SEC MEDIA DAYS 2017: Jones, Vols ignore the howls and stay positive
By Graham Dunn
HOOVER – Butch Jones made his fifth appearance at the annual SEC Media Days on Monday.
Just like the previous four, he kept it positive.
If only his fans were as convinced that his team is on the right track.
For most, a 9-4 finish in the SEC would be a solid performance, considering the injuries the Volunteers suffered in 2016.
But the yells from Rocky Top weren’t those of glee but more like anger and disgruntlement.
"I don’t view it as a disappointment," Jones said. "The way I view it is we didn’t accomplish everything we set ourselves out to."
Last season was supposed to be the coming out party for Jones. He had his two-year starter at quarterback in camp (Josh Dobbs). His defense was considered solid and he had a nice Outback Bowl trophy in tow when he arrived for the new season a year ago.
Instead of a happy ending, Jones had to describe away the double-overtime loss to Texas A&M as well as unthinkable losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Yet, Jones found his “champions of life” in the good portions of the season.
“When we set off four years ago building this program, we knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix and we wanted to build something that would be — the foundation would be set for many, many years, and that foundation is set for success,” Jones said.
“When we first came to Tennessee, we were part of a lot of homecoming games, and what they - you know, we talked about as a football program, you’re now - everyone is going to play their best game. You’re going to get everyone’s A game. There are no off weeks in this conference. That takes a maturity level.”
But will the fans understand another nine-win season? Better yet, will it be enough to win the East?
Tennessee hasn’t been in Atlanta since 2007. They haven’t won an SEC title in nearly 20 years.
Still, the program has more conference rings (13) than every team not named Alabama.
A 5-0 start in ‘16 gave hope to a fan base that could be considered the most hungry in the league. The team couldn’t help but hear the dismay. Senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson said the players try to keep it in perspective.
“We aren’t really paying much attention to the outside noise, but as far as Coach Jones goes, he really appreciates all of the things we’re doing day in and day out,” Robertson said. “We feel the same way about him. In the same sense, we’re one of three teams who have had back-to-back 9-game winning seasons. Also, we won three consecutive bowl games, and that hadn’t been done at the University of Tennessee in 20 years. There’s a lot of positives.”
Apparently those points were hammered home to the players who all echoed Jones in the win total on Monday.
But an Eastern Division win may be the only salve to heal the wounds of last year.
Thanks to the injuries, there should be plenty of experience although not too many of the returning players are household names. Most of the skills players left in some capacity. The defense should be strong in the backfield with three returning starters but everybody up front with the exception of Kendal Vickers is new.