KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Butch Jones finally has a veteran team at Tennessee.
Despite only 11 seniors on the roster, the Vols return 18 starters, so Jones has entrusted Team 120 with more leadership, accountability and communication responsibilities this preseason.
“He just lets us run the team now,” star defensive end Derek Barnett said.
“If somebody is doing something they’re not supposed to do, we can correct it. He trusts us because we’re older.”
Unlike the last few years, Tennessee’s training camp is running smoother after just two days.
Players’ retention is better, and there’s a pace to practice that’s evident, exemplifying the team’s maturity.
During practice, Jones and assistants Robert Gillespie and Zach Azzanni readily encourage veterans to “show ’em how it’s done” and “challenge each other and hold each other accountable.”
Senior wideout Josh Malone has taken newcomer receivers Tyler Byrd and Jeff George under his wing. Standout tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara act as co-coaches alongside Gillespie.
That’s exactly what Jones wants to see.
“When you have individuals like Derek Barnett, like Jalen Reeves-Maybin, like Josh Dobbs, Cam Sutton, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, they’ve proven over time that they can walk the walk,” Jones said.
“So, when they correct you, that should mean something, especially to the younger players. I had (4-star freshman quarterback) Jarrett Guarantano come up to me the other day and say, ‘Derek Barnett corrected me. He spoke to me. Coach, you don’t know how much that meant to me.’
“These younger players are welcoming that.”
The Vols are filming their walk-throughs to evaluate the team’s communication, and Jones already has discovered “it’s the best it’s been.”
Jones acknowledged it requires a certain amount of “respect” and “self-confidence” for players to take constructive criticism from their peers, but thus far, he’s seen a group that “welcomes that.”
“Trust is earned over time,” Jones said. “We definitely have that time factor.”
Jesse Simonton covers Tennessee football and recruiting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and SECCountry.com