson said. “But when you have guys like Arian Foster, Peyton Manning come in - it lets you understand I’m not representing myself, but a line of guys who were successful here.”

It’s all part of a process that the players feel that Jones has developed to better them not only as players, but people.

“Coach Jones is such a blessing,” Smith said. “He’s a genuine guy and he wants to get to know you personally.

“I’m so glad to have him as our head coach and it’s such a blessing,” Smith said.

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