HOOVER – Outside of conference play, the Tennessee Volunteers football team has looked formidable. It is in conference that the Volunteers need to improve.
Coach Butch Jones will be entering his fifth season at the school in 2017. He has a 14-18 conference record, with just one winning conference record. It could be a big season for his job security.
The Vols started last season 5-0 with wins over Florida and Georgia, putting them in the driver’s seat for winning the SEC East championship. They weren’t able to finish and the Gators took the division.
“We have to learn from the things that went wrong, that we could do better,” Jones said. “It’s difficult to win. It’s difficult to win championships. This league proves that.”
Tennessee lost Joshua Dobbs as its starting quarterback and leader. He was taken in the fourth round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“You’re replacing a legend that is leaving a legacy at the University of Tennessee,” Jones said Monday at SEC Media Days. “He was the highest-drafted QB in our history since Peyton Manning. I am very excited about the quarterbacks we have in our system.”
Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will battle for the chance to replace Dobbs.
Jones does not anticipate naming a quarterback until fall camp, after he sees both in action. He did not rule out the possibility of starting the season with two quarterbacks.
Tennessee also lost its top defensive player in Derek Barnett, a first-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles.
The coach is excited about the leadership of the team.
“This is probably the best collective leadership we’ve had to date.”
The Vols will return 16 starters from the 2016 team. John Kelly, a junior running back, is coming off a season where he rushed for 630 yards on 98 carries. His 6.4-yard average per carry led the team.
Todd Kelly Jr. will enter his senior season with the Vols. The senior defensive back thrived in his first season as a full-time starter last season, leading the team with 71 tackles. His biggest moment of 2016 was on Sept. 24 when he picked off a pass in the fourth quarter against Florida to seal a second-half comeback.
Tennessee will kick off its 2017 season against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4 at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Head coach: Butch Jones
2016 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 16
Toughest question Jones faced: Coach, considering the last season and the fact that you guys were a top 10 team and only finished 9-4, 22nd overall, do you view that last season as a disappointment?
Jones’ reply: I don’t view it as a disappointment. The way I view it is we didn’t accomplish everything we set ourselves out to. And, again, our goal every year is to win a championship and compete to win a championship. So, was it a disappointment? No. Did we not accomplish some of the things we set out to do? Absolutely. We have to learn from the things that went wrong that we could have done better.
You need to know: With Joshua Dobbs moving on to the NFL, Tennessee will depend on running back John Kelly as the go-to-man on the offensive side of the ball. The junior running back ran for a career high of 104 yards last season against Tennessee Tech. Junior Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will battle it out for the starting quarterback position.
Best player quote: “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. 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.”
-Senior offensive lineman Jashon Robertson on the outside noise surrounding Tennessee football.