KNOXVILLE — Brick by brick, Butch Jones has built the foundation for a championship program.
But the Tennessee head coach says by no means is this a finished project as the Vols open fall drills Monday afternoon.
“Some coaches have called and asked how we’ve done it,” Jones said last week. “I tell them we’re still building, we’re not done yet, there’s work left.”
The Vols return 17 starters from a team that has won six consecutive games entering the 2016 campaign, including two Heisman Trophy hopefuls in the forms of quarterback Josh Dobbs and tailback Jalen Hurd.
Mike DeBord is in a considerably better position than a season ago when he was in his first year at UT as offensive coordinator and still learning his personnel.
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, meanwhile, boldly has stated opponents will not run on his “Orange Swarm” defense, and he will look for “out of the box” methods to create havoc for opposing quarterbacks.
Jones, entering his fourth season as head coach, hasn’t said much over the summer outside of his familiar catchphrases. But that’s likely because the 48-year-old realizes it’s time for his program to do its talking on the field.
Tennessee lost four games last season by a combined 17 points — often in heartbreaking fourth-quarter fashion — and that has served as offseason inspiration for the Vols’ returning leaders.
“Each team is different and has its different dynamics,” Dobbs said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., last month. “I’ve felt our team has definitely grown closer this offseason.”
Jones stresses that chemistry, as much as talent or game plans, has been key to the successes his teams have enjoyed not only at Tennessee, but at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, as well.
It has been a positive offseason for the Vols, a Title IX lawsuit behind the program and key players expected to be on the verge of recovering from injury.
As much pressure as there is for Tennessee to win the SEC East Division — the Vols widely are projected in the top 10 of preseason rankings — don’t be surprised if Jones allows himself a smile at his opening press conference.
Tennessee might still be a work in progress, but it appears to be a pretty good one.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and is based in Knoxville.