July 15, 2014

Vols continuing foundation in '14, know '15 is key

HOOVER, Ala. --- For most, who represents your school at the SEC's annual July carnival known as Media Days really means very little in the grand scheme of things. However, I believe it can paint a picture about where your team stands and what you expectations are.

If that is indeed the case, then while no one is writing off the coming season, it's clear Tennessee believes 2015 can be a leap-forward year.

Let me first say that all three players with Tennessee today at the SEC's annual summer circus are great representatives of Butch Jones' program. Senior A.J. Johnson is an extremely productive player who loves Jones and, with a lower round draft grade, decided to return for his senior season. Curt Maggitt is the Vols' "heartbeat" or the "Alpha male," according to Jones, despite the fact that Maggitt has never played a down for Jones. Maggitt has not been on the field since November 2012. And then there's redshirt junior Mack Crowder. The Bristol native has waited his turn. He has one career start, getting the nod when Alex Bullard was suspended from the opening of last year's South Carolina game. Crowder has 10 game appearances in his career.

Now this is not like the year Kentucky brought their kicker or punter (can't remember which) to SEC Media Days in the 1990s. That's when you know that it's bad. Tennessee's not in that kind of shape, but their contingent doesn't scream "Championship Contender."

This fall, the Vols welcome 32 newcomers, roughly 40 percent of their roster, for their first collegiate seasons. Tennessee's two-deep will feature no more than 10 seniors. It's why Jones has dubbed this season and team one of unknown. This is a more talented Tennessee team than their 2013 counterparts, but with enough youth to make for a lot of growing pains and plenty of talk about wait till next year.

Next year is year three of the Butch Jones era. He'll have a squad that returns talent and experience on both sides of the ball that this program has not seen in many years.

But the question will be at the quarterback position. Coaches in this league will tell you the SEC IS a line of scrimmage league and it is. If you can't win in the line of scrimmage, you can't compete. However, if you can hold your own in the trenches, then the difference between being bowl eligible and being able to contend for your division is the quarterback position.

Today, senior Justin Worley is in Knoxville coming off a great weekend at the Manning Passing Academy and is having a great summer. But Worley isn't in Hoover, Ala., because he hasn't won the starting job. Jones who's always trying to make a point, said he was making it clear this starting job was up for grabs.

"That's exactly the point," Jones said. "We are going into August wide open and the best quarterback is going to play and represent the University of Tennessee and gives us the best opportunity to win football games."

A year from now, Jones could find himself in a totally different situation or a familiar one with a quarterback battle. There's no question that competition makes everyone better. There's also no question that an established and clear-cut starting quarterback paints a clearer picture about where your program is.

The question is, a year from now, will Tennessee be the team everyone at SEC Media Days is talking about making a major jump? Or will it be another year with a familiar theme of patience?

We will have till wait till next year to find that out.

But we know that for 2014, patience and further restoring the program's foundation will continue to be the buzzwords around the Big Orange. It's a process, and in many ways it's one in which Jones is recruiting the Vols ahead of pace. Sometimes, though, we're reminded it simply takes time.

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