New Tennessee coach Butch Jones sat down with govols247 for more than an hour Thursday night for a detailed, wide-ranging, one-on-one interview about the past, present and future of UT football.
Tennessee football coach Butch Jones (left) and UT athletic director Dave Hart
Without further ado, here's Part One of that interview.
govols247: You’ve described the past couple of weeks as a “whirlwind” of sorts, but it never really slows down, does it?
Jones: “It never slows down, especially when you’re competing in the SEC. You know, every day is a new challenge. And every day, you have to work to gain an advantage on your opponent, whether it’s during the season or during the offseason. There’s no rest. There’s no what we call ‘vacation.’ There’s been no quiet time.
“This dead week (in recruiting) has posed some challenges, just because the dead week and your contact with the prospective student-athletes, but it’s been great in a sense because we’ve been able to come back in and kind of refocus our thoughts on where we’re going and what direction we’re going in recruiting. But I thought we really made up a lot of lost ground. We made that up the last 10 days or so.”
govols247: I have to think schematic changes are a bit of a recruiting curveball, too. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that a good football player was a good football player was a good football player, but things are so much more specialized now. You’re switching from a 3-4-base defense to a 4-3-base defense, and you’re tweaking some things schematically on offense, too, obviously. How much has that made you reassess the current team and the current recruiting class?
Jones: “Everything, you come in and you reassess. We’ve gone back and we’ve evaluated everything, and you’re exactly right. All of a sudden, you switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and you have more of a premium on the edge presence of your defense — you know, more of a 250- to 265-pound defensive that can rush the passer in a 4-3 scheme. And it’s the same thing with the offense, you know? You look at, you know, obviously we want some big wideouts on the outside and some versatility, but you’re also looking for some speed on the inside in your slot positions. The tight end position becomes critical, as well.
“But the big thing, I think, when you take over a program is looking at your numbers. You manage your football program like a business. So, like, we want to have 15 offensive linemen on scholarship, so there’s a premium on offensive linemen. We want to have 12 wide receivers on scholarship, too. We’re not even close to those numbers, so we’re down in a lot of those areas, so now we have to go out and try to recruit to those areas.
“There’s also a recruiting profile that we look for, stemming with character and passion to get a college education, and that skill attributes that go into playing those positions, as well. There’s a lot that goes into the recruitment of a class.”
govols247: Other things will affect the numbers, obviously — and not just the NFL Draft decisions of a half-dozen or so of your talented, newly-inherited junior class. True freshmen defensive linemen Omari Phillips and Trent Taylor were away from the team to focus on academic issues when you arrived, and true freshman cornerback Deion Bonner was suspended indefinitely for an unspecified violation of team rules. Has anything changed with the status of those three players?
Jones: “No, they haven’t changed. We’ll evaluate everyone on an individual basis, and a lot of things with the final grades will come out, and then I’ll review them. And I think academically, there’s a direct correlation to someone’s commitment, and we have a standard and an expectation that we’re gonna adhere to, and we’re gonna demand that from all our players in the Tennessee football program.
“We’ll look at those cases on an individual basis. I still don’t know all the things behind that, but I’ll definitely be involved, and we’ll look at everything.”
govols247: So, to be clear, you’re not aware of any finality from anyone’s performance in the classroom from the fall semester, good or bad?
govols247: Have any players come to you and asked for a release to transfer? Most guys at least go through one spring with a new staff ... but, you know, kids are kind of weird these days, so I’ll be sure and ask. Has anyone requested a release.
Jones: “No, not yet.”
govols247: I’ve covered some really good UT teams, some really bad UT teams and several teams that fell somewhere in between, but overall I think it’s fair to suggest there’s been an erosion in the swagger and expectations around here. Obviously this is a cyclical game, but UT used to beat good teams even when it didn’t play particularly well, and now it seems UT can lose games despite playing pretty well. They still say they expect to win every game, but many times they seem like they’re saying it just to say it. Does that seem like a pure talent problem or a general cultural regression to you? And regardless, did that concern you as you debated taking this job?
Jones: “Well, obviously I haven’t been here, so I can’t comment on what’s gone on in the past, but I’ll tell you this: Winning is a habit, and losing is a habit. And we’re gonna start off from the get-go. When our players come back, we’re gonna talk about being a champion. But before we can even think about being a championship-caliber football team, our team has to be comprised of individual champions. And everyone has to take ownership in being a champion themselves.
“What does that mean? Well, you first start off by ... you have to stop losing before you can start winning. And what does that mean? That means you start off by winning in the classroom — you know, by how we represent ourselves in the classroom, by how we go to class, by how we excel in academics. It starts by our ethic in our strength and conditioning in our offseason program, and then going through to spring ball. Our leadership characteristics, our team building, our team morale. All of that matters.
UT linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen
“And then when you have a team that’s comprised of individual champions, then that gives you an opportunity to be able to compete to win championships. And that’s what we’re gonna talk to our football team about.
“Right now, every individual in our program is building their identity. They’re building their own identity. And that starts, again, in the classroom. That starts when I look at their grades and see their final grades. They’re all building their own identity. They’re building their personal brand, and that’s what we’re gonna talk about.
“With a coaching change, everyone has a clean slate coming in. But they’re responsible for what happens next. They’re responsible for building their own brand and building their trust and building their own identity by the way they perform on and off the field.”
govols247: Obviously who coaches these players is a factor, too, and I’m wondering if you can clean this up a bit. I first heard that you’d hired Tommy Thigpen to coach linebackers, but then other media reported that Thigpen would join Willie Martinez in the secondary, and then UT’s official site listed Thigpen and Martinez as secondary coaches. But I kept hearing Thigpen would coach the linebackers. What’s Tommy Thigpen going to coach?
Jones: “The great thing is we have tremendous flexibility amongst our defensive staff. That has created a lot of flexibility, and where we’re at as a defense when we come in and we’ve really watched where we’re at, we think the best thing for us moving forward is obviously Coach (Steve) Stripling — we’re very fortunate to have him coaching our defensive line. Tommy Thigpen’s gonna coach the linebackers, and then Coach Martinez is gonna head to the secondary. And Coach (John) Jancek will be basically a walk-around coordinator, but because of his experience at the linebacker position, you may see him get involved with coaching the Nickels and the Sams as well.
“We have great flexibility, ‘cause Tommy’s coached safeties, he’s coached corners and he’s coached linebackers. We see right now with the youth and the development that we need on the defensive side of the ball, we think that’s the best thing at this particular time in moving forward.”
UT defensive backs coach Willie Martinez
govols247: How about the graduate assistant positions? Have you made any decisions there yet? Obviously those are important pieces to football programs.
Jones: “No. We’ll continue to go (look for those). I’m still researching graduate-assistant positions, but there will be a couple of individuals that will accompany us that were GA’s for us at Cincinnati, and then we’ll move forward with some positions, as well. But I think the big thing for us at first was to get our full-time staff in here right away and then really work on recruiting, as well.”
govols247: Are you at liberty at the moment to confirm which graduate assistants you’ll be bringing from Cincinnati, or do you have to wait a bit longer for one reason or another?
Jones: “It’s still ongoing right now.”
govols247: This’ll be fun. Let’s talk about Tennessee’s defense last season...
Jones: (Come back tomorrow for Part Two.)
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